Annual conference a staging ground for black and Latino playwrights
By Audrey Webb
In 2011, Dallas playwright Jonathon Norton was one of hundreds of playwrights who submitted a script to be considered for Texas State’s Black and Latino Playwrights Conference, an annual event that pairs playwrights with guest directors and actors to help them develop and polish their writing. With space enough for only two playwrights to have their scripts workshopped, however, artistic director Eugene Lee (Texas State alum, ’74) had to make some difficult choices. Unfortunately, Norton’s script was not selected.
Shortly after Norton received the disappointing news, however, the conference received a $15,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts; for the first time since its inception in 2002, sufficient resources were available to serve three playwrights and their new works. Norton was offered the third slot. Attending the conference made a dramatic difference to him and his first full-length script, “My Tidy List of Terrors.”
“The Black and Latino Playwrights Conference at Texas State remains one of the most valuable professional experiences I’ve had as a playwright,” Norton says via e-mail. With the guidance of guest director Melissa Maxwell, Norton made substantial changes to his script.
“I cut a character who did not serve the play. Having the opportunity to hear the play in rehearsals over several days helped me to realize how her scenes did not move the play forward. I was fortunate also to work with [actress] Crystal Dickinson. She asked such great questions about her character and offered real insight about moments that felt dishonest or contrived. Her feedback helped me to sharpen my focus on her character. And finally, the audience feedback really helped me to understand the heart of my play,” Norton writes.
His freshly revised script was stronger and leaner; shortly after the conference, it received a full-scale production in Dallas. Norton is grateful for the experience: “Eugene [Lee] has created an amazing opportunity for playwrights, and as a Texan, I’m proud to know that it represents our state so well.”
Norton’s story is a casebook study of everything the Black and Latino Playwrights Conference strives to be: a nurturing environment for emerging and established playwrights from underserved communities to explore their scripts under the tutelage of high-caliber actors and directors. The conference also provides a unique opportunity to Texas State B.F.A. students, who often are cast in the staged readings of the scripts-in-progress.
The benefit of the conference spills also into the community, notes Lee. “It’s a wonderful opportunity to expose the central Texas audience and community to more than what they know, to things that they would not have access to otherwise. The communication sharing, finding the common ground, speaking to the common denominator – that’s a lot of what playwrights do. It’s like the play’s the jug. Sometimes the milk is chocolate, sometimes it’s white,” Lee jokes. “It’s important that we share and celebrate our cultural differences. You cannot hate somebody or something that you understand.”
The conference, now celebrating its 10th year, draws legendary artists to Texas State as it continues to expand. Acclaimed directors Clinton Turner Davis, Melissa Maxwell and Kinan Valdez will guide this year’s chosen playwrights – Radha Blank, Bridgette Wimberly and Adam Esquenazi Douglas – with the assistance of stage and screen actress Elizabeth Peña, actor/playwright Ruben Gonzalez, and the head of UT’s MFA Acting program, Franchelle Dorn.
New to this year’s schedule are panels that will provide a history and context for the works of African-American and Latino theatre professionals. Douglas Turner Ward, co-founder and artistic director of the Negro Ensemble Company, will be the honored guest of a Q & A session; Texas State professors Dr. Sandra Mayo and Dr. Elvin Holt will host a presentation entitled “The History of Black Theatre in Texas” and playwright Gus Edwards will present a history of the Negro Ensemble Company.
All events during the week-long conference (September 10 to 16) are open to the public. Rehearsals, held 6 to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, are free. A $25 all-conference pass gives you access to the Q & A (Friday from 7:30 to 9 p.m.), both presentations (Holt and Mayo on Saturday from 10:30 to 11:45 a.m., and Edwards on Saturday from 1:15 to 2:30 p.m.) plus three readings (Saturday at 3 and 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at noon); tickets for individual readings are $5 each. For a full list of events and times, click here.