The Conciliation Lab's "Blacklist:" Theatre to Teach, Preach, and Create Change
On a warm Saturday night in Richmond, the block of 300 East Broad Street was relatively quiet. Only after stepping down a narrow flight of concrete stairs and through a blue wooden door did commotion begin to rise.
A low-ceiling, deeply expansive room – aptly named “The Basement” – beamed with anticipatory energy. Show directors mingled with attendees, who double as real-life friends. Cast members received last-minute wishes from producers and patrons alike. Under the blueish-purple stage lights, a crowd of around forty people gathered to watch BlackList: a Celebration of Black Voices in American Theatre.
This is the first presentation produced by the newly joint organization: The Conciliation Lab.
In the summer of 2020, amid protests against widespread police brutality, TheatreLab – the organization in ownership of The Basement – became a safety hub for protesters and activists during demonstrations. The Conciliation Project – a Richmond-based theatre company with a focus on racial equity – amped up efforts to continue interacting with the community through workshops, forums, and lectures. Faced with the age-old work of advocacy in a contemporary landscape post-COVID, the two organizations decided to merge.
Upon introducing the show, company artist and BlackList co-creator Mary Shaw said, “It started as a conversation.” One that would soon make way for underrepresented artists across Richmond.
Co-artistic director Deejay Gray welcomed the audience to the “former home of TheatreLab” and, looking to his right at other co-artistic director Dr. Tawnya Pettiford-Wates, “now current home of The Conciliation Lab”.
Being their first production, BlackList held significant weight for the team. Moreover, after a tumultuous year of violence, Dr. Pettiford-Wates expressed her honor in helping bring a collection of iconic Black literature to life. “[We] use theatre to teach, preach, and change,” she stated.
“A story is impelled by the necessity to reveal…This also means that a story resolves nothing.” The show began with essays from author James Baldwin. Actor Dylan Jones delivered excerpts from The Fire Next Time and The Devil Finds Work.
At this, the crowd snapped and hummed – a call back to the small, intimate poetry nights of the 90's. And, indeed, the night was more than poetic.
Katrinah Carol Lewis, award-winning actor and artistic director for Virginia Repertory Theatre, called it an emotional experience. “As Black people, we’ve been saying ‘We can’t breathe ,'‘Let us breath. ’ Being in an artistic space, we can just breathe together.”
Activists of color have been holding their breath for so long, coming into a space where laughter, gasps, and tears are shared, often simultaneously, she says “there’s something transcending about that”.
Black playwrights, ranging from Lorainne Hansberry to August Wilson, headlined the ten-act show. Each act stitched together with musical segues by Black musicians such as Nina Simone and Kendrick Lamar. Such a holistic approach to all-things Black art could not go unnoticed. It stood as a testament to the striving efforts of The Conciliation Lab team.
Shanea N. Taylor, BlackList director and board president for Heritage Ensemble Theatre Company, says she holds every organization responsible for uplifting Black voices. “It would be impossible not to be responsible. Any organization who is not fully embracing people of color is irresponsible,” she states.
During the pandemic, Taylor noted, “Everyone was writing equity statements. Some checked boxes, some poured into it.” After much enthusiasm died down, though, Taylor found that “…some reverted backwards, going back to doing white shows that sell tickets.” leaving many Black artists feeling deserted. “Black artists deserve an invitation to the table. [And] not just an invite to the table to say we were invited to the table.”
The show was a conversation. Each scene evoking as much external emotion as it did internal dialogue. Be it about colonialism, parenting, income inequality, or Black love. The actors’ interactions enthralled every audience member, especially those of color.
Sharalyn Garrard, artistic director of the Heritage Ensemble Theatre Company, knows well this newfound connection. Having worked in art since 1998, she recalls the pandemic being a time of unprecedented reckoning. “We were not going to let this continue,” she lamented. Thus, exploded a series of town hall meetings, virtual forums, and community conversations to bring on a long-awaited “whirlwind of inclusion."
The actors’ captivating performances continued with uncanny similarity to the award-winning artists who have embodied the roles previously. Even still, the passion in each scene was so raw it felt as if these scenes had never been done before. Looking around the audience, nodding heads waved through the crowd. Any fan of Black classical literature instantly recognized bits and pieces of the stories that touched their lives.
Before the show ended, Gray and Pettiford-Wates came out to address the audience once more. “We have to deconstruct whiteness at the center of everything,” Dr. Pettiford-Wates bellowed amidst applause. “Change is the only way to survive”.
Much of this change came in the form of an unconventional approach to community art. Pettiford-Wates described the Conciliation Lab’s forthgoing executive council: a six-member panel run by the co-chairs from the Youth Board, Governance Board, and Arts and Activism Board. “That word, inclusive, does not do what it’s supposed to do,” she argued. “In this city, people with no agency have been working for free.”
By doing anything to get a foot in the door, Pettiford-Wates finds “they’ve been taken advantage of.” In other words, artists of color have not and are not being paid. “Our actors will be paid equally. Contracts will be made equally… We’re talking about making this a reality, not a catchphrase on a website.”
The lights came back on in The Basement over a curtain call and a standing ovation. And scattered within that crowd sat the five directors – each one a Black woman, each one a talented artist in her own right.
Directing BlackList was not a first for any of them individually, but it was for them together. And with a new home under The Conciliation Lab, it certainly will not be the last.
Find more information about The Concilation Lab's upcoming season and concurrent projects at theconciliationlab.org.