Beyond the Canon highlights BIPOC playwrights | Feature | Chicago Reader

Beyond the Canon highlights BIPOC playwrights 

If you want to decolonize theater, start with the script.

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click to enlarge Simeilia Hodge-Dallaway

Simeilia Hodge-Dallaway

Courtesy the artist

George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Renisha McBride, Atatiana Jefferson, Jordan Edwards, Botham Jean. The space of this article could solely consist of the names of those Black lives who are no longer with us due to police brutality. Police murder. Yet this is an article about theater, which in the shadow of death feels extremely small and insignificant. 

What is the purpose of theater in the midst of a pandemic, in a political moment where the world is rising up to protest and march in solidarity with human rights? Theater serves as a device to document; it serves as a vessel to cradle the emotional weight of the moment, and perhaps most importantly, it serves as an investment in the future. As theaters across the world sit dark in a COVID quarantine, the arts hold the most optimistic and fragile kernel of our hope; that one day Black lives will matter to not just some, but all, and that Black youth will have the freedom to indulge in art without the heavy weight of death pressing on their necks. 

One artist helping to cultivate that hope is the founder and artistic director of Beyond the Canon (BTC), Simeilia Hodge-Dallaway. Each Wednesday on Instagram Live at noon (CDT), BTC offers a virtual writer’s room that champions hidden plays by Black, Asian, Latinx, and Middle Eastern playwrights. During the chat, viewers can connect with the featured writers, comment, ask questions, and celebrate each other and the work. 

Hodge-Dallaway is an award-winning author; dramaturg; founder of Artistic Directors of the Future; executive director and creative producer of the Black Lives, Black Words International Project, which will be hosted online; and producer of the I Am . . . Fest at the Goodman last year, which concluded with the U.S. premiere of The Interrogation of Sandra Bland by Mojisola Adebayo. Hodge-Dallaway is also a Black play specialist. 

BTC began in 2016, and Hodge-Dallaway's initial intention was to find a way to share her extensive play library. “How do we get the plays from the shelf into the hands of those who need them most, and how do we help them to become teachers and ambassadors for the next generation?" she asks. The closure of the education system in the wake of COVID created an increasing sense of urgency.

Hodge-Dallaway went to publishing houses such as Methuen and Playwrights Canada Press and asked them to donate plays that are languishing on warehouse shelves to young POC students. “These plays are our legacy," notes Hodge-Dallaway. Then, each week, BTC gives away free play texts, the first week’s literary selections being a two-book anthology edited by Hodge-Dallaway, Audition Speeches for Black, South Asian, and Middle Eastern Actors. 

“It was important to me to ask publishing houses for anthologies so we are exposed to each other’s cultural perspectives. I became richer in my mentality researching and reading Black, South Asian, and Middle Eastern plays," she says.

Historically, the traditional American theater canon has consistently regurgitated a handful of predominantly white male-penned plays. While some of these works are indeed literary masterpieces, some audiences grow weary of their inevitable return, and many are sociopolitically outdated. For example, some works by David Mamet are arguably due for a decades-long rest in the archives before being revisited again, if ever. 

The dogged repetition of these plays in academic curricula creates a damning conundrum for young Black theater students. “A lot of institutions had ignored this work and were still teaching the same plays that they were familiar and comfortable with,” says Hodge-Dallaway. “How can you go your entire education and leave without knowing any living POC playwrights? We are setting students up to fail when competing with their white counterparts. The work exists. Let’s engage with it.”

Chicago theaters have made a push to put out more Black works. As the news often superficially reports on the tragically constant murders of Black people at the hands of police, the coverage can sometimes lack the same level of compassion and consideration afforded to white victims of murder. Stories are often reported alongside less-than-flattering-photographs, and call out irrelevant prior indiscretions, dehumanizing the victim. This is where theater can help to correct the record and soothe the hearts of a grieving community by shifting the point of view from the arresting officer to that of the victim. 

