There’s a new theatre festival in town. Broadway Bound Theatre Festival (BBTF) is making its inaugural debut, featuring works by playwrights from around the country.
Starting July 30th and running through August 20th, BBTF is giving audiences a New York theatre experience at an affordable price, while providing playwrights with the tools they need to get their shows off the ground. I got the chance to interview four playwrights whose plays are in this festival.
Riley Thomas, author of Convicted
Sherod D. Lee, author of 2 Years of Eternal Joy
Juan Ramirez Jr., author of The American Dream
Lina Sarrello, author of Out There
As writers do you feel it is essential to tell stories that are diverse and inclusive? It is necessary to spell it out in your character breakdowns that specific roles will be played by an actor of color or an actor with a disability? Or do you leave it to chance with your directors to just hire whomever?
Lina Sarrello - As a writer I always include diversity in my character breakdowns. As a Latina, and a woman, I find it essential to create characters of substance for women and actors of color, since there are so few out there. As a minority writer, if I’m not going to break down the stereotypes and give a voice to others like me, then who will?
Sherod Smallman - As a writer, the stories I tell will naturally be reflective of who I am and how I view the world. I do want to tell stories that reflect my culture. I don’t think of it as me telling a “diverse” story. I think about it probably in the same way most artists think of it, which is having a compelling need to share this story. If I write a character I usually make it ethnically specific. But sometimes if it’s a universal role then I base it solely on the merit of the acting and whether they fit the role.
Riley Thomas - It is essential to tell stories that are diverse and inclusive. When we offer a broader representation of the cross-section of humanity we consciously as well as subliminally demonstrate equality. That moves society forward with an Us mentality instead of Them.
When it comes to how I handle casting people of color, I’m of two minds. Which avenue I follow depends on the show. I think it’s critical to write shows where the character’s race is necessitated by the plot - representation in such an explicit manner is important, and forcing all subsequent productions of the play to have that character played by that specific person of color offers an ongoing diverse opportunity. However, I believe that one of the best ways to celebrate diversity (and challenge stereotypes) is when a person of color is not necessitated in the role, and it is cast that way anyway. I’m interested in challenging the “default to white” mentality. That’s how it played out in Convicted - we saw such a wonderful array of actors and wound up with a good blend. We even cast a woman where a man was expected. In fact, Convicted winds up passing both the Bechdel and the Marron test in the first two lines.
When it comes to disabilities, I will actively seek out actors with those disabilities. Not only for the importance of representation but selfishly because they’ll bring a level of honesty and understanding to the role that another actor - or even me as the writer - may not have access to. There will always be an acquiescence of power to a director when you hand over the reigns, but so far I’ve always directed the world premiere of every piece I’ve written. Not because I’m a megalomaniac - not JUST because I’m a megalomaniac - but because that’s a great way to lay out expectations for subsequent productions.
Juan Ramirez, Jr. - Every story has been told in some way so what writers have to find now are new perspectives. The specifics of your character, whether it is race or a trait, will guide how they take action in the story. It all starts at the page and depends what you want to see. I cast my shows based on ensemble chemistry first. I feel it a necessity to leave room for the actors to insert their own perspective, no matter what that might be. For the characters that I have written with a specific perspective, I cast accordingly. Yet, I do not remain blind if an actor’s talent causes me to make changes. It is essential I think for artists and audiences to understand that the work on the page will be different on the stage. For the most part, that’s a good thing. Typically, I enjoy when my actors can connect to the character immediately on a personal level.
What makes your play unique? What sort of message do you hope to leave the audience with?
Lina Sarrello - My play, Out There/Allá Fuera, is unique because it was inspired by a historical moment that has received nearly no coverage. The Brothers to the Rescue incident, when four Cuban-American pilots trying to rescue rafters off the coast of Florida were shot down by the Cuban government. This story, interconnected with two other stories about the Cuban struggles over the past 60 years will hopefully help audiences see that we are all connected in our human need to risk our lives for something more.
Sherod Smallman - A few things makes 2 Years of Eternal Joy very different. One thing is that it’s not just a story about two young people in love but it’s a love story that involves the whole family. It is about love being lost, gain, taken advantage of, neglected, destroyed, begged for, etc . . . This is what makes the play beautiful and compelling. Another thing is that not only is it a story about a young couple dealing with cancer, but the cancer reveals emotional cancers that have existed within the family for years. The physical ailment reveals the emotional and somewhat spiritual ailments. But it’s still filled with laughter as well as tears. It’s just a beautiful story that, even when I read it, jumps off the pages.
Riley Thomas - What makes Convicted unique is the fact that it’s a fast-paced, action-packed piece of theatre that wouldn’t feel out of place as a movie. It’s agile and engaging like a Law & Order episode; it draws you in with a bit of mystery, a bit of thriller, and just a tiny bit of who-done-it. It’s LGBTQ themed, but it doesn’t retread tired gay stereotypes audiences are used to seeing. It offers gay characters that are fleshed out, passionate, functional, flawed… embroiled in something more than a love story.
Juan Ramirez, Jr. - I have recently read an article about how Latinx playwrights typically only write about a few things. I think the list is identity, immigration, and spirituality. In defense, the article wasn’t against the themes but simply thought that we should write about other things. When I decided to write an immigration play myself, I worked exhaustively to keep away from cliches. Both characters feel differently about the country and after much conflict, they switch perspectives. The play is structured to neither praise or criticize any philosophy or policy. It is a window into the lives of two strong people who are among the systems that exist. Telling the story in this way gives room for any audience to get into it but more importantly, to make an opinion. The message of the play is that no matter if you’re an optimist or pessimist, how you perceive your reality may make or break you.
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