By Ariel Worthy
The Birmingham Times
Local playwright Allison Sanders remembers the venue for her first play.
“We would have talent shows on my porch,” said the Titusville native. “We would have concerts on my porch.”
Sanders would write plays and stories, have her friends act them out, and even make other kids in the neighborhood pay to watch.
“I would keep all the money, and at the end of the year I’d throw a party for everybody with what we made,” she said.
Sanders is one of a number of Birmingham-area playwrights who are generating attention for their work.
Last month, the Urban Soul Theater Series kicked off with Artistic Director Marc Raby’s production of “Love on the Edge.” An encore presentation is scheduled for Jan. 21, 2018, at The Forum Theater at the Birmingham Jefferson Convention Complex.
George W. Stewart, president of Last Psalm Productions, has built a following for his urban sociodrama style of stage plays. Alicia Johnson Williams’s theater company has turned out 10 plays to local audiences since 2008. And JaPaul Vines has staged plays at the Boutwell Auditorium, Carver Theater, Fairfield Civic Center, and various churches.
“Black theater is a vital part of the American story,” said Birmingham-area poet, performer, and playwright Priscilla Hancock Cooper, who is known for performances in “Call Me Black Woman,” a mix of poetry, drama, and music, and “Back to the Dream,” a play she helped write that was showcased at the Red Mountain Theater Company.
“Much of what is popular in mainstream theater is drawn from the African-American experience. It’s important in and of itself,” she said.
Something for Everyone
Allison Sanders, who owns local theater company New Year Productions, remembers a time when there were no outlets for black theater — so she decided to produce her own.
“Whenever anybody came to my house, I would make them sing or do poetry,” she said.
Sanders began writing as a child, and her first play—“It’s a Tribal Affair”—was written in 1994 and is derived from the African proverb “It takes a village to raise a child,’” she said.
“We performed it at schools and live on WJLD. We performed some parts of the show on the radio, and some at the community recreation center.”
It was a success, and Sanders followed with more children’s plays. Still, she wanted to do more shows for adults. After joining Warriors of the World Church and helping with another local play, “Shaking the Mess Out of Misery,” she began writing for adults.
“I want to close the age gap,” Sanders said. “I want kids to know that there is life beyond being a teenager and have adults understand younger people, too.”
Her recent work includes “This Isn’t Love,” “Help is on the Way,” “Something Just Ain’t Right,” “Love is the Recipe,” “This Could Be Yours,” and “No More Pirates.” Her plays have appeared at the Carver Theater, Alabama Theater, Inverness Country Club, and Fairfield Civic Center, as well as Workplay and smaller venues like Olivia’s Bar and Lounge and Frames on the Green.
Her smaller-venue plays are part of Cute and Cozy Theater, a platform of various plays written specifically to entertain small audiences.
Historical in Nature
African-American theater evolved from the first known play written by a black playwright — William Henry Brown’s “The Drama of King Shotaway” — to award-winning works like Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple,” August Wilson’s “Fences,” Ntozake Shange’s “for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf,” and Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun.”
Theater in general is the “antecedent of most entertainment we enjoy today,” said Alicia Johnson Williams, artistic director of Make It Happen Theater Company (MIHTC) and director of college relations at Miles College.
Many television and movie actors started in theater, which is “historical and traditional in nature going back to the African Grove Theater in New York City, where Caribbean actors who wanted to perform Shakespeare had to create their own black theater to perform and present,” Williams said.
The African Grove, founded in 1816 by playwright Brown, became the first successful black theater, but it was shut down due to its success — because it outshined white theaters.
“They got upset … because everybody wanted to see us do it, including [white audiences],” she said. “We’re so passionate when we speak. We’re engaging and animated in what we do. We’re expressive. Storytelling is who we are, and theater is part of that.”
While most audience goers see the end product, theater, like other creative fields, takes time and requires a passion for the craft.
“There’s nothing like seeing your story unfold on the stage,” said local author and playwright George W. Stewart. “I tell people, don’t get in it for the money, get in it for the art.”
Stewart, 63, has written several plays, including “Ain’t No Fool Like an Old Fool,” “Trashing the King,” “Honey, All Men Can’t Be Dogs,” “The Cradle is Rocking Me,” “Isolated,” and “Getting Out of Bombingham.” His works — part of a genre he calls “urban sociodrama” — have been performed on stages across the nation.
“I try to write something with meaning,” Stewart said. “I’m not one to just write a lot of buffoonery just to make people laugh. I believe it should be enriching.”
His stories are actually sermons, he said, and his goal is to make people think about their choices and give them “better decision-making abilities.”
“It’s like going to a psychiatrist or sociologist and trying to give them insight about your life,” Stewart said. “You see your life taking place on the stage, … seeing the good and the bad side of life on stage.”
Stewart hopes his audience walks away entertained and better, particularly those in the African-American community. For example, he tackles the subject of HIV among senior citizens in “Ain’t No Fool Like an Old Fool.”
“Senior citizens account for around 20 to 21 percent of new HIV cases,” he said. “I heard a pastor say he had to go with one of his longtime members whose dad and daughter had to tell the mother that the dad had HIV for five years. … It’s not something we talk about because many people feel it’s ‘nobody’s business.’”
“I’ve had elderly ladies ask me, ‘When are you going to do that play again? I want to bring my friend out to see it.’ I’ve had people say, ‘During the play I called my friend, my mate to tell them our relationship is over.’ They had not thought about it.”
Birmingham playwright JaPaul Vines, 32, doesn’t like to call his work “gospel plays” but urban theater that deals with “real-life issues,” such as depression, crime, and abuse.
“Anytime you hear the term gospel play, you expect to hear ‘Jesus, Jesus, Jesus’ and gospel singing,” he said. “What I learned early on is that your show should be able to be enjoyed by everyone. If I’m a Christian, I should be able to come to your play. If I’m an atheist, I should be able to come to your play.”
When his play “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” debuted at the Carver Theater in 2012, Vines recalled being thanked afterward by both a Muslim and an atheist: “They said that while I shared different beliefs, they could relate to the central focus of God because I wasn’t beating them up and throwing it in their faces. You should never write to judge or condemn anyone.”
Vines, who owns DeVine Vision Productions, said he wrote his first play at age 9, and then he went on to study theater at Jefferson State Community College. He has written six plays and is working on his seventh. His works include “It’s a Love Thing,” “Love, Love, Love, Comfort, and Joy,” “The Wild Confessions of a Church Mother,” and the black history fictional drama “What Does It Matter.” Another one of his plays, “Who Needs Christmas,” will be performed in December 2018.
“Nobody can tell our stories like us,” Vines said. “We as black people have to tell our stories because we know the struggle, we know our experience.”