Dude Playwrights, Playwrights of the Past, Unknown playwrights

William Edgar Easton

William Edgar Easton came from five generations of human rights activists. His paternal ancestors had served in the American Revolution and his maternal ancestors served in the Haitian Revolution. He had African, European and Native American (Wampanoag) ancestry. His skin color was light enough to pass as white, yet he always identified as African-American.

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Our playwright hero, circa 1918.

Much like Angelina Weld Grimké, Easton had some illustrious ancestors and was brought up partially in Massachusetts.

As previously stated, he was the fifth generation in a line of activists – let’s just check in and see who some of those were:

James Easton (1754-1830)

William Edgar’s great-granduncle [great-grandfather’s brother]. Of Wampanoag and African descent.

He fought in American Revolution, worked as a blacksmith, ran his own foundry for over 20 years, opened an academic and vocational school for African-Americans and seemed to have a hobby of using sit-ins to integrate churches. Seriously, throughout his adult life he and his family tried to integrate the segregated congregations to which they belonged.

It seems nearly all of James’ children took up his activist ways, most prominently…

Hosea Easton (1799-1837) was a minister, abolitionist, author and human rights activist.

Next in line is James’ grandson…

Benjamin F. Roberts (1815-1881) who was a printer, publisher, writer and activist. Is greatest claim to fame is pursuing Roberts v. Boston – he sued the city of Boston because of its “seperate but equal” schooling system. Despite the involvement of lawyer (and soon-to-be senator) Charles Sumner and lawyer Robert Morris, Roberts sadly lost the case. The case would be cited in US Supreme Court’s ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896 in which “seperate but equal” was enshrined in law.

Octave Oliviers was an ancestor of Easton’s mother Marie Leggett. I couldn’t find out much about him except he was a general in Haïti’s revolution.

Easton’s mother was born in New Orleans, of Haïtian parents.

There are other family members who contributed much, but it’s time to skip to our playwright, William Edgar Easton, great-grandson of Moses Easton (Revolutionary War vet and brother to James Easton).

His life:

He was born in Boston. He did a BUNCH of stuff in his life. Let’s play a game – What DIDN’T William Edgar Easton Do in Life?  Among the following facts, Mr. Easton didn’t do one of them. What was it?

  1. Attended St. Joseph’s Seminary in Trois-Rivières, Quebec.
  2. Taught school in Austin, Texas.
  3. Edited The Texas Blad newspaper (cool name).
  4. President of the Colored State Press Association
  5. Chairman of the Travis County (TX) Republican Party
  6. Assistant Secretary of the Republican (Texas) State Central Committee
  7. Secretary of the Republican (Texas) State Central Committee
  8. Storekeeper at the US Customs House in Galveston
  9. Desk clerk at the San Antonio Police Department
  10. Accountant
  11. Tax collector
  12. Correspondant for the New Age
  13. Speechwriter for at least two governors of California
  14. Speaker for the War Department during WW1
  15. Supervising custodian for all state offices in LA
  16. Clerk for the California Bureau of Purchases
  17. Governor of Idaho

If you picked 17, you would be correct. Yep, never governed the Gem State.

The plays:

Haïti sent a delegation to to the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition  in Chicago (the one that gave us a famous serial killer).

They asked Frederick Douglass to represent Haïti, which is awesome. Douglass had previously been US Minister to Haïti. And an all-around badass.

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The Haitian Pavilion at the World’s Columbian Expsosition of 1893.

In 1893, the post-Civil War rights gains for African Americans were being curtailed. Despite being a Haïtian exhibit, the pavilion attracted many African Americans who probably weren’t into the human zoo-like aspects of, say, The Dahomey Village exhibit.

Easton wrote the play Dessalines, a dramatic tale : a single chapter from Haiti’s history for the 1893 Exposition. The play was performed in Chicago, but not exactly at the Haïtian exhibit.

