The Ford’s Theatre Legacy Commissions
Ford’s Theatre presents a new artistic initiative for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) playwrights that will broaden the American theatre canon. Established in 2021, with first workshops in 2023, the Ford’s Theatre Legacy Commissions serves as an artistic incubator for stories about social justice and racial history and explores the varied experiences of underrepresented characters and lesser-known historical figures, including unsung heroes responsible for changing the course of civil rights and equality in American life.
The Commissions process will include extensive development, encompassing first readings, developmental workshops and world premiere productions within the next decade. The Commissions initiative is led by Ford’s Theatre Senior Artistic Advisor Sheldon Epps, Director of Artistic Programming José Carrasquillo and The Ford’s Theatre Legacy Commissions Advisor Sydné Mahone.
Playwrights Pearl Cleage, Rickerby Hinds, Nambi E. Kelley, Dominic Taylor and Charlayne Woodard comprise the inaugural writers of The Ford’s Theatre Legacy Commissions.
“Our aim is to provide ground-level support for writers to do their best. It’s been important to create that kind of positive, even nurturing environment to encourage the work. We want the writers to feel supported, honored, and respected throughout this process.”Sheldon Epps, Ford’s Theatre Senior Artistic Advisor
The Ford’s Theatre Legacy Commissions: A First Look
In its second year, the 2024 edition of A First Look will workshop two new commissions by renowned playwrights Charlayne Woodard and Nambi E. Kelley. The workshops culminate in free public readings and post-reading discussions with the creative team.
Nambi E. Kelley
Nambi E. Kelley is an actress and playwright with an extensive résumé in the United States and internationally. Most recently she appeared in the lead role of Dominique Morisseau’s Pipeline (City Theatre) and the off-Broadway production of Kunstler (59 E. 59). Her television credits include Elementary, Person of Interest, Madam Secretary, Chicago PD and Chicago Justice. Kelley is a former playwright-in-residence at the National Black Theatre and the Goodman Theatre. She is a former Dramatists Guild Fellow. Kelley is recipient of the 2020 National New Play Network annual commission, the Prince Prize (2019) and a Dramatists Guild Foundation Writers Alliance Grant (2018-19). She was chosen by Toni Morrison to adapt Morrison’s Jazz, which premiered at Baltimore Center Stage in 2017. Kelley’s adaptation of Richard Wright’s Native Son (Sam French) premiered off-Broadway at The Duke on 42nd Street (The Acting Company; AUDELCO Award for Best Play). She is currently developing a Broadway-aspiring play about Dr. Maya Angelou and is a writer on Showtime’s The Chi.
Commission: Workshop, Title TBD – January 2024
A Word from Nambi: “With this current now being such a pivotal moment in American history, it is exciting to be a part of a cohort of nationally renowned artists creating work that is historical in nature that is responding specifically to the now. The Lincoln Legacy Commissions process is valuable because of the excitement of the institution with the story I want to tell. It is so wonderful and refreshing to be engaged with a theatre that truly centers the generative artists’ vision and builds the time, resources and artistry around what the artist truly needs to create.” – Nambi E. Kelley
Charlayne Woodard is an American playwright and actress. Woodard’s two-character play, The Garden, commissioned by the La Jolla Playhouse, has upcoming productions in 2021 at both Baltimore Center Stage (summer) and La Jolla Playhouse (fall). Woodard’s solo plays, which she has originated to great acclaim, include Pretty Fire, Neat, In Real Life and The Night Watcher. Her plays are published by Dramatists Play Service and performed at regional theatres around the country. Audio versions are available at Audible.com. As an actress, Woodard has extensive film, television and theatre credits, including playing the role of Kate in The Taming of the Shrew at the Shakespeare Theatre Company (2007).
