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Sunday, December 15, 2013

Pittsburgh Playwrights’ Theatre Festival in Black & White Holiday Edition

Posted By on Sun, Dec 15, 2013 at 10:26 AM

Playwrights’ company founder and artistic director Mark Clayton Southers created this festival a decade ago because he enivisioned — literally dreamed of, he says — an audience of both black and white patrons enjoying a show together.

Yes, that was a spectacle so rare in Pittsburgh that you might see it only in your dreams.

Unfortunately, with few exceptions, it still is. But one of those exceptions is the Black & White fest. Aside from stagings of August Wilson plays (another Playwrights specialty), this annual festival is one of the few theater events in town where you can reliably be part of an audience that’s racially mixed.

That was certainly the case this past Friday, when I saw the festival’s Program A, whose five one-acts are complemented by the five one-acts in Program B. The fest’s racial boundary-crossing, in fact, starts with the production of the plays: Half the playwrights are white, and paired with black directors, and the black playwrights are teamed with white directors.

That setup actually primes the pump for audience diversity: For small theater companies like Playwrights, a high percentage of ticket-buyers tend to be people who know the playwrights, directors and cast members. By teaming up artists who wouldn’t normally get to work together, doing material they wouldn’t normally do, Southers creates a situation where audiences also end up mingling.

That’s a very good thing, especially when the work’s strong. And this year’s Program A, part of a holiday-themed fest, is among the more accomplished sets I’ve seen at any B&W fest since it began.

Marlon Erik Youngblood’s “Just Jesus” (directed by Kaitlin Mausser) wittily explores “realness” within the black community.

Andrew Ade’s “True Meaning” (directed by Rita Gregory) is an affectingly comic take on “family values” at the holidays.

Lissa Brennan’s “And To All A Good Night” (directed by Cheryl El-Walker) is an uproarious and gleefully foul-mouthed comedy about interracial dating, coming out (as atheist) and the benefits of “medicinal mer-lott,” powered by an especially good ensemble cast. (Brennan is a CP contributor.)

Wali Jamal’s “St. Clair Xmas” (directed by Marcus Muzzoppapa) lovingly excavates one vanished Pittsburgh neighborhood’s lore before turning on a dime for a shock ending.

And Tammy Ryan’s “Cornucopia” (directed by Ashley Southers) is a classic Christmas Eve story, set in a dollar store, that doubles as a prayer for America’s beaten-up working class.

The themed-fest idea seems to work pretty well. Maybe it can be a template for future B&W fests, to supplement the open calls for scripts that have held sway in the past.

And here’s a review of both Program A and Program B by CP’s Michelle Pilecki.

The Theater Festival in Black & White continues with performances this afternoon through Tuesday night. Program A is on at 2 p.m. today and 7 p.m. Tuesday, and Program B at 7 p.m. tonight and 7 p.m. Monday.

The theater is located on the third floor of 937 Liberty Ave., Downtown.

Tickets are $20-25. Tickets, and more on the plays, is here.

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