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Providing resources, exposure and opportunity for Black Hoosier playwrights

"American history is Black history, and we all need to normalize our experiences with each other."
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Posted at 10:38 PM, Feb 01, 2023

INDIANAPOLIS — "Give us a chance. We have lots and lots of stories to tell if given the opportunity," said Gabrielle Patterson, playwright for "Your Love Will Be Judged."

Onyxfest is the first and only theater festival in Indiana exclusively for African American playwrights.

Taking playwright's vision from the page to the stage is the opportunity OnyxFest provides Black Hoosiers in theatre.

"It's a little bit of comedy, and it's a little bit of drama," said Patterson.

"My play is about two generations of Black women coming together," said Celeste Williams, playwright for "Black Is My Color."

"There's a deficit in Black storytelling. I'm excited at the opportunity that our stories are being told on every platform that they get told," said Patterson.

That African American theatre has faced that deficit since the 1920s - 30s during the Harlem Renaissance. It was a time when Black arts and culture flourished in the United States, but didn't always reach mainstream audiences.

A century later, there are more opportunities but challenges remain.

"Black actors within the city, we're all going to the same auditions and there's usually maybe one or two roles that we're auditioning for because there aren't a lot of Black stories being told," said Patterson. "We work a lot in February, and then a lot of the other times, it's more difficult."

Patterson and Williams were two of five playwrights selected for last year's Onyxfest.

"What made OnyxFest so attractive is that it respected the writers, respected the actors and everyone behind the scenes," said Williams.

"If you got a love for the game and can stick through the rough times, a lot of times the payoff is at the end," said Vernon Williams, Executive Director of Onyxfest.

Onyxfest began in 2011 and has been sponsored by the Africana Repertory Theater of IUPUI for the last four years.

Vernon said last year, they received 41 applications from playwrights. Those who are selected receive grants to cover every aspect of production.

"[The grant is] approximately $3,000, which allows them to pay the playwright, directors, assistant directors, stagehands, technicians, actors, even behind the scenes: makeup, wardrobe, set people. That is their budget to use discriminately," said Vernon.

Onyxfest also provides marketing, promotion and a venue. Last year, they saw a 63% increase in ticket sales and reaching an all-time high for audience attendance.

Those involved say the event is a game changer providing extended resources, exposure and respect that will help African American playwrights share their stories.

"This isn't just a problem in Indiana. This is across the country for Black actors and actors of color in general. Things change slowly in time, so we have to leave on a positive note. We have to believe right, we have believed that we are making a difference, and I sincerely believe that we are making a difference," said Patterson. "My plays veered toward the historical, and I want to continue doing that with that in mind that Black history is American history. American history is Black history, and we all need to normalize our experiences with each other."

March 10th is the deadline to apply for Onyxfest. Only five playwrights are selected. You can watch various productions during the first two weekends in November.