I found my true calling when I learned the names of two men: Woodie King, Jr. and Lloyd Richards. Producers, directors and master storytellers, these two men helped change the complexion of American Theatre beginning in the 1950s. My future was set after that. I could see myself doing what I had a desire to do.
When we see us – or more specifically, when we see people like us – doing things or leading lives we want to lead, the scope of what is possible in the eyes of a young person grows dramatically. It is a silent validation of the life you’re experiencing. We feel heard. It is saying you aren’t alone or crazy for feeling the way you feel or thinking the way you think.
INSPIRING ROLE MODELS
For those of you that don’t know, Lloyd Richards directed the original Broadway production of A Raisin in the Sun. Later on, he would head up the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center, then became Dean of the Yale School of Drama and Artistic Director of the Yale Repertory Theatre. Throughout his many positions, he helped develop the careers of playwrights such as Wendy Wasserstein, David Henry Hwang, and August Wilson, as well as help shape actors such as Courtney B. Vance, Meryl Streep, Angela Bassett, David Alan Greer, and many more.
Woodie King Jr.’s influence started here at Wayne State University in 1960. Aware of the challenges Black actors faced in finding roles, King teamed up with several other Black theater students to found Concept East Theatre. The theatre’s greatest achievement was discovering talent that would eventually leave Detroit for New York, specifically playwright Ron Milner. In 1970 after moving to New York, King founded the New Federal Theatre and the National Black Touring Circuit in New York. With New Federal Theatre (NFT), King produced plays by Milner, Ed Bullins, Amiri Baraka, and Ntozake Shange. His shows on- and off-Broadway featured a young Denzel Washington, Phylicia Rashad, S. Epatha Merkerson, Morgan Freeman, Laurence Fishburne, and Leslie Uggams. King provided Denzel with his first shot at playing Malcolm X in a play entitled When Chickens Come Home to Roost.
WHO WE ARE IS WHAT WE DO
Their respective lives informed their work as it does any artist. But more specifically, because they were Black and had grown up in Detroit during the Depression, during segregation, during the days of Jim Crow, the work they did as adults spoke to that reality.
Richards understood the struggles of the Younger family in Raisin because he had experienced similar situations himself. After losing his father at the age of nine his mother worked as a domestic to make money to support her five children. She went blind within a few years which meant the children had to step up. Richards shined shoes and swept floors in a barbershop to help put food on the table.
So when he directed Raisin Richards knew the motivations of Mama Lena and Walter Lee, both wanting a better life for their children but with very different ways to get there.
He understood the nobility of the men in August Wilson’s plays because he had been exposed to similar men as they passed through that Black Bottom barbershop where he worked.
Likewise, Woodie King Jr knew the pain and frustration so eloquently articulated in the works of Baraka, Milner, Bullins, and Shange because he, too, knew the stories those playwrights wrote came from an authentic place. He could comprehend the rage of young Black men like Clay in Dutchman or Tim Jr in Who’s Got His Own.
Moreover, King identified with the desire of Black artists who wanted professional opportunities where they could show off their training and talents. Actors who wanted good meaty roles to plunge into. Directors, designers, and playwrights who wanted a stage where they could breathe life into a world captured on the page.
Both men have understood the pride one takes in creating art by people who looked like them. Likewise, they have seen how audiences react to experiencing a play or TV show or film that perfectly articulates who they are.
When we see ourselves positioned at the center of a story – where we are the subject of the tale and not merely window-dressing or a plot device – it gives voice to thoughts and dreams too often ignored in both entertainment and life. It allows us to share a perspective about our world that might provide clarity to some of our most challenging issues. When we see and hear, empathizes and embrace, our own true self it can be the most beautiful moment.
That’s why stories created by, for, about and presented near Black people are so very important, especially in our current climate. We need to feel represented in the stories of our city, our country, and our world. It is the best feeling in the world because it inspires us to try the impossible.
We hope you see yourselves reflected in the work we do. It’s the only reason we do it.