Philadelphia’s Black theater scene is always strong and always inventive.
In one week, the city welcomes local actor-director Amina Robison tackling playwright Jocelyn Bioh’s comic ‘School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play’ at the Arden and Philly playwright James Ijames teaming with area director Jerrell L. Henderson for the former’s revelatory ‘Reverie’ through Azuka at the Drake.
For Robinson’s part, she says she was drawn to Bioh’s writing for its explosion of humor and poignancy.
“Bioh deals with such a nuanced and emotion fueled subject matter with carefully crafted dialogue that has me laughing out loud even when simply reading the words on the page,” says the director. “However, the subject matter and oftentimes her choice of words bite. She demonstrates true skill in navigating this style of writing.”
Bioh, a Ghanaian-American playwright famed for Broadway’s ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime’, writes of the experience of competition and tackles the challenges presented by Western white beauty aesthetics.
“’School Girls’ explores how the intrinsic value of Black people is lessened when continually metered against a yardstick of white beauty standards,” notes Robinson. “Particularly, we’re in 1986 Ghana dealing with colorism, here, but it also calls into question issues surrounding weight and hair texture, to name a few. Young people in America today can find themselves in these characters and this story because unfortunately, the yardstick has not been changed. This play begs the question, when will we decided that enough is enough? Such decisions, though, come with the work of dismantling white supremacist systems and centering cultures and standards of beauty that exist outside of its purview.”
Robinson, a Barrymore Award-winning theater artist, has directed in the past, and ‘School Girls’ is a perfect fit, as she loves to tackle plays that speak to various Black experiences. “Blackness is not monolithic. Stories like this one, which give us another look, a fresh perspective or take, and characters that are nuanced really excite me. I also like plays that exist on the cusp of naturalism and magic. Working on ‘School Girls’ presented a great opportunity for me to play with notions of realism and have a bit more fun.”
Azuka director Henderson recalls meeting Ijames in a joking way during auditions in 2006 by saying, “Philadelphia’s theater scene is small, its Black theater scene, even smaller,” before the playwright credits Azuka Theater for championing emerging artists. “Azuka gave me one of the first opportunities to hear and see my work staged with ‘By and By’…. And is pushing forward, as always, in being a more inclusive equitable space. Staging ‘Reverie’, as Black and Queer as it is, is a great example of Azuka continuing to do that work.”
A Philadelphia-based story touching on longing, love, loss and challenging family dynamics, ‘Reverie’ is but one more brilliant, inventive theater work from Ijames in a long career of innovative epics.
“My evolution… I think I’m always trying to disrupt the canon by taking things that are canonical and blowing them up,” says Ijames. “’By and By’ was my attempt at Arthur Miller and forced me to reassess what I wanted to say, and how I would say it. From that moment, I fought all impulse to mimic and have gone into wild places of my own – antebellum revenge plays, plays about the art world – all in an attempt to better understand how Blackness is better depicted on stage. That’s always there. Even when I did ‘By and By’, there was a Black family doing Black family things. I don’t get back to family, however, until ‘Fat Ham’ and even parts of ‘Reverie’.”
‘Reverie’ was written by Ijames after an image came to him, one of two men dancing, men not romantically involved. A fuller story materialized from that single image, one where a father sought redemption with a son who is deceased, with another young man having a light connection to the passed-on soul, and all of this being the very thing that each man needs.
“There is incredible hopefulness and delicate tenderness about human connectivity here, an intimacy between strangers,” notes Ijames.
“When a Philadelphia theater company calls you and says they have a Ijames play to read, you jump on it,” says Henderson with a laugh, knowing the power and reputation of the playwright’s work, his heightened language and his poetics. “Black playwrights are not afraid to break some rules, and Ijames’ is a quiet revolution. There are things that we encounter on stage in ‘Reverie’ that we haven’t seen on stage before, not only a story about Black life but Black Queer life. That’s important. There’s also a spirituality that runs through Reverie that feels like dancing and playing.”
Considering how Philadelphia stages are more equitable to Black voices – be it locals such as Ijames or the internationalist likes of Bioh— Robinson is happy to say that she is seeing more of such work in the area.
“I just hope it is not a fad, but genuine steps toward diversity,” she says. “I see diversity as removing the premium off of whiteness and simply seeing it as one of the many “centered ” views of the world that exist. This encompasses the value systems that abide in each as well. In doing this, we can more easily identify the intrinsic value and beauty that lives in the many diverse ways of being humans. As it relates to theater, this more naturally can lead toward producing the work of many voices and perspectives, not because the numbers are needed for “diversity,” but because the voices are valued and deemed necessary.”