by Leslie M. Scott-Jones
Ass. Curator of Education & Public Programs
Jefferson School African American Heritage Center
Five years ago, as what was called The Summer of Hate began, I wasn’t sitting in the space I am now. In 2017, like most Black folx, I was thrust into the middle of a societal crisis moment. My art came with me. The structure that I had used in order to create art had been baked into me since I was a teenager. There’s nothing wrong with it, and until that summer it had served me well. It had been the only way I knew and even when it was restrictive and unforgiving – even when it didn’t make sense to me- I used it. On the evening of August 14, 2017 at 7 p.m. I stood in front of a room of Black men and women that had walked the streets of their town in defiance of white supremacy. I stood in front of them, knowing that they did not want to be there. Knowing that they had healing they needed to do. Knowing that none of us were particularly excited to be in a room full of people at all. Myself included. Yet there I stood, all of them looking at me to give them a reason to be there. All I could think about was how all of the actions taken against us were based in the belief that we were somehow less than human. All I wanted to do was continue to show that Black people were not an accident. That we were, in fact, divine. “This is no longer about doing a play,” I said, “This is about proving that we are human.” Those two sentences started me on a journey that has been more satisfying and exhilarating than I could’ve hoped for.
Charlottesville Players Guild began as the Dramatic Club of The Jefferson School. In 2016, after gaining permission from one of the original founders, we revived the name and the organization. We began a project to produce all ten of August Wilson’s American Century Cycle. Of course, in 2019 we were derailed by a global pandemic. While we did not abandon our project, we postponed it until we could come back to in person performances. In that virtual year, we produced five shows all written by Black playwrights from Charlottesville. We pulled on actors from as far away as California. One artist that joined us during that season is on Broadway starring in For Colored Girls… by Ntozake Shange. Last season something else changed. It became more about what Black artists had to say (or not say) and who they wanted to say it to. The true spirit of Wilson’s work was revealed. The true genius of his construction, and the intricate and layered work became illuminated by a new light. I began reading. I had conversations and questions. I looked to my mentors for answers and found more questions. The shift that started on that fateful weekend, birthed a new direction.
After this time of searching, I found an answer I had been looking for, possibly all my life. A way to engage with theatrical practice divorced from what we normally think of as traditional theatre. The Africana Perspective offers Black artists a new way of entering the art, the work, the world. It’s a change that opened doors I never knew existed. A change that shaped everything that has come after it. It is a process which demands critical thinking and interrogation of information given to you. It demands that you ask questions which you may never have the answers to. It demands that you embrace the concept of duality, how that works within the human psyche and how it plays out in our world. Most importantly it favors story and revelation over plot and achieving the answer. It reinforces the continuous cycle of transformation we all should be going through as we change and grow. This is the heart of creation and therefore the foundation with which the Black aesthetic is built.
Five years later, after A11 & 12, after Jitney and Gem of the Ocean, after a shutdown of the world and the We See You White American Theatre Movement, there are still questions. There is still work to be done for true conciliation and repair to occur. Theatrical organizations need to realize that the issues they have just discovered about themselves will take time and work to solve. Equally realizing that there may never be a solution, as they are (as we all are) fruits of the poisoned tree of this society built on white supremacist ideology. However, the Charlottesville Players Guild has found a direction that feels more like home. CPG has begun to carve out an ideology of its own, as divorced as it can be from the theatrical perspective that has historically chained Black artists. As the guild grows, so will the perspective and the practice. It has to, because it’s all about transformation. We may never get to take that specific bow. But we will continue to play, learn and transform. James Baldwin once said, “It took many years of vomiting up all the filth I’d been taught about myself, and half believed, before I was able to walk on the earth as though I had a right to be here.” This is our journey, constantly and consistently.