Commission: Workshop, Title TBD – January 2024
A Word from Charlayne: “The Lincoln Legacy Commissions provide playwrights like me with the support and tools to discover extraordinary Black Americans whose stories have never been told. All too often their lives and accomplishments have been ignored, buried or simply forgotten. Instead of being celebrated, history has passed them by. Our mission is to create plays that immortalize these men and women and become part of the American canon—in which people of color have long-gone woefully underrepresented.” – Charlayne Woodard
Pearl Cleage is a playwright, novelist, poet and political activist. Cleage’s plays and novels deal with themes of racism, sexism and feminism. Her plays, novels, poems and essays have been anthologized and are the subject of scholarly analysis. Her best-known plays, Flying West (1992) and Blues for an Alabama Sky (1995), have been performed in regional theatres across the United States. In 1996, Blues for an Alabama Sky was performed during the Atlanta Summer Olympic Games as part of the Cultural Olympiad. She is the Playwright in Residence at Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre.
Commission: Something Moving: A Meditation on Maynard, Workshop – February 2023, Production – September-October 2023
A Word from Pearl: “As a playwright and as a citizen, I want to create work that expands our idea of American history by telling the stories I know as an African American woman living and working in Atlanta, Georgia. I am particularly interested in the last 50 years of our city’s racial history and the ways in which we who live and work and walk our dogs on former Civil War battlefields are still surrounded by the ghosts of that conflict. There is no more appropriate place to consider these questions than Ford’s Theatre, where President Lincoln’s blood was actually shed on April 14, 1865.” – Pearl Cleage
Rickerby Hinds is a pioneer of Hip-Hop Theater. His work has been developed at the Mark Taper Forum, Bay Area Playwrights Festival, The Royal Court Theatre in London and The Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where he presented Blackballin’ (2008), the first hip-hop play in their history. His play Dreamscape (2016) became the recipient of multiple theatre accolades in the Los Angeles area. Hinds’ plays have toured Romania, Poland, Austria, Hungary and Turkey. Hinds completed a Fulbright Fellowship in his native Honduras in 2016. He serves as chair of the Department of Theater, Film and Digital Production at the University of California, Riverside, and is the founding director of Riverside Studios.
Commission: Blackbox, Workshop – February 2023
A Word from Rickerby: “We are living in a time when the scab that hid the truth about American race relations has been ripped off and the resulting pain, along with the potential for healing, has been exposed. To be asked to write a play that can become part of the zeitgeist of this time is truly an incredible honor for someone whose work has been addressing this issue from the moment I began writing for the stage.” – Rickerby Hinds
Dominic Taylor is a scholar of African American theatre and a writer-director whose work has been seen across the country. His play I Wish You Love premiered at Penumbra Theatre and was produced at both The Kennedy Center and Hartford Stage in 2012. His play Hype Hero was developed at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center in Waterford, Conn., and was produced at Brown University in fall 2014. The Goodman Theatre, Steppenwolf Theatre, Ensemble Studio Theatre and New York Theatre Workshop have all commissioned Taylor’s writing. Taylor is a professor at UCLA in both the Department of African American Studies and the Department of Theatre. He is former associate artistic director of Penumbra Theatre Company in St. Paul, MN.
Commission: Young and Just, Workshop – February 2023
A Testimonial from Dominic: “I think it’s good that that the Legacy Commissions calls BIPOC artists in to make stuff. Everybody knows America has stories to tell. What the Legacy Commissions allow us to do is reposition America by telling the complex stories that are American stories. And complexity can be challenging, and it can be disheartening, but the complex stories are how we make the world better overall. W.E.B. DuBois said the function of art is to use beauty to set the world right. And it’s really a challenging thing to do, but I think that’s what we’re trying to do.” – Dominic Taylor
Something Moving: A Meditation on Maynard
by Pearl Cleage; Directed by Seema Sueko
Pearl Cleage’s commission explores the election of Maynard Jackson, Atlanta’s first Black mayor, and his legacy. In choosing to tell the story of the 1973 landmark election, we are introduced to everyday-life citizens of Atlanta as they recollect the significance of the election. In playing homage to Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, Cleage has turned the city of Atlanta into a full-blooded character.
In Pearl’s own words:
This play is set on the 50th anniversary of Maynard Jackson’s election as Atlanta’s, first African American mayor. That election also made him the first African American mayor of a major Southern City. The play nods to Thornton Wilder’s classic Our Town by employing the use of a Stage Manager to guide us through the story and give us some insight into how it felt to be present at that historic moment.