Now we must delve a bit into Haïtian history…

Haïti was a slave colony run raped by the French. The export was sugar cane. Eventually the slaves found a way to rebel and did just that in 1791. Dessalines was one of thousands of soldiers fighting the French. He became a leader, working closely with the famous Haïtian badass Toussaint Louverture. Meanwhile, having its own revolutionary problems, France declared slavery abolished. Then it gets kinda weird. Louverture and Dessalines then joined the French to fight the Spanish and British. Louverture invaded the Spanish side of Hispaniola and freed the slaves there.

But France is tricky and in 1801 Napoleon thought it’d be a grand idea to restore slavery. Louverture was taken prisoner and died in France. Dessalines and his followers defeated the French soldiers and secured Haïtian independence. Oh, and he ordered a massacre of almost all the white people in Haïti (except for the Poles). And he became president and self-proclaimed emperor of Haïti. As such, he reimplemented the plantation ssytem, ostensibly to maintain Haiti’s economy, but the people felt like they had been enslaved again and it wasn’t long before Dessalines was killed, but we’re not quite sure how.

Thus, Dessalines’ legacy is quite mixed. He was a brave patriot and competant leader who led Haïti to victory over the hated French. He also ordered massacres and in a way re-enslaved his people. And proclaimed himself emperor.

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Dessalines on some sweet, sweet 1916 Haitian currency.

This isn’t quite the same guy in the play – let’s take a look!!

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“Oh, France, go count thy victories! I – I, Dessalines will count thy dead.” Illustration from the published play.  Thomas C. Scottron played this role.

 

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Oh…

Cultural note: in the Haïtian Revolution, the dark-skinned Haitians and the mixed-race Haïtians (mulatres) didn’t get along much.

I’ve noticed this seems to happen when the colonizers create a class that isn’t at the top nor is it at the bottom: they tend to be despised by both sides, warranted or not. A similar thing happened to the mixed-race Indos of Indonesia during their revolution.

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So mulatre Flavien is kind of a dick. And Placide is pretty direct about his feelings.

The synopsis:

Flavien being a dick to Placide. Dessalines shows up and takes all the slaves. Mulatre General Rigaud thinks about joining, but remains loyal to France. Dessalines becomes captor to Rigaud’s sister, Clarisse. Dessalines wants to punish the soldiers who tricked Clarisse and were going to abuse her. Clarisse begs him to spare them. Rigaud and Lefebre meet – again about France. Dessalines shows up. They don’t fight. Later Rigaud confronts him about honor. Fight. Clarisse saves everyone. Clarisse prays. Dessalines becomes Catholic. 

Not a shabby plot, but the play is WAY better than the above. The strongest part is truly the dialogue. Easton had a way with words…Flavien is all butthurt over Placide’s insult – he complains to the slaves…

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Flavien isn’t woke.

You may have noticed that Easton chooses to use faux-Elizabethan English. Actually, he is quite good with it. A modern production could try dropping it and see what happens.

Here’s where Dessalines shows up:

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Dessalines does not mess around and Flavien is still a dick.  Dessalines expounds upon his theory that white people are pretty cursed. Imagine this playing in a theatre in Chicago in 1893.

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He has a point or two or more…

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Rigaud: self-aware dickhead. And he was totally a real person. He was a general in the Haïtian Revolution, but it’s hard to be sympathetic when Wikipedia tells you stuff like this:

“André Rigaud was known to have worn a brown-haired wig with straight hair to resemble a white man as closely as possible.”

Rigaud: not woke.

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Do we keep the neo-archaicisms????

Oh, Dessalines’ soldiers don’t believe he could ever like the light-skinned Clarisse:

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And like every other American representation of Haiti, one must include an obligatory voodoo scene.

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But it is the voodoo scene that gives us our most interesting line:

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How is this connected to our plot? Clarisse may become a sacrfice…and even the priestess is spooked by her.

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Well, Petou brings word of Clarisse’s imprisonment to her brother Rigaud, who then tries to choke him.

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And Rigaud tries to act tough.

