- Black Women Playwrights in American Theatre
Over the years, we have shared concerns about the health of black theatre. Although we have taught university-level courses on African American and/or African women playwrights, and Kathy has edited several collections of plays by these women, neither of us has systematically studied the field as a whole. Thus this forum assessing the progress of women playwrights since Lynda Hart's landmark 1989 anthology provides a welcome opportunity to reflect upon the status of black women dramatists. Quite quickly it becomes apparent that although scholars like Dana Williams and Philip Kolin have published annotated bibliographies and casebooks on contemporary black women playwrights,1 no one has yet undertaken the task of narrating their history. We gain a limited sense of their activity by consulting the second edition of the electronic database Black Drama: African, African American and Diaspora, 1850 to the Present, which contains, out of 1,379 plays in total, some 222 authored by women since 1950. Given that many contemporary playwrights have not deposited their works in this database, we initially consulted with Karen Evans, who convened the First National Meeting for Women of Color Writing Drama in Chicago in September 2008. One of us (Perkins) then undertook a twenty-one-year review of American Theatre magazine, and the other (Richards) focused specifically on the National Black Theatre Festival as a site potentially more hospitable to women than historically white regional theatres. We have arranged our findings here in the form of a conversation but, as is often the case with long-running discussions, found that some comments could not be attributed to a single individual. [End Page 541]
Richards: The report of that First National Meeting for Women of Color Writing Drama provides one snapshot of black American women playwrights.2 Approximately a hundred practitioners—mainly African American, but Asian American and Latinas also—gathered not only to network, but also to reflect upon their lives as playwrights and their relationships to directors and theatre organizations. From a survey of seventy-three members, the following profile emerges: 85 percent are between the ages of 30 and 59; more describe themselves as "emerging" or mid-career rather than "established" playwrights (an issue to which we shall return); and although 80 percent state that they write "dramas," their choice of genre tended toward one-person shows and experimental and activist/political plays. On the question of venues, thirty-six respondents indicated that local, "racially/ethnically" specific theatres produced their work; twenty-nine identified festivals as receptive; slightly fewer (twenty-five) identified regional racial/ethnic theatres as welcoming venues; and 12 percent viewed primarily white theatres on either the regional or national level as viable sites.
Perkins: My survey of American Theatre is particularly informative.3 The 1990s saw a surge of plays being produced by African Americans—both men and women—at regional theatres, thanks in part to incentives from such philanthropies as the Lila Wallace, Ford, and Joyce foundations, which provided funds for historically white theatres to increase the participation of people of color in all facets of theatre—that is, as writers, directors, designers, and performers, and also as spectators. With this aid, the number of plays by African American women produced in regional theatres jumped from an approximate average of three starting in 1989 to about fifteen per year from 1990 to 1993. The 1993-98 seasons saw an average of twenty-five such plays produced regionally. Between seasons 1999 and 2007, the numbers increased slightly to over thirty productions per year, with 2005-06 being the most productive season (over 40). However, seasons 1998-99, 2007-08, and 2009-10 saw a sharp decline in plays by African American women, to fewer than twenty.
So, overall, is this a big improvement for African American women playwrights, given the fact that there are over 1,300 productions per season? Not exactly. One must also factor in the number of playwrights who are presented in these institutions. I do not mean to take anything away from the talented women who are produced, but regional theatres tend to promote a small...