In 1959, Lorraine Vivian Hansberry became the first African American woman to have a Broadway production of her work. A Raisin in the Sun, named for a line in the Langston Hughes poem Harlem, debuted on Broadway in 1959, just six years before her death in 1965 at the age of 34. An artist/activist, Hansberry’s life and body of work served as the inspiration for The Hansberry Project, a professional Black theatre company dedicated to the artistic exploration of African American life, history, and culture, co-founded by Valerie Curtis-Newton in 2004.
It’s worth noting that sixty-two years after Raisin opened, seven new productions by Black playwrights will debut on Broadway this season.* Perhaps this signals a shift on the Great White Way. Broadway notwithstanding, there are local, regional and national stories to be told by countless Black theatre-makers, and there is a powerhouse in our midst doing the work to pave the way.
Valerie Curtis-Newton is a Black theatre artist, activist, playwright, director, educator, and mentor. Having led The Hansberry Project through 20 productions and co-productions, as well as premieres of new works by African American writers, she is an acclaimed theatre leader who is also responsible for preparing hundreds of students for careers in theatre as the Head of Directing at the University of Washington. Her list of directing credits span across the US at regional theaters in Kentucky, California, New York, Minnesota, North Carolina, Alabama, and beyond. Her accomplishments are many and there will always be space to sing her praises and give appreciation for the role she has played in keeping the voices of Black theatre artists audible, and for bringing new life to forgotten gems.
We are so honored that Valerie agreed to a brief Q & A to help us shine a bright light on her and her work for the July ARTE NOIR Spotlight:
How did you first get involved with theatre and how did your initial experience lead the way to where you are now in your career?
I got dragged to an audition in my freshman year of college. I did not get cast but got connected to the theater department and found a kind of community. After graduation my aunt connected me with the Operation PUSH Performing Ensemble and I was with them for 11 years before moving to Seattle for grad school. Again, another community. Community has been very important to an Air Force kid like me.
You teach a course at the University of Washington called “Resilience and the Creative Process: Courage, Optimism, and Creativity.” What does resilience mean to you as a Black woman and as an artist/educator/activist? Why is resilience so important in art?
Resilience is like jazz. Repetition with change. It is the ability to learn from every attempt and to keep attempting. Mandela said, “I never lose. I either win or I learn.” Losing is not final; it represents the opportunity to try again with more knowledge than you had last time. It is the essence of art. Overcoming our fear of failure – even momentarily - sets the stage for success.
The pilot program you co-founded with Jamil Jude, Artistic Director of Kenny Leon's True Colors Theatre, called The Drinking Gourd: Black Writers at Work, launched this year. Please tell us more about this program, its inspiration, and what you are looking forward to achieving as it continues?
The Drinking Gourd: Black Writers at Work is a multi-year project that ultimately seeks to create a coalition of five Black theatres. Hansberry Project and True Colors piloted the program in 2021, with each presenting readings of four plays. The vision over time is for all five member theatres to produce staged workshops and readings, creating a pipeline of new works for eventual full productions. We are working on the 2022 lineup right now. This project has the potential to add new Black plays to the theatre ecology through a rolling process of commissions, readings and workshops, and productions. The Black artists engaged in The Drinking Gourd will have an unprecedented opportunity to work with a number of producing theatres serving different communities of color across the country.
You have said that empathy is a keystone to your work. Please speak more on that.
Theatre is one of the few places where we are called to embrace the feelings and experiences of others. I believe this and have seen it happen repeatedly over time. We actually expect to “feel” at the theatre. If it is doing its work – empathy is a given.
Having just received the University of Washington Faculty Lecture Award, an honor that is part of UW’s Awards of Excellence program for outstanding faculty, staff, students, and alumni whose achievements exemplify the University’s mission, what does this recognition mean to you personally and professionally? How does this award enhance the recognition you have received previously for your artistic excellence?
I have to say that it was a complete surprise. Ana Mari Cauce just called me up out of the blue. Of course, it is always nice to be seen. And to be acknowledged for both my teaching and my research is truly special. I’ve really just been trying to do my work. I think that if you can do that things will add up over time. I’m not actively working for the accolades. I’m just doing my work. I’m always surprised when recognitions come my way.
With the recent developments around Nikole Hannah-Jones’ denial of tenure at UNC and the development of a funded journalism program that she (and Ta-Nehisi Coates) will lead at Howard University, what are your thoughts about the challenges of Black professionals in white-led institutions of higher learning, and the opportunities that may exist for these professionals in institutions designed specifically to serve the Black community?
I have always gained strength from the Black community. It is wonderful to teach Black students. To have our work and history honored and respected is a great gift. And I have also long been convinced that the work of eliminating racism is the work of the white community. We have to be ready to bring our whole selves into those environments. We have to stand our ground. There is a letter out there from Howard Faculty, asking Nikole Hannah-Jones to side with the faculty concerns of her new home. Cornel West just resigned from Harvard. Most institutions are not truly made for people.
What are you currently inspired by and how are you taking that inspiration into your work?
I’m inspired by generators – folks who create things from nothing. I made the decision a couple of years ago to look toward writing and devising as a bigger part of my next chapter. As soon as I started to be more clear about that piece of my artistic identity, opportunities began to find me. I’ve now got 2 commissions and 3 additional projects on my plate. In many ways, this phase reminds me of my youth and what it meant to get bold about making things happen. In theatre we often use the phrase: “beginner’s mind”. How do we gain knowledge and still be open to risk-taking and surprise? I want to awaken my beginner’s mind.
How do you envision the future of Black Theatre in the United States, particularly post-COVID and after such a tumultuous year for race relations?
There is a lot of attention on us right now. Lots of people are trying to get in on the idea of adding Black voices to their institutions. Finding our way to having our own institutions AND making sure that we get our fair share of the money currently in the sector will be our biggest institutional challenge. We have to be more in control of our own destiny. And just like it is in academia, folks working inside PWIs (Predominantly White Institutions) will need strong support systems. The real test for us will be when the spotlight fades. How will we stay the course? Getting started is not and never has been our problem. We hit the wall at creating institutions.
Do you have a question you wish someone would ask you but hasn’t? What do you want to share with the world?
I do not have an unasked question - people seem to like asking me stuff! I believe that achieving one’s full potential is the definition of Heaven. Creating the conditions for those around me is the purpose of community. Theatre is a metaphor for this journey. One has to take care of their scene partner if the story is going to work...if it is going to be lifted up to the level of art. Otherwise, we are all just trying to hog the spotlight. Nothing more boring to watch, ever!
*Among the plays premiering on Broadway this season is Alice Childress’ Trouble In Mind, directed by Valerie in 2013 at Intiman Theatre and 2016 at The Guthrie. Check out the list of upcoming Broadway productions by Black playwrights here!