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The plot, as previously stated, wraps up with a fight between Rigaud and Dessalines…

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And when Clarisse extols the virtues of Catholicism to Dessalines, who recognizes its truth and then ends in chaste love with Clarisse. None of that actually happened.

In fact, the Catholic conversion scene could easily be deleted – it really does feel shoehorned in.

Besides this, I feel Dessalines is ripe for revival, with modifications.

Production history of the play:

The play was first performed at Freiburg’s Opera House in Chicago, September 1893.

Dessalines was portrayed by Professor Thomas C. Scottron, who had a very interesting family. His family/descendants includes actress Edna Louise Scottron (niece), inventor Samuel Scottron (brother) and singer, actress, activist Lena Horne (grandniece) and screenwriter Jenny Lumet (great-grandniece) and Broadway actor Bobby Canavale (great-great grandnephew – probably the only time I’ll ever use that word).

Clarisse was portrayed by famed actress and activist Henrietta Vinton Davis. Davis also directed the production. Another great link here.

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Dig that headstone, via here.
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Henrietta Vinton Davis, probably the most famous African American actress of the day.

Following this performance, the play was published.

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That’s sweet.

The play was revived at Trinity Congregational Church, Pittsburgh  in 1909. This time she directed and played the flower girl and Dominique (one of the Shakespeare-esque buffoon roles).

The other performance of record is at the Fine Arts Theatre in Boston on May 15, 1930.

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From here.

This version featured Granville Stewart as Dessalines and Avon Long as the voodoo priest [it seems the priestess became a priest for this production].

The play had a reading in Brooklyn in 2014.

The published volume has several illustrations – the one featuring Dessalines is earlier. These are the others:

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Then, after a period of nearly 20 years, Easton published Christophe; a tragedy in prose of imperial Haiti.

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The author actually made his own synopsis of the play:

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Now it’s not a bad play, but even the synopsis is where things start to falter. There are some things in the synopsis that aren’t even in the play. Not a good sign.

And we must jump back into Haïtian history a bit…

Much like Dessalines, Henri-Christophe had been a general in the Haitian Revolution. Of interest to Americans, he may have served in the American Revolution as a drummer boy with the French at the failed Siege of Savannah in 1778.

He was a harsh general in a harsh time…from Wikipedia:

On 6 April 1805, having gathered all his troops, General Christophe took all male prisoners to the local cemetery and proceeded to slit their throats, among them Presbyter Vásquez and 20 more priests.

He was involved in the conspiracy to kill Dessalines and when he proclaimed himself emperor, he went all in:

“Henry, by the grace of God and constitutional law of the state, King of Haiti, Sovereign of Tortuga, Gonâve, and other adjacent islands, Destroyer of tyranny, Regenerator and Benefactor of the Haitian nation, Creator of her moral, political, and martial institutions, First crowned monarch of the New World, Defender of the faith, Founder of the Royal Military Order of Saint Henry.” 

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Ego much? A German painter at the imperial court did this…

This isn’t quite the Henri-Christophe that appears in the play.

In real-life, Christophe shot himself in the head with a silver bullet [insert werewolf joke here]. In the play he stabs himself with his sword before stabbing someone else.

The play, in my opinion, is quite pedestrian, especially if we compare it to Dessalines. It seems to lack the vigor inherent in plot – it moves forward simply because it has to.

There’s a lot more French used in this play than in Dessalines.

The pseudo-Shakespearean language has been toned down immensely. There’s a part where some Haitians accuse Dessalines of planning to allow white people to live in Haiti:

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BURN!!!!!

I found the best bits of dialogue deal with the honorable Dessalines and the traitorous Christophe.

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“Puppet of my whims!” <<<< Dessalines pwned Christophe right there.

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Snap.

Sadly, Dessalines dies pretty early in the play. And as previously stated, the play plods… a lot. But the book has illustrations. Let’s check out the Classics Illustrated version:

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The most interesting thing about the play is the part played by Henrietta Vinton Davis – that of Valerie, who dresses up like a murdering vengeful priest!!!!

