For the third installment of our series on the movement for equity for women playwrights, we’re profiling the Black Women Playwrights’ Group, a Washington DC-based group that expanded its activities to the national level in 2008.
The group was founded in 1989 by Karen L.B. Evans, a playwright who has received fellowships from the NEA and the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities and had numerous publications and presentations of her work. Its core activities are monthly meetings for its members to workshop new material and share information about playwriting opportunities, and both emerging and established playwrights are welcome. In addition to the monthly meetings, there are networking events with producers, directors, designers, and actors. The members also co-produce and produce their own work in the DC area, and they have collaborated with The DC Black Theatre Festival, The New York Theater Workshop, Primary Stages, The Actors Theatre of Louisville, The Dramatic Publishing Company, and many other organizations.
While Black Women Playwrights’ Group (BWPG) continues its traditional activities in Washington DC, it is also participating in some exciting new programs that place the group at the forefront of new trends in theatre.
The outcome was a partnership with Carnegie Mellon’s Entertainment Technology Center to design a content and delivery program focused on theatre and its expansion into digital formats. Through this project theatre companies will work in pairs to choose and produce three plays by living playwrights. Each chosen playwright will write additional scenes, monologues, and character studies that extend the world of the play, and these will be made available online in an interactive environment designed by computer scientists at Carnegie Mellon.
This extension of the world of a play across multiple media platforms is called transmedia storytelling. The goal is to engage the audience in an interactive, contemporary way.The first partner theatre in the project is Wooly Mammoth Theatre, a D.C. company founded in 1978 with the mission of producing bold and innovative new works. In February 2012, Wooly Mammoth, BWPG, and Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) held a presentation of projects that included CMU grad students and playwrights discussing transmedia. Playwright Lynn Nottage spoke about her play By The Way, Meet Vera Stark, which she initially conceived as a transmedia story. The play, which premiered in 2011 at New York’s Second Stage Theatre, is about an African-American film actress from the 1930’s who played the roles open to her at the time – maids, slaves, and mammies – roles that she might have played in real life in another time.
By The Way, Meet Vera Stark, whose very subject crosses media genres – a play about a film star – is an appropriate piece to expand into new digital platforms (additional material will include clips from Vera Stark’s films). It is also appropriate because it looks back at the history of a marginalized population – African American women – and simultaneously brings this history alive in the future, using new technologies to share the story with contemporary audiences.
Oral History Project with StoryCorps – In keeping with its interest and involvement in cross-platform media, BWPG recently collaborated with StoryCorps, National Public Radio’s oral history project, to interview senior citizens in Brookland, a diverse neighborhood in the northeast quadrant of Washington, DC. BWPG conducted the interviews, then used the material to write a short screenplay (a skill they learned for the project) about the neighborhood, called Brookland, Not Brooklyn, which follows a boy whose family flees Montgomery, AL during the Bus Boycott of 1955.The film will be produced by BWPG and StoryCorps, and will feature footage from the resident interviews at the end. BWPG held a fundraiser in November 2011 that included a preview of the film, dramatic readings by BWPG members, and opportunities for attendees to record their own stories with StoryCorps representatives. This collaboration with StoryCorps to create a cross-platform examination of the history of a neighborhood is right in line with BWPG’s dedication to being involved in new and exciting technologies, while bringing the stories of African Americans to a wider audience.
Black Women Playwrights’ Group has a long history of activism for women of color playwrights and effective support and advocacy for its members. It is especially inspiring that they are now initiating cutting-edge projects to make sure that the voices of women of color will continue to be heard in the future. Find out more at http://www.blackwomenplaywrights.org/home.asp.