Many plays in Chicago over the past several years have deftly addressed various perspectives on police brutality and Black pain, reclaiming the narrative and infusing the stories with compassion. One of the most recent and powerful examples of this was Kill Move Paradise by James Ijames at TimeLine Theater, a surrealistic, heart-wrenching, and challenging examination of the souls of the departed and the preference of white America to filter its empathy through the consumption of Black trauma as entertainment. Running in the same vein was Tilikum by Kristiana Rae Colón at Sideshow Theatre, a metaphorical, visually and aurally enchanting piece that leverages the story of a killer whale at SeaWorld against America’s history of treating Black bodies as animals. (A streaming version of Tilikum runs this Friday, June 19, as a Juneteenth fund-raiser for Colón's Let Us Breathe Collective.) Hooded, or Being Black for Dummies by Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm with First Floor Theater at the Den and graveyard shift by korde arrington tuttle at the Goodman also explored these themes. 

While it's important to honor and interrogate tragedy, it's also crucial to push back against the common and limiting narrative that the Black existence begins with slavery and ends with police violence. It's just as important, if not moreso, to explore works with broader themes of joy, family life, science, freedom, and adventure to create a well-rounded portrait of Black humanity. 

Other recent Chicago plays that explore broader themes include two by playwright J. Nicole Brooks; HeLa, which reimagines the story of Henrietta Lacks through an Afrofuturistic lens, and Her Honor Jane Byrne, which dissects the mythos around the legacy of Chicago’s first woman mayor. Byrne’s onstage run at Lookingglass was unfortunately cut short due to COVID. Another play, How to Catch Creation by Christina Anderson, beautifully explored the perils around indulgence in the life of an artist; Lottery Day by Ike Holter gave a window into the joys of having an invite to the proverbial cookout; Katori Hall's Hoodoo Love smoldered with romance infused with magic, metaphorical and literal; and Danai Gurira’s Familiar comedically outlined the struggles of a Zimbabwean family assimilating (or not) into the U.S. 

With BTC, Hodge-Dallaway and associate producer Sarudzayi Marufu hope to inspire the reading and production of even more BIPOC plays in Chicago and beyond. While not wanting to spoil the surprise of all of the writers who may be featured and have their works given away for free through BTC, she provided a sneak peek of names and texts that may be featured. Some of the international playwrights may potentially include Lydia R. Diamond, Kwame Kwei-Armah, Donna-Michelle St. Bernard, David Yee, and works such as The Convert by Gurira, Barber Shop Chronicles by Inua Ellams, One Night in Miami by Kemp Powers, Detroit ʼ67 by Dominique Morisseau, The Adventures of the Black Girl in Her Search for God by Lisa Codrington, A Wolf in Snakeskin Shoes by Marcus Gardley, and anthologies such as The Methuen Book of Contemporary Latin American Plays and Love, Loss, and Longing: South Asian Canadian Plays, Mojisola Adebayo Plays One and Plays Two, Lions and Tigers by Tanika Gupta, and Wole Soyinka play anthologies.

Hodge-Dallaway hails from the UK and works as an artist in multiple countries. When asked how artists across BIPOC communities can band together to create lasting change as Black Lives Matter protests spring up worldwide, she says, “A lot of POC-led organizations rarely work with each other. Our eyes tend to be on the larger institutions that might validate us. We have to advocate for each other. Black and other POC writers simply cannot continue to let white directors direct our work.”

The Black Lives Matter protests have sparked a reckoning, amplifying calls for change within arts organizations. While making promises to stage more Black and BIPOC plays is crucial, it has also been historically used as a MacGuffin to distract from a theater’s inability to make fundamental changes at the board and executive levels. This lesson was recently learned in excruciating fashion when Victory Gardens Theater advertised a single Black play from its Ignition Festival to paper over controversy—just after their entire ensemble walked out in protest of the recent executive leadership changes. 

Victory Gardens isn’t the only theater learning in public that the bar has been moved, as theaters implicated on the infamous Theaters Not Speaking Out spreadsheet have also discovered.

Says Hodge-Dallaway, “Organizations simply think that they can write a statement and think that is enough—and artists are saying 'no.'”  v

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