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If the entire play had been about a woman dressed as a priest killing people, yeah it would be a classic.

It’s still worth a look and maybe other folks will disagree with my assessment.

The play was produced by Miss Davis at the Lenox Casino in New York City with an opening night of March 21, 1912. Fun fact: in 1912 this “casino” was busted for showing stag films.

It is now the location of Masjid Malcolm Shabazz.

Miss Davis played opposite R. Henri Strange as Christophe.

Easton apparently wrote two one-act plays, both with intriguing titles:

Is She a Lady in the Underworld? and Misery in Bohemia.

I can’t find any record of them being performed or published.

There’s also no record of his daughter Athenais becoming a writer as he’d wished for in the introduction to Dessalines.

Thanks for joining us in exploring this playwright’s work and interesting life…

For our other playwrights, please click here.

Join us next week for another thrilling unknown playwright!

Links

The Easton family

William Edgar Easton’s life.

Useful info

Dessalines text

Christophe text

 

 

 

Current Playwrights, Female Playwrights, Unknown playwrights

Denise O’Neal

Today we will be profiling a Houston-based playwright who not only comes out swinging when it’s time for her own work but also contributes to the greater playwright community.  

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Denise writes full-lengths and shorts and also directs plays.

Denise O’Neal has lived in Houston for over 20 years and studied Business Finance at the University of Houston.

She hails from Shreveport, LA and was raised in a military family. She caught the playwriting bug at the age of 20 when she assisted in the production of her church’s She believes it was creating papier-mâché props, helping with script edits and splashing all that stage blood on the poor guy playing Jesus that really opened her eyes.

Denise was named a recipient of the Mary McCloud Bethune Award (National Council of Negro Women, 2015) and one of the “100 Creatives” of 2014 by the Houston Press, She has been a writer, director, and producer for over 20 years. She is the executive director of Shabach Enterprise, a non-profit theater company based in Houston, TX and the owner of Watch My Groove Ent., LLC.

She’s also in charge of a really amazing festival that we’ll talk about after the plays.

In 2014 she served as the assistant director for the Pulitzer prize winner Ruined written by Lynn Nottage in its Houston regional premiere. She directed the production of Intimate Apparel, also written by Lynn Nottage in 2015. She is currently a member of the Dramatists Guild, a former board member of Scriptwriters/Houston and is very active in the Houston theatre community.

In this post we’ll look at some of her short plays in detail.

On the Other Side is a funny short with a self-explanatory title: these are all ghosts on the other side.

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Roles for seniors? Check. Psychopath? Check. Someone named Myrtle? Check. Everyone dead? Check. Love this character list.

The humor starts early on this one.

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Ted gets a bit defensive when Myrtle talks about how he died.

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I mean, everyone knows he’s dead, right? Uptight.

Meanwhile, Misty, our resident psychopathic ghost, explains how her husband got cut up into itty-bitty pieces in a bag she’s been lugging around.

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Gotta love any play with the line “A wood chipper, huh?” And gotta love that wood chipper trope,

The play ends how any play involving dead people should end, but I won’t spoil it for you.

Moving on to Sorry, Not Sorry – this also has a fun cast list.

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Basically Ray is a grade-A douche-nugget who is addicted to video games. He thinks he’s gonna have a hot ‘n’ heavy bone-a-thon with gal pal Greta…but he is a contemptuous ass.

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Ray’s kinda dense. 

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Did I mention Ray was a jerk-face? Another man and woman show up and this weirds Ray out to no end, but it turns out they’re not there for sex. A very good twist by O’Neal, but I won’t give it away.

Here’s a video of the cast members of Sorry, Not Sorry talking about the play as well as the night of short plays it was featured in:

 

The final short we’ll cover is Fragile, from Phoenix. Typical trope of a mystery package showing up. And a marriage already on the rocks.