To understand Jackson’s national significance demands a look back at the history of race and class in Atlanta (and throughout the South) beginning with the arrival of the first ships filled with the people who were called slaves, continuing through the Civil War, Reconstruction, the Civil Rights Movement, and finally, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, 110 years after Lee surrendered at the Appomattox Court House. In the sense that voting was finally proof of full citizenship for African American people, Jackson’s election marks the real end of the Civil War.
The whole city was deeply affected, politically and emotionally, by Jackson’s election and everyone participated, either by choice or simply because they were unable to stand against the flow of history.
With Maynard at the center of the story to “give people something to hold onto,” the play is also a testimonial to the importance of including the personal story in the telling of the “hero’s tale.” The play makes a case for the power of our collective memory. Amiri Baraka wrote “if the beautyful see themselves/they will love themselves.” I believe that, too, so this play is a mirror as well as a meditation; a memory of a moment when our town was “wholly human, and that was enough.”
by Rickerby Hinds; Directed by Thomas DeFrantz
Rickerby Hinds’ commission explores the remarkable life of abolitionist Henry Box Brown who was also a magician and illusionist. In 1849, he arranged to have himself mailed in a wooden crate from Virginia to abolitionists contacts in Philadelphia. Considered a theatre pioneer in merging hip-hop and theatre, Hinds transforms his story into an epic poem with hip hop influences and magic to highlighting the spectacular nature of Brown’s journey to freedom. Later in his life Henry Brown became a noted abolitionist speaker and went on to earn a living as a touring magician.
*Blackbox’s play development has taken place by generous support from CalArts.
In Rickerby’s own words:
Blackbox takes the narrative of Henry Box Brown and transforms it into an epic poem with hip-hop influences… and magic. The story is told by a Magician and his Assistant/Spirit Presence whose magic show takes place in the see-through box that is the stage where the remains for the entirety of the performance until Henry “magically” disappears from enslavement and reappears free. A re-envisioning of the box in which Henry spent 27 hours on his way to freedom. This premise allows me to address some of the horrors of Henry’s life in a ‘spectacular’ way.
The dialogue in Blackbox will take multiple forms: spoken word poetry, black minister’s sermon, politicians stump speech, academic lecture, sports announcer, rapper. The different vocal styles will be dictated by what’s being said.
Movement will play a significant role in Blackbox as Henry will employ movement from TURF Dance to Butoh to convey the atrocities of the institution of American Chattel Slavery imposed on the Africans who were imported and bred for servitude to evil slave masters for centuries.
Music and musicality will also play important roles in Blackbox based on Henry Brown’s having been a singer in his church choir. I intend to use music and the generation of melodic sounds as a means of creating levels of narrative. I see/hear the use of gospel music at various intervals as the church – the “slaveholding Christian church” played such a significant role in the life of Henry Brown.
Blackbox will employ magic throughout beginning with Henry’s “appearance” in the box at the start of his story and his disappearance at the end. In the show Henry performs feats of magic inspired by the events in his life. He makes flowers appear while talking about his evil master’s scheme to convince the children on his plantation whom he brutally enslaved, that he was God who made the thunder and brought the rain that watered his beautiful flowers. Money will catch fire and disappear out of Henry’s hands as he tells the story of how he was cheated out of so much money by the evil master who “owned” and eventually sold his wife Nancy.
Young and Just
by Dominic Taylor; Directed by Donald Douglass
Dominic Taylor’s commission explores the life and work of African American pioneer biologist Dr. Ernest Everett Just and that of his lead researcher Dr. Roger Arliner Young. Taylor’s investigation into the life and scientific achievements of Dr. Just – known as the Black Apollo of Science, led him to Dr. Just’s association with another scientist, Dr. Young. This character driven account highlights Taylor’s revelatory and insightful storytelling.
In Dominic’s own words:
I discovered Dr. Ernest Everett Just because my sister went to Dartmouth College, and I knew he was the first Black graduate there. I also knew he was a scientist, underappreciated and on a postage stamp. I wanted to bring his story to light, and when I was researching Dr. Just, I found out about Dr. Roger Arliner Young—a woman who went to Howard to study music found her true calling with a microscope.
She was the first Black woman to gain a Ph.D. in the Sciences from the University of Pennsylvania. On the side she was a labor organizer. This play is their story.