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Richmond’s First Women’s Theatre Festival Puts Female Stories At Center Stage

Pamela Archer-Shaw performing in "Message From a Slave."
The first Women's Theatre Festival in Richmond includes actress Pamela Archer-Shaw performing in "Message From a Slave." Destiny Martinez

Two local theater companies have opened Richmond’s first  Women’s Theatre Festival celebrating stories of empowered female protagonists. TheatreLAB and 5th Wall Theatre present four rotating productions that celebrate the diversity and power of stories told by female voices. For  Virginia Currents, WCVE intern Evie King reports.


It's a Sunday afternoon, and actress Hailya Roberts is with costume designer Ruth Hedberg. They're trying to narrow down what Roberts will wear for the show "Pretty Fire."

Ruth Hedberg:  Do you want to go all black?

Joined by Director Carol Piersol, the women decide on a simple ensemble.

Carol Piersol:  Yeah. Let's do all black.

Piersol is artistic director of 5th Wall Theatre and co-creator of Richmond's first Women's Theatre Festival. She says when she began producing theatre over 20 years ago, women's voices were rarely featured on stage; that's why this project is important to her.

Piersol:  It's respecting women and giving them a strong role in our society and making them make a difference in the world, as opposed to being a secondary character in a play that revolves around men.

The festival is housed in Theatre Lab's basement black box stage, with each of the four plays performing in rep with one another over four weekends. Deejay Gray is artistic director of Theatre Lab and the festivals' other co-creator. Gray says his role is largely offering support from the side lines, as the only male among an all-female production team.

Deejay Gray:  They don't need me, but it can be a really great opportunity for folks to understand that you don't have to identify directly with something to support it.

The production team for Richmond’s first Women’s Theatre Festival has been rehearsing since February to bring four shows to life. (Photo: Destiny Martinez)

The four plays cover a range of stories told by female protagonists: from unfortunate dating anecdotes to one woman's history being enslaved.

Rehearsal:  Beautiful! Pretty fire…

The one woman show “Pretty Fire” was written by Charlayne Woodard in 1995. It’s an autobiographical piece about the playwright's childhood. The play depicts vignettes of Woodward experiencing discrimination and celebrating her African-American identity in the 1960s.

Haliya Roberts plays Charlayne Woodard's character as well as the 20 plus supporting roles.   

Haliya Roberts:  I saw a lot of women in my life, like my family, my grandmothers, my parents, and I connected with it in a way that I don't think I've ever connected with any piece that I've done this far in my career.

Wearing a simple all-black outfit, Roberts transforms from grandmother to granddaughter, child to adult, exchanging dialogue sequences with herself. Piersol says the fluid nature of the play demanded a simple design aesthetic.

Piersol:  We have one red bench. That's it. And she tells the stories.

Piersol says directing the show has brought to light her own ignorance of the prejudice faced daily by African-Americans. While working on a scene where a character is called the n-word, Piersol learned that Roberts had that same experience.  

Piersol:  And I went, “Really? Someone your age, in this day and age, was called that?” It opened my eyes that we as white people don't have any idea about the black experience. We can't know it all. We think we're not prejudice, we think we know, and we don't. We don't have a clue.

Roberts says the show speaks to racial division as both a historic and current obstacle for American audiences to consider.  

Piersol:  I think it humanizes the black experience, as an American experience.

William Gibson's " Golda's Balcony" is another play featured in the festival.

Sound From Rehearsal:  At the United Nations the Iraqi foreign minister shook his finger at me and shouted ‘Mrs. Mier, go home to Milwaukee!

Jacqueline Goldberg Jones travels around the stage as Golda Meir, Israel's first female prime minister. The play reflects on Meir’s life and the events leading up to her decision that guided the nation from the brink of nuclear warfare during the Yom Kippur war in 1973.

Jacqueline Goldberg Jones plays Golda Mier in “Golda’s Balcony.” (Photo: Destiny Martinez)

Director Debra Clinton says though the play is about feminism of a different time, certain themes hold true.  

Debra Clinton:  I think for women of a lot of generations, we have all always struggled with what we're supposed to be doing as women and what we feel we want to do as human beings, and what is the price that we pay for following our vision for what we want.

The female protagonist navigates the male-dominated political world, holding her own in leadership and determination.  

Clinton:  She's powerful in a time when women are not powerful. She's an anomaly.  

Jones and Clinton say the piece celebrates their talents as proud Jewish women and active artists in the Richmond theater scene.

Clinton:  We are the face of what is happening now. And some of us are older and some of us are younger and some of us come from the education world and some of us are professional, but we are the face, and I think there's a huge empowerment in that.

With tentative plans already in motion for next year, Piersol and Gray say they look forward to exploring new avenues for expanding the festival, with potentially larger casts and involving more community partners.  

Gray:  Art imitates life and vice versa, and so we want to be able to make sure that the festival is projecting what's happening in the world around us as well.

Actress Haliya Roberts says she's honored to be a part of Richmond's first women's theatre festival at a time when she says people are listening.

Roberts:  The time that we live in, I think is a great -- we're having a moment and an uprising, and a time when people have ears to hear women's stories.

The Women’s Theatre Festival runs through April 20 at Richmond’s TheaterLAB. For  Virginia Currents, I’m Evie King, WCVE News