Hilton Als re-focuses on African American theater

by Brenna McDuffie '15

Have you ever heard of Alice Childress or Ed Bullins? Is Wedding Band a familiar dramatic title? Before last week, I had not. Such an unawareness of award winning African American playwrights and their works is precisely what prompted Hilton Als, writer and theater critic for The New Yorker magazine, to team up with the American Repertory Theater and Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research to curate Trouble in Mind: Lost Masterpieces from the African American Theatre Canon. This new series brings professional actors to staged readings of seemingly forgotten plays by often over-looked African American playwrights.

"I wanted to start a series about drama that was a corollary to what Skip Gates did vis-a-vis forgotten black women authors and other artists. It's hard to do with plays, though, because plays have to be performed in order to have life. That's what makes the series so special. You get to see the text happen," says Als.

The series launched on Tuesday, Nov. 19 at the Loeb Drama Center with a reading of Alice Childress’s Wedding Band: A Love/Hate Story in Black and White, written in 1966. The reading was co-directed by Als along with A.R.T. artistic associate Shira Milikowsky and followed by a post-show discussion. Als hopes that his goal to bring these plays, newly, to a contemporary audience will be uniquely realized in the A.R.T. and Harvard community.

"It's my hope that contemporary audiences get to learn something about black American life that they wouldn't necessarily glean from a novel or an essay. Plays are about speech, and it's wonderful to hear the black vernacular alive. Harvard audiences are particularly interesting because of the breadth of information and research that's available around English, black and white. It's my hope that once a production is viewed, audience members will delve into the work of one of these forgotten artists, and bring them to new life," Als says.

During a lively post-show discussion, much of the conversation among the audience and the creative team included noting the striking modern relevance of Wedding Band. Though the play is set in the American South in 1918, the characters, their relationships and many of the prejudices struck the audience as familiar.

Milikowsky called Wedding Band a story that is relevant to modern American life rather than simply a historical retelling of an American past.

"The mission of the series is to revive awareness of these lost plays by African American playwrights, and then when we were reading the play it didn't feel like,‘this is a play about a niche group of people,’ it felt like ‘this is a play about American life,’ Milikowsky says. "Alice Childress is portraying really strong, black female characters whose story is not being told in the American story when it's such a large part of the truth about modern American life, its history, and our culture."

Als and Milikowsky have already begun making preparations for the next reading in the series, which will be staged at the A.R.T. next semester.

[Caption: Alice Childress]