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A Safe Space for ALL Black Artists

Playwrights’ Corner
Donja R. Love and Saheem Ali sit at a folding table, both with apply laptops in front of them, focused on their screens. Behind them is a red curtain and door to the studio. Also on the table are an assortment of binders, scripts, pens, and highlighters.
Donja R. Love works on a play at The Lark with director Saheem Ali.

April is here and with it comes the sixth annual The New Black Fest at The Lark! I had the absolute pleasure of sitting down with playwright and featured panelist at this year’s The New Black Fest at The Lark Kick-Off, the passionate and talented Donja R. Love. This will be my first year attending, so I figured why not ask a Black artist, who’s participated, about what effects of the festival they’ve witnessed over time. This is what we said:

María: In your own words, what is The New Black Fest?

Donja: The New Black Fest is an opportunity for Black artists of all kinds, of all disciplines in theater to come together and not just to create but to celebrate as well. That's one of the of things that I love so much about The New Black Fest. Everyone comes out to really celebrate each other and, be there for each other. I remember last year, I was a part of a one-day think tank that The New Black Fest had and it was so nice to be in a space with a group of Black artists who were very honest about their thoughts on theater. What we love about it, what we don't love about it, and I always felt included. I remember there was one moment when we were talking, and I was sharing how at times as a Black queer artist how I may feel like I'm being erased or maybe really nervous in certain environments and certain situations. And I felt safe enough and bold enough to share during the think tank and it was really nice, because I noticed them afterward really taking a stand and being extremely active and providing safer spaces for all Black artists. Not just one particular Black artist, but for all Black artists. Even with this upcoming festival and the kickoff panel-

M: Which you’re in!

D: Yeah! I'm excited to be a part of it. And the topic for the panel is Black Erasure, which is something I'm used to in my Blackness, but also thinking about The New Black Fest in my queerness and my positive status. All of these things! I'm used to being erased in some regard and looked over so, it's really nice that The New Black Fest is intentional with creating space and holding space for every artist. So, that's what I really love about it, is how it's not just about the creation of art, but also about the celebrating of art, as well.

M: Definitely. So, you say “celebration” and the slogan of The New Black Fest says that it’s a theater movement as well, which I love, because it’s not just a celebration that happens for a week and it's over with. I want to believe it’s something that hopefully continues and spreads out to create change in the arts world. So throughout your involvement in the past years, have you noticed change in the theater provoked by this festival? How have you seen it evolve, and what are the results caused by this movement?

D: I’d say, seeing more work being produced by artists of color and what does true diversity and true inclusion look like. I think about a few years ago, Jocelyn Bioh’s School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play, had a reading in The New Black Fest, and then fast forward to some time later, it I had its first production at MCC! And so just thinking about a play having a life in the festival, and being able to grow and learn and then it having a fully realized production. I also remember when I had a play in The New Black Fest last year, I think we might have had, maybe three days of rehearsal? Before the reading, which was grand, because sometimes you don't get no rehearsal time.

M: Yeah! Maybe the actors get the script the day before. *laughs*

D: EXACTLY, exactly *laughs* if you’re lucky! But that time helps to really cultivate strong stories. I  think about Ngozi Anyanwu’s Nike or We Don’t Need Another Hero. She was actually creating the play while she was a part of the festival and learning more. And there’s no one particular way a play should be or how a playwright should approach a play. Like, if you've worked on a play years beforehand, and you want to hear it, The New Black Fest is here for that. If you just have an idea, and you want to be able to create throughout the process The New Black Fest is here for that as well. And I think that's another amazing thing about what the movement is.

M: The Lark holds so many festivals and events throughout the season, so what would you say sets The New Black Fest apart?

D: The first thing I would say is that IT’S BLACK AS FUCK!

M: Yeah!!!!

D: So I instantly relate and connect to that! It's also a space where everyone is invited, everyone is welcomed! And they make sure that it's a space for everyone to feel that. And still, they really make sure that it's centering Blackness. It’s not wavering on that in any way, shape, form, or fashion, which I think is really nice to be able to create a space that is here a hundred percent for Blackness, and still open for all. Having that balance is why it’s so important me. Why it’s so special, the name says it alone - The New Black Fest. And it's so funny, I remember Keith was once talking about where is the emphasis? Is the emphasis on Black? So is it like The New BLACK Fest? Or on the New? The NEW Black Fest? And for me it feels like the emphasis is on both. Talking about newer generations, talking about where theater is right now for Black artists. We're always evolving and growing and so The New Black Fest fifteen years from now, I would imagine will look completely different! Just because the art that’s out there and the artists will look completely different. If you're really holding on to the word “new” it’s going evolve and it's going grow to. So, I think that's one of the most exciting things about it.

M: Alright so this is a tricky question but you said this is centered around Black artists, Black stories, stories, and experiences being that it’s “Black as fuck.” What would an ideal audience look like?

