LIT Council: Men of Color Called to the Stage
The pen, the page, and the journey of the artist's imagination. This October, LIT Council launches its second season as The Tank’s in-house development intensive for new plays. What makes this group stand out? Founded by Akin Salawu and co-created by Beto O’Byrne and Jerome A. Parker, the group is exclusively for male Playwrights of Color.
Salawu, a previous participant in the Emerging Writers Group at The Public Theater, created LIT Council as a spark for the larger machine that creates and produces theater. “I ran a theater company at Stanford [University]. It was a great opportunity for students of color onstage… everyone who auditioned got a part.” he explained. “University theater. If you want a chance to be onstage, I'm going to give you a chance to get on stage. Even if you think I'm not going to give a part to you, I will. You're going to be on stage."
Salawu moved to NYC to attend Columbia University. Though technically receiving an MFA in Film, he never left behind Playwriting as a means of getting to the deeper truth. When asked how he conceived of LIT Council, he replied by way of a striking anecdote. The play he ultimately worked on with LIT Council features a cast of all women of color. He first brought this play to a different writer’s group where a white female member stated that when she sees ethnicity in character descriptions, she thinks the play is going to be about race—and then if it is not about race, she is confused. She also wanted to know why there were not white women in his play. “The discussion of my pages was monopolized by one particular white woman’s cognitive dissonance about race,” Salawu recalled. “I realized it would be so wonderful if male playwrights of color could have a space where we do not have to justify our presence in the room to people who resent us even being there.”
LIT Council began. Hosted by The Tank in Manhattan, men of color gathered every other week for eight months to develop new plays for the stage. For Salawu, LIT Council was the first group he joined that had all men in it. Meeting regularly, with facilitated discussion, seven playwrights created a space for creating and developing new work.
In an interesting twist, and to foster “collaboration and communication between genders,” as The Tank has declared, each writer was paired with a female director of color, who was present throughout the development process of the piece; these women directed readings of the men’s work at the inaugural group’s culminating event, LIT Hour, at The Tank’s black box theater space this past June.
The playwrights for 2018–2019 were Benjamin Colón, Ja'Michael Darnell, Nikhil Mahapatra, Mel Nieves, Beto O’Byrne, Akin Salawu, and Marcus A. Scott. The directors were Michaela Escarcega, Miranda Haymon, and Tank Artist of the Year Ran Xia. Artists traveled from within NYC and New Jersey, with some claiming cities much further away as a point of origin. “I get on a subway, and I hear English, Spanish, French, West Indian. I’ll hear Arabic, I’ll hear Chinese and Korean. All of these languages going on at one time,” co-creator O’Byrne told me of his commute from Brooklyn, a place which has inspired his writing. “I think that’s a really cool thing, and very different than the community that I grew up in, which was very much a monoculture.”
O’Byrne is also a founder of Radical Evolution, a multiracial producing collective, where he frequently collaborates with artists from multi-ethnic households. “We moved [to Lefferts] right before the neighborhood really started turning over. And, so, when we moved here, we joked about being the lightest skinned people on the block,” O’Byrne continued. “Now that is definitely not true. And gentrification is such a complicated thing. Lefferts is such a great community to live in, and we are trying to fight the good fight of trying to make this a community for everybody. You can feel it when you walk down the street. It is trying to maintain its flare and sense of itself. […] If you go down into near Prospect Park, right at the edge, right near Park Side Avenue, every weekend there’s a drum circle, and it is mostly West Indian Drummers. And there are 25 of them, and they play there all day. I love that this tradition is not going away.”
Salawu has been an artist in both Manhattan and in BedStuy, and he also finds Brooklyn to be a catalyst for his writing. “In Manhattan, they are much more aware of the Social Hierarchy,” he explained. “But, in Brooklyn, as an artist, the understanding is that you are not part of the Social Hierarchy. In Manhattan, you are the low dog on the totem pole, as an artist, you know. It's kind of interesting.”
Writing a new play is an intensive process. Finding that quiet, honest place to write from takes time, particularly while supporting oneself in the demanding world of NYC. And once a first draft of a play is completed, the “development path” for each play is unpredictable: often a series of readings and workshops, with the hope of attaining a production opportunity some time in the indeterminate future. Along the way a playwright gets a lot of feedback, some of which can guide a play in the right direction, some of which can derail a piece and make the writer stray from the deep spirit of their story. The stamina it takes to remain in the world of it is equal to the determination it takes to be heard.
Becoming a part of a writer’s group is often part of a support network playwrights seek to help them stay true to their work and also to hold to a schedule of sharing and developing their own work. It is in the doing that the best work is developed. Work takes time. And, it takes space. But first they need to be invited to the table.
Gaining membership to LIT Council was a competitive process, and through sessions every other week, LIT Council Members maintained their competitive edge. Seven men, all men of color, listening and responding for eight months: some of them have a background of being an actor or a director; some have a background of producing with their own theater companies; some have attended prestigious writing programs or Ivy League schools.
Mel Nieves was one of the playwrights from the first year of LIT Council. He has a background as an actor, and, like all the members of LIT Council, worked on his play with a female director. When asked what he thought about the experience, Nieves commented, “In my career as a playwright the majority of my collaborators in the theater have been female directors like Courtney Wetzel, Paula Pizzi-Black, Jenna Worsham, Taibi Magar, and Shira Lee Shalit, and most recently, for the LIT Council first year showcase, Miranda Haymon.” Nieves continued, “I think that this has occurred due to the fact that my plays often have strong female characters with strong points of view that often drive the narratives of my scripts, and I prefer to have a female voice guiding the development of the work because I want to make sure that I am on point in my depiction of a woman's role in the world of my plays, it's important to me.”
With LIT Council, as with any writer’s group, there is reading, listening, and of course, seeing. Able to note growth in one another, the final presentation is a result of time honored practice. When asked if it is important to be heard, and if characters on the stage can say something for you that you can't say, Salawu responded,
Every living creature wants to know three things:
1. Did you see me?
2. Did it matter?
3. Will you have my back when I need you?
When asked who he feels the playwrights on the LIT Council write for, Salawu noted, “We write about the invisible, the marginalized, the quiet warriors tucked in the margins of history—where the very best of life can be found. We write for the people who never get to see themselves on stage.”
Next Season at LIT Council might be brighter than ever. Ja’Michael Darnell & Benjamin Colón will be returning. In addition, Salawu and O’Byrne will be welcoming Brandon Bogle, Zachariah Ezer, and Brooklyn-based playwrighter Hank H. Kim to LIT Council. In the competitive world of Playwrights, Ezer and Kim were finalists last year, and this year, they’ll get the chance to show what they can bring to the group. October 26 is the first day all over again, and this time, Mel Nieves will be co-facilitating. For LIT Council, all is looking up.
For more about the LIT Council and to follow their work and public presentations, visit https://thetanknyc.org/lit-council.