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Critic's Notebook

Onstage, a proliferation of African-American voices

Playwrights Suzan-Lori Parks. Playwrights Suzan-Lori Parks. (Ruth Fremson/The New York Times)
By Don Aucoin
Globe Staff / April 3, 2011

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When “Broke-ology’’ opened last week at Lyric Stage Company, with an all-black cast performing a work by a black playwright under the guidance of a black director, the remarkable thing was how unremarkable it was.

Nathan Louis Jackson’s heartfelt family drama, directed by Benny Sato Ambush, was just the latest of numerous recent area productions that have showcased predominantly black casts in plays that explored aspects of the African-American experience while also tackling universal themes.

“It’s exciting and interesting and so noteworthy that there’s this proliferation in Boston,’’ remarks playwright Lydia R. Diamond, the acclaimed African-American author of “Stick Fly,’’ produced last year by the Huntington Theatre Company, and “Harriet Jacobs,’’ performed last year at the Central Square Theater in Cambridge. “It’s promising that there’s a wider range of voices.’’

One of those voices is playwright Kirsten Greenidge of Medford. “I think there’s definitely a willingness among artistic directors to broaden what kinds of stories are getting put on stages, compared to 20 to 30 years ago,’’ she says.

Her “Bossa Nova,’’ performed at Yale Repertory Theatre in December, is among the best of the recent area productions that have explored, sometimes provocatively, questions of racial identity. It examines the impact on a young black woman’s self-image when she has an affair with a white teacher who treats her not as a flesh-and-blood person but rather as an abstraction, a way for him to establish cultural “authenticity.’’

Last week, the Huntington announced the premiere of a new play by Greenidge, “The Luck of the Irish,’’ next March and April. “Irish’’ shines a light on Boston’s history of segregation by dramatizing the practice of “ghost buying,’’ in which a white person acted as a front to buy a house for a black family in a white neighborhood. (That, says Greenidge, was how her grandparents purchased a home in Arlington in the mid-1950s.)

Speaking of the spate of recent area productions by African-American playwrights, Greenidge says: “Boston does have a troubled racial history, and it would be nice if theater could play a role in healing.’’

Illuminating issues At a minimum, theater can play a role in illuminating issues that might otherwise go unaddressed. For instance, Company One’s January production of “Neighbors,’’ written by 26-year-old Branden Jacobs-Jenkins and directed by Summer L. Williams, both of whom are black, deliberately used offensive images of minstrelsy to provoke a consideration of the complex intersection between culture and identity.

When a family of African-American performers, wearing blackface, moves in across the street from an upwardly mobile African-American professor, his white wife, and their teenage daughter, the professor reacts with revulsion and rage. He sees the minstrel performers as both an affront and a threat to his middle-class lifestyle and professional aspirations.

But by the end of “Neighbors,’’ the performers have leveled a direct challenge to the complacency of audiences, white and black alike. As the cast performed one over-the-top routine after another, then reeled off a list of pernicious stereotypes while directly facing spectators, the show forced audiences to confront the fact that many racial caricatures promulgated by popular entertainment became embedded in the American consciousness, with serious after-effects that linger today. (Young Jean Lee’s “The Shipment,’’ performed at the Institute of Contemporary Art last fall with an all-black cast, also used satire to explore the impact of cultural assumptions on race relations).

This month, Company One will follow up with the New England premiere of “The Book of Grace,’’ by Suzan-Lori Parks, the first African-American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama. (She won it in 2002, for “Topdog/Underdog’’).

“Yellowman,’’ by Dael Orlandersmith, which opened this month at Trinity Repertory Company in Providence and ends today, explores questions of racial identity in a less flamboyant, but still resonant, way than “Neighbors’’ did. It dramatizes the tensions between light- and dark-skinned African-Americans that undermine the romantic relationship between a couple named Eugene and Alma.

“The frame is race, but what ultimately makes the play compelling is that it’s a love story,’’ says Joe Wilson Jr., a member of Trinity Rep’s resident company, who plays Eugene. “People are intrigued by the racial dynamics, but what they are struck by, ultimately, is that from a very young age we decide that we need to be friends, and that none of the other crap around us matters.’’

Born of many backgrounds So why this apparent burgeoning of plays that address African-American themes? Apart from the fact that there are simply a lot of talented black playwrights, Wilson believes it has partly to do with the increasing diversity of the country, which has “expanded the notion of what the African-American community is.’’

