A message from series curator Dave Harris
The Literary Ancestry Essay Series aims to create a collection of personal craft essays by living Black playwrights about the non-living Black playwrights that live on in their work. For this series, we commissioned playwrights to pick one play by a non-living Black playwright and write about how this play impacted their artistry. The essays in this round are written by Vivian J.O. Barnes, Gethsemane Herron-Coward, Nathan Alan Davis, Donnetta Lavinia Grays, and Dave Harris.
I’ve been thinking about an essay series like this for years. There is a profound lack of writing by playwrights about other playwrights, and an even greater lack of playwrights writing about themselves. How our work came to be. Who we read that opened a door for us. This task does not need to be left to history because history will do it wrong. I can think of so many plays by Black playwrights that I was never taught on a syllabus, but when I finally found them, I felt a new awakening, and a new permission to be the playwright I wanted to be.
It’s staggering to engage with canon and witness how precedented all of our work is. Even the mission of Roundabout’s Refocus Project is preceded by organizations like CLASSIX and Project1Voice, who have been interrogating and shedding light on the understudied Black canon for years.
There is so much more to know. To arrive at any of it now is still to arrive late.
The hope here is to build a collection of multivocal personal essays that allow us to interrogate our own work with the help of a Black playwright who maybe saw us before we saw ourselves. An archive, a collection that draws meaning and lineage between playwrights who could not know each other. To give playwrights the chance to beautifully tribute themselves and their predecessors. This series is about ancestry, sure, but it’s also not. It’s about contemporariness. Ancestry implies distance. Black History was yesterday. And when death is done with us, there is only the language we leave behind.
These essays do not exist to convince you that these plays are worthy. They exist simply to say that Black playwrights built a temple in which we are all standing.
And the temple is never done.
Donnetta Lavinia Grays
On Wedding Band: A Love/Hate Story in Black and White by Alice Childress.
On Truth, Accountability, Rigor and Forgiveness in Wine in the Wilderness by Alice Childress.