D: You’re right it is a tricky question. I think it depends on the play! Granted, this play wasn't in The New Black Fest, but what comes to mind is Aleshea Harris’s What to Send Up When It Goes Down, and at least for me, as an audience member, that play felt very much for Black people, and it felt like the audience should just be all Black folx. There was a moment at the end of the play, that the actors held space for just Black audience members. So, they told anyone who didn't identify as Black, ‘thank you so much, but the remainder of this will be specifically for Black people.’ I think the ideal audience looks like whatever the play is designed for and calling for. There are some plays, which might be specifically for black people. So, the ideal audience is all black folks. There are some plays that even though it may be by a black writer it’s very much talking to white people. And they might be the ideal audience. Then there are plays out there that are for every-single-body. And that's what I've encountered with  The New Black Fest at least, plays where everybody can come. It doesn't matter how you identify, just come to experience, to learn and to be entertained. But I do think it definitely is contingent upon the play, and the playwright's intention with the play.

M: Yes, because even with this article, I’m hypersensitive to the fact that I’d be commenting on a festival that is not about me. I’m not Black. I’m a Hispanic, Latina, and immigrant woman that shares similar experiences to Black folks, but recognize that even speaking about what this festival is about, is not my place. So, I'm very sensitive when people are like, oh The New Black Fest is this and that, and it’s for people of color, and yes. It is, but specifically for Black people. Let’s not generalize it. Their experience and history is not mine, so let’s not make it that way. That’s a bigger conversation though and I'm losing thought a bit, but basically, I wanted to ask a more personal question. About what’s finally beginning to be produced now, how casting is shifting etcetera. Respond as you wish. But I've had a lot of feedback within my White artist friends, especially performers when I mentioned, that I got a gig, getting more callbacks, working hard and hustling. Their response tends to be, “Oh, yeah of course it’s a little easier for you now.” And to my confusion, I ask for them to expand a bit. And the general response tends to be, “Yeah, it’s just really hard being a white artist right now, because people of color are getting cast more.” In a way saying that we are now preferred and more likely to be picked to be produced or cast and whatnot. I’m always just stunned, to say the least. What is a good response to that? Or I guess, what is your opinion on it? Now that we're starting to finally get more recognition as people of color in the industry. Have you encountered any of these comments? Does any of this make sense?

D: Yeah, it makes complete sense! Also knowing that you don't always have to respond. Like, it can just be exactly what it is. And then another way of responding is simply just saying “you're welcome.” You are welcome because what I'm doing right now and what my other family members of color are doing right now is making this, an equitable space. It’s not a matter of, you aren't getting this show right now, you aren't getting this play produced right now, not this director gig or designer opportunity now, what you're getting is equality. What you're getting is you not just resting on who you are, not just resting on how you look, but it really being about the work, and who was the best person for the part, so you are very welcome.

M: That makes so much sense, I actually didn’t think about it that way. They're probably simply experiencing a taste of equality firsthand. When they're not getting the long end of the stick. Which naturally causes resistance or almost a sense of denial. In seeing that it’s not fair that where they were used to being favored, now people of color are also added to the equation.

D: It’s about time. I've been leaning on the side of really holding space for my well being and my self care. And so sometimes that means for certain conversations, certain instances, certain people, not responding. I would just say now we’re existing in time, especially because of social media, and how it makes things so immediate, if you've been slighted, if you felt a certain microaggression, if someone did something racist, homophobic, sexist, misogynistic, we can go to social media and we can talk about it. It makes it instant and it puts it out there in a larger space. Versus beforehand, when certain things happened to a marginalized individual. We might’ve talked to somebody in a private setting, which we still can do, but now it makes things larger, and it makes issues more palpable. Which, I think, is a testament for why things are changing so rapidly. Now people can see things largely and it's like, what are we going to do so this won't happen again? So things really can change. And everybody doesn't like change, but change is going to happen regardless, whether you like or it not.

M: Thank you for that. How can people contribute to The New Black Fest?

D: The first thing that comes to mind is money! You can donate. Any amount helps. Also sharing the crowdfunding page. Because then, if you may not be able to donate, but share it, you might be able to put into a network of people who can share, who can give, who can donate, and also by just spreading the word! Letting people know like, ‘Hey! This exists! This is here!’ And then also by coming and putting your butt in a seat! One of the beautiful things about The New Black Fest, which lets you know how important it is, how people really do enjoy it, and how people really do need it, is that just about every single year it sells out! And there has to be a waiting list because people are so hungry to experience the work. Those are ways that people can contribute.

M: Lastly, do you have any advice or words that you would like to share to the Black community? or to the arts community in general. Either regarding their work, their potential, their art, their visibility etcetera?

D: I would you say keep creating! And, well, two things. Intentionality, and then as we create, and as we hold space for working for each other, and what it is that we're doing. And that's for me like the, why? Like, why are we doing it? Who is it for? and just being honest with intentionality behind the work, because that always reads and always comes through. What The New Black Fest does involves the other word that comes to mind, and that’s community. Really understanding the importance of community. We aren’t in this thing alone. We are in this thing together, it takes a writer to write it. It takes actors to act, a director to direct it, designers to design it, producers to it produce, and audience members to be that final and most essential part of the puzzle. We have a strong, beautiful community behind us, and beside us, and in front of us.

Did you learn a thing or two? Are you excited for the festival? If either of your answers is a yes, then what are you waiting for? Get your tickets! Join the conversation, join the movement, and innovate change in the arts community.