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Harvard Kicks Off First-Ever Black Playwrights Festival

Harvard’s first-ever Black Playwrights Festival kicked off Thursday with a reading of an original student play and a conversation on intimacy and authenticity in black theater.

Organizers Ian A. Askew ’19 and Madison E. Johnson ’18 said they created the festival to bring awareness to black theater at Harvard.

“Sometimes mounting a full production makes it so that you don’t get to see a full breadth of work,” Askew said. “So I figured it would be interesting to have a bunch of plays read so that you could have a lot of creative energy and expression get out.”

“Black Narcissus,” a play written by Patric C.W. Verrone ’18 and read at Thursday’s event, explores the intricacies of race and sexual identity, according to Verrone; all the characters are Greek and Egyptian mythological figures.

Rediet G. Alemu ’21, Aidan C. Campbell ’17, Kelcee A. Everette ’18, and Eden H. Girma ’18 joined Verrone in a reading of “Black Narcissus.”

In one scene of the play, Verrone’s character, Black Narcissus, explains his high school friends’ callous response to his being mixed-race.

“All the Asians wanted me to be Asian, the black kids wanted me to be light-skinned, the white kids wanted me to be Italian. Everybody wanted to claim me,” Verrone said. “Checking boxes shouldn’t be that hard, you know.”

At the conclusion of the play, Verrone repeats the phrase, “Black is beautiful is I am black is beautiful,” and all the characters join the empowering chorus.

After the play reading, critically-acclaimed playwrights Kirsten Greenidge and Robert O’Hara advised attendees on how to find one’s voice in theater.

For Greenidge, positive influences in childhood and education shaped the content of her plays.

“I had mentors and teachers who were very nurturing and did not shut down my voice,” Greenidge said. “From early on, I identified as a writer, at the ages of four or five, before I could actually write my name, and I was encouraged to do that.”

O’Hara, however, shared a different experience about finding his voice in playwriting.

“I was a little black gay boy in Cincinnati, Ohio,” he said. “I was never taken to a play, but I was always ‘othered’ already. Society had always said, ‘You are not normal. Get over there.’ So to pretend I was like everyone else was ridiculous.”

Both Greenidge and O’Hara encouraged young playwrights to write plays that were true representations of their own thoughts.

“You have to protect your work, and it requires a certain audacity to say that ‘what I have to say is important enough for you to hear,’” O’Hara said.

Zindzi L. Hammond-Hanson ’19, an inactive Crimson editor, said she enjoyed the play and the subsequent discussion.

“I think in general this event is a really good opportunity for people who are involved with arts—or not very involved with arts, at varying degrees—to come together and just celebrate black theater,” Hammond-Hanson said.

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