This week, the Department of Africana Studies is presenting the Black Lavender Experience, a festival of work by black queer playwrights. With four days of performances, staged readings and discussions, the festival aims to give exposure to a group whose voices are often underrepresented in national discussions of sexuality.
“The Black Lavender Experience has given us the ability to gain an insight into an often overlooked and often marginalized and an often discriminated-against aspect of African diasporic peoples and of our sexuality,” said Corey Walker, chair of the department.
Elmo Terry-Morgan ’74, associate professor of Africana studies, explained that black queer playwrights often have difficulty finding venues because they “can’t even rely upon the traditional black playhouses to do their work.”
The Africana studies department, with its 40-year-old theater company, has facilitated the growth of black queer theater in the United States, introducing emerging playwrights to veterans of the field, showcasing work that rarely gets performed and helping bring together a scattered community, Terry-Morgan said.
Terry-Morgan began to search for black queer playwrights in 1998 in response to the requests of many of his students. At first, he was not sure any of these artists existed. “I had no idea if we could even find anything,” he said.
He was able to create the only course in the country that specifically examines black queer theater. Despite under-enrollment problems, he said he has kept the course alive over the past 15 years because of his conviction that black queer voices need to be heard.
Three years ago, Terry-Morgan began to consider the possibility of a festival specifically devoted to black queer theater. “I was very pessimistic because I didn’t think I could get financial resources,” he said. “I didn’t know if I could get support from Africana studies.” But Terry-Morgan received encouragement from his colleagues, and now the Black Lavender Experience is in its fourth year.
Wednesday night, the festival opened with solo performances by two queer people of color. D’Lo, dressed in black high-tops, a do-rag and a gray baseball cap, joked about his traditional Sri Lankan parents and the difficult experience of coming out as a lesbian and then as a transman. In a touching scene, D’Lo donned lipstick and a sari, impersonating his own mother. The mother character expressed disappointment with her daughter’s development and teared up at the thought that she would never have grandchildren.
D’Lo was followed by Q-Roc – a nickname that stands for “Queer rocks!” – a mohawked actor who played ten different characters with energy and enthusiasm. Q’Roc’s story revolved around “Bulldog Jean,” a butch lesbian who searches for love in the 1920s rural South. In a pivotal scene, Bulldog Jean attends the wedding ceremony of the woman she loves. “You are settled in the depths of me,” she cries out for all the wedding guests to hear. “It don’t matter where you go, who you with, or what you do. You is mine!”
D’Lo and Q-Roc earned laughs and standing ovations from the crowd.
“I thought it was really interesting to see the black gay experience,” said Colin Blake ’15. “At Brown, you can meet so many different people and hear so many different voices,” he added.
Wednesday night brought Black Lavender a small but lively crowd, including a large contingent from Youth Pride, Rhode Island’s LGBTQ youth organization. Karen Baxter, managing director of the Africana studies department’s Rites and Reason theater, said she expects stronger attendance at subsequent events. “This year, we’ve really done a big push in the community,” Baxter said.
Through video conferencing, students from Tougaloo College in the Mississippi heartland are able to take part in all Black Lavender events. Tougaloo, a historically black college, has shared an academic partnership with Brown since the Civil Rights era. Tougaloo students are able to view the Black Lavender Experience from a classroom and ask questions after each event.
At Thursday’s keynote address, Baxter read a thank-you email from a Tougaloo professor that said students and teachers were “reduced to tears” after the first night of performances. “We stayed around and talked afterwards,” the email read. “It was the first open discussion of sexuality at Tougaloo at a school-sponsored event.”
“We have to deal with stereotypes that are not apparent in other states,” added a Tougaloo student in a question-and-answer session after the address.
Today, the festival kicks off at noon with a student performance of “dyke and warrior prayers.” Writer and director Sharon Bridgforth said the piece is “a soul’s journey to learn to love.” It features three singers and dancers, and in his course syllabus, Terry-Morgan calls it “a ritual, abstract, affirmation of black lesbian identity.”
At 7 p.m., the Black Lavender Experience presents a staged reading of “All Who Have Sinned,” written by Jamila Woods ’11 when she was in Terry-Morgan’s class. According to Woods, it is the story of a gay teenage boy, who is forced to undergo a religious exorcism following the discovery of his identity.
The Black Lavender Experience hosts its first movie Saturday – the last day of the festival – at the Cable Car Cinema. Free to festival attendees, “Pariah” is the coming-out tale of a 17-year-old black lesbian in Brooklyn. The film won the 2011 Excellence in Cinematography award at Sundance Film Festival. The post-movie discussion will be attended by producer Nekisa Cooper, and the film will continue to be shown through Monday.
The festival wraps up with a staged reading by Ntare Mwine, best known for playing the character Jacques in HBO’s “Treme” series. “A Missionary Position” is Mwine’s one-man show, described in the program as “a searing response to the homophobia now gripping Uganda.”
Bridgforth said the structure of the festival enables black queer playwrights to form a community and get to know one another. “You get to really, really spend time with people and have deep conversations,” Bridgforth said. “It’s one of my favorite events.”