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But as with the other plays, there’s a twist. Said box is not from some sweet young thing in Phoenix…inside the box is…

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Stephanie takes second place to Barry’s burgeoning butterfly collection. 

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Stephanie may need some counseling. Which brings us to the next play.

In addition to writing some off-beat comedy, O’Neal has also penned a full-length play that tackles the demons of addiction as experienced by various men in a treatment program run by a pastor.

A Fly in the Windshield has been relatively successful, and is available from Amazon. O’Neal spent hours asking questions of real men who were involved in treatment programs and used her research to craft this play. Here’s Denise and some of the cast talking about the play.

 

I’ll put a boatload of links about this play below.

A wonderful contribution Denise has made to the playwriting world is the Fade to Black play festival in Houston. This is definitely a labor of love for O’Neal. And provides a unique opportunity for African-American playwrights.

Lack of representation is a real problem. For example, in the 2016-2017 season in Washington, DC, African-American playwrights made up less than 10% of playwrights produced that year. African-Americans make up about 50% of the DC population.  Also, the national population seems to be 12-14% African-American, so DC theatre, you’re sucking on that end, too.

Recently the Dramatists Guild tried to quantify this disparity. I do have issues with how some of the study was conducted, namely the narrow sample size and the fact that they included one of the worst theatres in the world [I’ll keep that theatre’s name to myself for now]. BUT…I totally agree with the point they’re trying to illustrate.

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Pretty much looks like America. From here. 
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This is the breakdown of produced playwrights they give. Pretty much looks like theatre in America. Sigh.
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Apparently if we include Baltimore with DC, the percentage of plays by people of color skyrockets.

On that last statistic, they’re including all people of color and not just African Americans.

Either way, the need for festivals like Fade to Black is strong.

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First stat is a couple years old. Second stat is now. If we ever follow my proposal to ban Shakespeare for a generation, the green could fall to zero.

 

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The first stat is from a couple years ago. Second is now. When it comes to foreigners of color, things are actually equitable between genders. Also, that feeling when you’ve gained 75% but are still under one percent overall.

This is a video promo from 2013.

The festival has been a success. This year’s winners include:

Calley Anderson, Yunina Barbour-Payne, Maya Critchlow, Vincent Terrell Durham, Peter Fields, Ken Green, Lionel Hilliard, Eric C. Jones, Brandon Riley and TJ Young.

Past winners have included: Markietha Ka’Von SIngleton, Angela Y. Rice, Melanie E. Burke, and Angela Batravil.

Here’s a great radio interview with Denise about this year’s festival:

In addition to doing TV and radio interviews, Denise has kindly answered a few questions for us.

1. How did you start playwriting?
I have always loved to write. I started writing poems and essays when I was grade school and since I was heavily involved in my local church, I moved quickly into writing skits for them. When I was 21 or so, I was part of a large Easter Sunday theatre production at our Chapel. The experience was life-changing and instrumental in encouraging me to start writing full-length plays. I have been at it ever since.
 
2. What are your influences?
No particular playwright. Lynn Nottage does great work. August Wilson story of his rise to fame is amazing.
 
3. What is your most memorable production and why?
Fly In The Windshield’s 1st production was a hugely successful milestone for me. After many readings and rewrites, when it was finally mounted on stage, it did extremely well! I had been commissioned to write and direct the piece and endured a lot of hard work, but it was worth it as it received an amazing reception. The play got very positive reviews and was named 2013 Best Original Play by Broadway World. Soon after the closing of the show, the piece was published. 
 
4. What is your least memorable production and why? [you can leave out specifics or names]
Just A Few Feet Away was a piece I loved, but greatly divided my audience: they either loved it completely or hated it completely or didn’t get it or totally got it. The actors loved the work, but it just never took off as well as I’d like. The story was an attempt to weave the separate, disconnected lives of various individuals into a plot revealed just how connected the really are. I learned a hard lesson in remembering the value of being true to yourself because you simply can’t please everyone.     
 