“We now live in a world that is so multiracial and multi-ethnic, and as society becomes more integrated via race and culture, you’re going to find playwrights who come out of a multiracial aesthetic,’’ Wilson says. “Young people are influenced by hip-hop, by popular culture, by dance and movement, and you have these artists using all these different aesthetics in the way they write plays.’’ That could help theaters reach the always-elusive younger audience.

And then there is the commercial success enjoyed by a major African-American playwright such as the late August Wilson. When it comes to telling stories that are deeply rooted in African-American life while also touching universal chords, Diamond and Greenidge acknowledge their debt to Wilson, a giant figure on the theater landscape whose work reverberates more powerfully than ever, six years after his death.

Wilson’s “Fences,’’ with its focus on the disappointed dreams of a former baseball player turned trash collector, received a sterling revival at the Huntington in 2009. Two months ago, the Yale Repertory Theatre staged an excellent production of Wilson’s “The Piano Lesson’’ that vividly captured the tensions within a black family confronting the question of whether to sell a piano that is both a precious family heirloom and a reminder of the painful legacy of slavery. Next March, the Huntington will produce Wilson’s breakthrough play, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.’’

Emotional spectrum Even when not explicitly about race, some recent area productions have shone light into corners of the African-American experience. In January, under the auspices of ArtsEmerson, a multiracial cast from The Civilians, a New York-based theater troupe, brought “In the Footprint: The Battle Over Atlantic Yards,’’ to the Paramount Black Box theater.

“In the Footprint’’ is a piece of documentary theater about efforts to stop a gigantic real estate development in a Brooklyn neighborhood. The Paramount production illustrated the complex division of opinion within the black community, with some residents touting it as vital to job creation and others fighting it because it threatened to displace longtime black residents of the neighborhood.

Rape, not race, was the subject of “Ruined,’’ a wrenching drama by Lynn Nottage set in the eastern Congo and performed with a predominantly black cast at the Huntington from mid-January to early February. “Ruined’’ focused the attention of Boston theatergoers on an important African-American playwright with an urgent message about the use of rape as a weapon of warfare. At the other end of the emotional spectrum was Derek Walcott’s “Ti-Jean & His Brothers,’’ a celebration of the unquenchable spirit of Haiti, which featured a largely black cast in a joint production of Underground Railway Theater and Playwrights’ Theatre at Boston University, ending its run at the Central Square Theater two weeks ago.

Diamond finds it notable that African-Americans’ theatrical voices are being heard not just in February, which is Black History Month, but across the calendar. But she says Boston theaters still have a lot of work to do when it comes to making their audiences representative of the increasingly diverse city. “When I go to the theater, the audience is more often than not 98 percent white,’’ she notes.

Challenges ahead Will more plays by African-American playwrights with African-American casts change that?

“It’s not just as simple as ‘If we do the play they will come,’ ’’ says Diamond. “But if I go to see ‘Ruined’ and I love it, I am going to look at their season the following year, because now I’ve discovered a new place that has stories that I like, and I’m hoping there will be others that will pull me back.’’

Greenidge says that her experience locally has been positive, but that nationally, while some theaters have “a broader and more inclusive vision of what they want to put onstage,’’ others “use one slot for, say, a play by a woman or person of color, but not more than that.’’

“A lot of times an artistic director or literary manager will say, ‘We really like your work; we’re just not sure we have enough of an audience for it,’ ’’ says Greenidge. “It’s not that they feel that artists of color aren’t writing good work; it’s that ‘Will audiences come?’ There’s sometimes a fear that audiences will think if it’s a ‘black play,’ that it’s not going to be universal. Well, I write a lot about mothers and daughters. I sure hope it’s universal. I don’t think there’s anything particularly strange going on between black mothers and daughters.’’

Diamond says that smaller Boston theater troupes like the Up You Mighty Race Company have been focusing on African-American culture all along, and deserve a lot of credit for doing so. But, she notes, when bigger theater companies with primarily white audiences produce work by African-American playwrights, “It hits a larger consciousness.’’

Wherever the work is produced, Diamond says, “I cross my fingers that we will continue to have an understanding that the African-American diaspora is far-reaching and goes across many boundaries of class and sexual identity, across boundaries of rural and urban. I hope we will give our artists room to explore the stories that are closest to them personally.’’

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.