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The Black Playwrights’ Festival: Celebrating Black Artists, Stories, and Community

BlackCAST presented the Fall 2023 Black Playwrights' Festival on Oct. 26.
BlackCAST presented the Fall 2023 Black Playwrights' Festival on Oct. 26. By Vivienne N. Germain
By Vivienne N. Germain, Crimson Staff Writer

On Oct. 26, Black Community and Student Theater (BlackCAST), a Harvard College student-run organization committed to cultivating interest and providing support for Black theater, presented staged readings of short plays as part of their annual Black Playwrights’ Festival in partnership with the Office for the Arts (OFA). In Leverett House’s intimate Library Theater, artists and audience members shared an uplifting opportunity to display Black creativity, amplify Black stories, and celebrate the work of undergraduate students.

“Our major goal in putting on the festival is celebrating Black art as a concept, and then also showcasing the work that the playwrights — we had four playwrights this year — showcasing the work that they did, because this is all original work,” Festival Director Gabriel Brock ’26 said.

The Black Playwrights’ Festival featured works by four student playwrights: Michelle N. Amponsah ’26, Mariah M. Norman ’25, Ogechi F. I. Obi ’26, and Leila A. Jackson ’26. Additionally, the festival involved thirteen actors, numerous additional contributors, and a robust production team, including producers Brock, Onovu M. Otitigbe ’25, and Andrew P. Guy ’26; BlackCAST Senior Advisor Kristian A. Hardy ’24; and stage directors Hardy, Keely R. O’Gorman ’26, Victoria A. Kishoiyian ’26, and Kylan M. Tatum ’25. As a result, the collaborative, team-driven festival demonstrated the beauty of creating art in community, as well as connection and solidarity among Black individuals.

“I think there is something incredibly special about community coming together and peers building space for one another to have this opportunity to just share,” said Dara M. Badon ’22, an administrative assistant in Harvard’s department of Theater, Dance, and Media.

The Front Porch Arts Collective, a Black theater company dedicated to advancing racial equity in Boston through theater, played a fundamental role in The Black Playwrights’ Festival. Front Porch Co-Producing Artistic Director Dawn M. Simmons and Boston-based director Pascale Florestal worked with BlackCAST’s playwrights and directors to develop their scripts and stage their scenes, respectively. On Oct. 21, BlackCAST and the OFA commenced the festival with a keynote dialogue between students and playwright Aziza Barnes, in conversation with Simmons.

Despite the number of artists and the emphasis on community, The Black Playwrights’ Festival highlighted the playwrights’ unique, individual voices.

“I feel like I really saw each of the playwrights — the essence of who they are — through their work, and that was really exciting,” Hardy said.

Amponsah’s “Victor!” told the story of a young woman finding peace after struggling to handle a complicated situation with a former romantic partner, while drawing attention to themes of sisterhood, resilience, and self-care through interactions with her friend. Norman’s “STUD” dealt with a relatable experience of discovering sexual and gender identity and coming out to family and friends, all while navigating LGBTQ+ prejudice often present in Black communities.

Both plays included elements that could resonate with Black artists and audiences, like Baptist Church services with animated pastors and enthusiastic congregations. They also focused on relationships between Black characters and did not directly portray racism or racial trauma, which underscored the fullness of Black people’s lives: Blackness is not defined by suffering.

“There were so many moments where I just felt such an emotional connection to the pieces,” actor Gabrielle M. Greene ’27 said. “That’s really rare for minority audience members in general, just because a lot of stories aren’t about us and don’t include us in a multifaceted way.”

Jackson’s “Tell Me About Yourself” explored contrasts and similarities between a white mother and a Black mother who navigate caring for their children after racially charged conflicts. Obi’s “To Break Bread” peered into a dinner of two families with a shared father, exploring complicated family dynamics, racial issues like colorism, and the struggle of finding unity despite tension.

These two plays unfolded in real time, each featuring minutes-long segments of the characters’ lives. The characters remained in the same settings but communicated complex stories. By focusing on narrow windows, the artists conveyed distinct themes with great depth. Blackness encompasses a multifaceted breadth of experience; centering selected ideas from small moments creates opportunities for deliberate, nuanced reflection.

“These stories, they were each incredibly specific, which makes them feel very intentional. I really think that intention shone through with the readings that we had tonight,” Hardy said.

Hardy values the accessibility of The Black Playwrights’ Festival. She described BlackCAST as “a very safe, nurturing space” and the festival’s structure as “low stakes” compared to a full production, saying that both qualities allowed new theatermakers to “take agency” over their work.

The artists’ originality and creativity were evident throughout the performances, from the multilayered timeline in “STUD” to occasional unison speech in “Tell Me About Yourself.” The audience remained captivated, as elements like humorous dialogue in “Victor!” and gripping tension in “To Break Bread” elicited laughs, gasps, and outcries from spectators, contributing to the high energy in the theater. During transitions between plays, R&B, soul, and hip-hop songs by Black musicians filled the space and maintained the festival’s joyful spirit and its purpose to appreciate Black art.

“I think it’s important for Black students, students of color, to just sort of have these spaces, these spaces of expression, because they’re not always present here, and they’re not always present in theater as a space, even outside of the walls of Harvard,” Brock said. “That’s something that we try to at least carve out a little enclave for, with The Black Playwrights’ Festival, with everything that BlackCAST does.”

—Staff writer Vivienne N. Germain can be reached at vivienne.germain@thecrimson.com.

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