5. What’s your funniest theatre story?
Not one of my own work, but one where I was directing A Lesson Before Dying. Apparently a firefly had made its way into the performance studio and wanted to take center stage, but he had bumped into the theater lights and was now dying. Center stage in and out of the audience seating was where he was chose to have his swan dance ushering in the last few moments of his life. Just then, a sympathetic (and annoyed) audience member, decided to use his hat to swat Mr. Firefly out of the scene, but he missed his aim and his hat went flying onto the middle of the floor. Because the audience member wouldn’t dream of leaving his hat on the floor, he decided to retrieve his hat right then and there, firefly and actors be damned. The show went on, but with a bit of distraction. The actors had a good chuckle about that for weeks to come.  
 
6. What are your writing habits like?
I can’t say I have a “method”, but usually when I have a good story line for a play everything else in the world shuts down until it is done. I still get through the tasks of the day, but I am not really truly focused on anything else but the completion of the piece. It consumes me and I inevitably end up writing into the early hours of the morning losing all track of time. It is a wonderful place to be! I write best when a story (or a life lesson) has greatly impacted me or when there is a message I believe the world needs to hear.  
 
7. What advice do you have for new playwrights?
Write and Rewrite. Do readings and rewrite again. After you’ve put out your best work remain humble and open to suggestions, but learn to know the difference between sound counsel and the simple tongue-wagging of a fool. Try not to let everyone’s opinion about your work bother you. Lastly, do what you can to find your own voice. It can take a lifetime to do it, but it’s worth it. 
 
8. Who are some other writers you feel should get more attention?
Every African-American playwright I know.

9. What are common themes in your work?
The beauty and immense intricacies of the human spirit. I also like story that have a bit of a shock value in its plot.

10. What is one thing you wished you knew now, that you didn’t know starting out?
That theatre is a great outlet, but it’s a lot of work.

11. Where did the idea for The Other Side come from?
I was in a place where I found death and the afterlife particularly fascinating probably because I had been watching a lot of crime television. In keeping with this new found pastime, I wanted to write my own version of events of the back story of a tragic life’s end but I didn’t want to tell a dreary tale so, I made it funny. Aside from the excessive amount of television I was watching, the story might have come from the fact that I often lament about things I feel could be done better if they were done “my” way to begin with (just kidding).
 
12. What have been the most rewarding aspects of the Fade to Black Fest?
It is hard to explain how personally rewarding this project is. It does so many great things for the underrepresented African-American playwright and the Houston community. We are now in our 7th year and are growing stronger every year. We are highly anticipated and respected among theatre enthusiast around the world. If I had to say what is most rewarding is the sense of validation and recognition we provide for African-American playwrights. We are also putting Houston on the map in this arena because it had never been done in the history of the city.
 
13. What advice do you have for writers who want a strong twist in their play or story?
I would just say go wild. A good playwright should have command of a vibrant imagination. Create an outline of various scenarios and pick the one you can sell the best. There is nothing worse than a poorly executed twist. Or you can lay the project down until some spectacular revelation comes to mind.
 
14. How is writing someone else’s story (like “Fly”) different from writing your own (like “The Other Side”)?
From my side, there is no difference. There’s always a lot of character research and development in every play I write. I’d never hear the end of it if I made it about my own personal life.
 
15. What’s a question you’d like to be asked? Go ahead and answer that question.
None come to mind. 

 

Thanks Denise for sharing your time and talent with us!!

For all of our other playwrights, please check here.

About Denise:

Her page at the New Play Exchange.

Profile in the Houston Press.

Theatre Online profile.

Denise’s diecting:

Broadway World interview about directing A Lesson Before Dying.

About Fly in the Windshield:

Interview with Broadway World regarding the play.

Another video interview.

Review

About Fade to Black:

Their homepage

This year’s Facebook event

From 2013

Broadway World piece from 2015

Short plug on Houston TV (you will also learn about dead butt syndrome) 2017

From 2018

More from 2018

Nice review from 2017

Profile from 2015, focusing on a gay-themed entry.