Fort Worth — This weekend, Jubilee Theatre in Fort Worth opens its 39th season with Lisa B. Thompson’s dramatic comedy Single Black Female — the first full season programmed by artistic director D. Wambui Richardson. It is a conversation between two strong black females about their experiences in a society preconditioned to view them negatively through stereotypical images. Each actress assumes different characters throughout the play, some male, some female. Thompson has avoided ordinariness with this script through a disarming level of complexity and a too-infrequently-seen glimpse of independent, professional intelligent black female characters.
To shepherd this strongly voiced piece, Jubilee wisely tapped vickie washington, one of the DFW region’s elite directors. Washington’s directorial skills nestle on top of a solid and critically acclaimed acting career on stage and film. She is one of the busiest and most consistently working directors in North Texas. When not directing or performing, washington can be found working to advance the cause of social justice which includes initiatives to engage more people in the voting process.
She is the founder and producing director of RTW: Reading the Writers, a readers’ theatre organization. Her commitment to the intellectual growth of young people has been nurtured through teaching and directing at the Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Dallas. She speaks with pride of the work of former BTWHSPVA students such as playwrights Jonathan Norton and Tyler English Beckwith as they forge their own space for the stories of the black experience. For washington, theatre provides an opportunity to explore and enlighten audiences about the stories which represent the African Diaspora. The arts and activist bugs also spread throughout her family: Her son Djoré Nance is a local musician, actor and director; and her son Terence Nance is a filmmaker who created HBO's Peabody Award-winning Random Acts of Flyness, the second season of which is coming in 2020.
Knowing Washington to be a discriminating director regarding the pieces she takes on, we wanted to know what appealed to her about this work at this time, and to gain some insight into her interpretation of the story. Jubilee's cast features Cherie Williams as SBF1 and Naeaidria Callihan as SBF2.
TheaterJones: You are opening the season for Jubilee with this play.
vickie washington: I really like working for Jubilee because I deeply value the necessity and purpose of black theatre. Jubilee is the oldest continuously producing black theatre in north Texas and the second oldest in the state behind The Ensemble Theatre in Houston, which was founded by George Hawkins. There are so many good things about Jubilee, which Rudy and Marian Eastman founded. You can still feel his presence, or at least I can, and it is important that we keep that institution, our institutions going. It is difficult, however, to sustain them for a variety of reasons.
Our stories need to be told. Our institutions exist to tell our stories in the most excellent way possible. This matters. I think it is a responsibility to do what I can do to help this institution thrive. For this historical theatre, the oldest and only professional theatre in North Texas with a mission is to give voice to the African-American experience, to be situated in a metropolitan downtown area is incredible. It is truly a jewel in the middle of Fort Worth.
What was your introduction or first experience with Single Black Female?
I knew of the play but had not yet read it until my friend, Angela Ards who at the time was a professor of English at Southern Methodist University (SMU), brought it to my attention. Angela was creating a piece on biography in black theatre. Another connection to the play came to me through one of my former students who is now an emerging playwright, Tyler English Beckwith. She studied with Lisa B. Thompson at the University of Texas at Austin (UT).
The thing that attracts me to the play is that it is a piece about black women. We too often hear so many negative things about black females in general and single black females specifically. Thompson says in the prologue this is about middle-class black females who are single.
I like the format. It is a well-written comedic piece. In many ways it’s like a viewfinder. You have to click the slots of images and moments. Actors have to hit in the middle of it. They do not have time to ease into the essence of the character. In scene two, within a page or so, SBF1 plays three or four different characters. It moves quickly, giving us snapshots of a black woman’s life.
Everybody knows a single black female. Either they are one, or they know someone. It might be a relative, or it could be your teacher, or your server at the restaurant. The quick pace of the play and the subject matter touch on a journey which tells us who they are from the one with a ticking biological clock to all the other things people navigate which become the subject matter of their lives.
How important is place?
I don’t think it’s that important. It is set in New York City. The playwright has really captured the experiences of this demographic she is talking about. I think those New York City experiences are very similar to people everywhere, wherever you are. Women in Dallas understand or have experienced men catcalling or whistling at them as they pass by. People here understand the desire to buy things we might not be able to afford. Retail therapy resonates across the board, not just in New York City.
Do you think the men are invisible characters in the play?
We make them very present. There are so many wonderful moments where the women are re-enacting their encounters with men. However, the story is that of the women. The fact that black women are telling this story and including their interactions with black men makes the men visible but does not change the fact that this is the women’s story. All of the men these women talk about are black.
Let’s start with the fact that black women raised black men. They either raised them, were fathered by them, or were in a relationship with them.
Thompson includes these moments because these are the relationships which matter. Whistling on the street is not a relationship. But all of that plus the relationships, factor into who these women really are. SBF1 is not trying to get married while SBF2 is freaking about her biological clock.
If you could speak directly to a prospective audience, which is actually what you are doing through this conversation, what else would you want to say to them?
Don’t be scared. Jubilee is an intimate space so the characters are up close and personal, which can sound a little frightening for people accustomed to large venues with more space between the playing area and the audience. There’s a lot of laugh-out-loud humor in the play — it’s a comedy. So, don’t be scared to come and go on this ride with these women.