Providing resources, exposure and opportunity for Black Hoosier playwrights

INDIANAPOLIS – “Give us a chance. We have many, many stories to tell when we get the chance,” said Gabrielle Patterson, playwright for Your Love Will Be Judged.

Onyxfest is Indiana’s first and only theater festival exclusively for African American playwrights.

Bringing the playwright’s vision from the page to the stage is the opportunity OnyxFest offers Black Hoosiers in the theater.

“It’s a little bit of comedy and a little bit of drama,” Patterson said.

“My play is about two generations of black women coming together,” said Celeste Williams, playwright on Black Is My Color.

“There is a deficit in black storytelling. I’m excited for the opportunity for our stories to be told on every platform they’re told,” Patterson said.

This African American theater has struggled with this deficit since the 1920s-30s during the Harlem Renaissance. It was a time when black arts and culture were thriving in the United States, but not always reaching mainstream audiences.

A century later, opportunities are more, but challenges remain.

“Black actors around town, we all go to the same auditions and there’s usually maybe a role or two that we audition for because there aren’t a lot of black stories told,” Patterson said. “We work a lot in February, and then it’s often more difficult.”

Patterson and Williams were two of five playwrights selected for last year’s Onyxfest.

“What made OnyxFest so compelling is that it respected the writers, the actors, and everyone behind the scenes,” Williams said.

“If you love the game and can get through the tough times, it often only pays off in the end,” said Vernon Williams, executive director of Onyxfest.

Onyxfest began in 2011 and has been sponsored by IUPUI’s Africana Repertory Theater for the past four years.

Vernon said 41 applications were received from playwrights last year. Those who are selected will receive grants to cover all aspects of production.

“[The grant is] about $3,000, which they can use to pay the playwright, directors, assistant directors, sethands, technicians, actors, even behind the scenes: makeup, wardrobe, set people. That’s their budget, which must be used in a discriminatory manner,” Vernon said.

Onyxfest also offers marketing, promotion and a venue. Last year, they saw a 63% increase in ticket sales and hit an all-time high in viewership.

Those involved say the event is a game changer, offering expanded resources, exposure and respect that will help African American playwrights share their stories.

“This is not just a problem in Indiana. This is across the country for black actors and actors of color in general. Things slowly change over time so we have to go on a positive note. We have to really believe, we believed that, that we make a difference, and I sincerely believe that we make a difference,” Patterson said. “My plays have gone historical, and I want to continue that with the idea that the Black history is American history. American history is Black history, and we all need to normalize our experiences with one another.”

Registration deadline for the Onyxfest is March 10th. Only five playwrights are selected. During the first two weekends in November you can watch various productions.

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