'Theatre Festival in Black & White' brings diverse audience

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If you haven’t caught up with the “Theatre Festival in Black & White: Holiday Edition,” there’s still time with performances tonight and Tuesday at the Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre, Downtown.

These are the final nights of the 10th annual festival presented by the Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company. Each evening offers five short plays written and produced by local playwrights, directors and actors.

The plays focus on race relations. Not just on the stage, but in the production and direction of the plays themselves.

“The black plays are directed by white directors and the white playwrights’ plays are directed by black directors,” said Mark Clayton Southers, producing artistic director, who founded the project with co-coordinator Eric A. Smith.

“I felt that, in the city of Pittsburgh, when you go to the theater, it seems to be very segregated, because people basically go to see what they want to see,” Mr. Southers said. “And I wanted to try to set up a scenario where you get a mixed audience, where black and white folks will come and enjoy theater together. So we produce black plays and white plays in the same evening. It’s a big twist. We get a mixed audience and learn more about each other.”

Mr. Southers, a lifelong resident of the Hill District, studied in Alabama and was a longtime photographer with The Pittsburgh Courier. When he tried his hand as a playwright, he found the need to produce his own works.

“That’s the route I had to take,” he said. “That’s because the black community in Pittsburgh is small. And you see it when you go to an event Downtown. The black audience is always a small audience.

“I wanted to represent our city more, telling more stories. That’s one of the things I wanted to tackle. We’ve had Chinese and Puerto Rican directors, but mostly we try to deal with the black-and-white issue in Pittsburgh.”

Based on what he’s seen over the past 10 years, Mr. Southers believes the project has had an impact.

“It’s successful before we even do the plays,” he said. “What’s successful is that we bring the black and white communities to work on the project. Before the play takes the stage, that’s the success right there. What grows out of this are the connections. We’ve had African-American playwrights, directors and actors being sought out by folks they’ve worked with and vice versa. Black theater companies reaching out when they need white actors."

“Of course, these things happen already in the city. But we do it on a broader scale. We’re enlarging our theatrical community by design. I hate to use the word force, but it forces people to work together. Force isn’t the best word. Let’s say it ushers them together. It’s a good mix.

“It’s been going on now for two and a half weeks, and we’ve had nice turnouts.”

Not that there haven’t been bumps in the road. But that’s what the project was intended to find, confront and solve.

“We haven’t had those problems in the performance level, but in the rehearsal process we run into that,” Mr. Southers said. “It never makes it to the production level because we’re focused on it. It only happens every once in a while, and when it does, we’ll talk with the playwright and the director and the actors and work it out.

“Folks learn from each other. For example, we had an African-American director who was working on a play about Hanukkah. Well, she chose some music for the production and the playwright had to say, ‘No, no, no, that’s Orthodox.’ She had to make her aware. That’s how we learn what works and doesn’t work.”

The festival consists of 10 one-act plays, five of which will presented tonight and the other five on Tuesday. Information about the specific plays is available at pghplaywrights.com.

The show at Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre, 937 Liberty Ave., Third Floor, starts at 7 p.m. Admission is $20.

Tonight’s shows are:

• “We Need a Ramadan” — by Aasiyah El-Rice; directed by Vince Ventura.

• “Hanukkah in the Back Country” — by Judy Meiksin; directed by Kim El.

• “Where I First Saw the Light” — by Tameka Cage Conley; directed by T.C. Brown.

• “Christmas Star” — by Ray Werner; directed by Monteze Freeland.

• “An Ubuntu Holiday” — by Kim El; directed by Stephen Santa.

Dan Majors: dmajors@post-gazette.com.

First Published December 16, 2013 4:16 PM

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