‘Brown Sugar Bake-Off’ festival centers Black women’s voices

Two Strikes, a company founded by Black women, debuts a ten-play virtual festival showcasing Black women's creativity.

When I learned that a bake-off was taking place, I instantly thought of warm apple pie and holiday-themed gourmet cookies. That’s the foodie in me. However, the Brown Sugar Bake-Off festival is a different kind of treat, forged from a simple yet hearty recipe. This virtual bake-off is the flagship project of Two Strikes Theatre Collective, a Baltimore-based theater company founded by five Black women. They aim to tell stories that center the full range of Black women’s personal identities and experiences.

Two Strikes Theatre Collective founders: Christen Cromwell, Lauren Erica Jackson, Aladrian C. Wetzel, Dana Woodson, Rachel Wilson.

Brown Sugar Bake-Off is available to watch now on YouTube. I recently attended the inaugural event, which debuted ten short plays exclusively written and directed by Black women. Then I caught up with Two Strike’s executive director, Aladrian C. Wetzel, for a behind-the-scenes rundown of the team’s creative process.

“Two Strikes emerged in 2019 to address the lack of representation in theater, both on and off the stage,” Wetzel said—and her team plans to make the bake-off an annual affair.

While the inaugural event introduced new writers and directors, Wetzel envisions future iterations of the festival offering Black women an opportunity to hone skills in all aspects of production management, including sound engineering and set design. Rather than ask for a seat at the table, Two Strikes is producing events like the Brown Sugar Bake-Off festival in an effort to build their own.

Aladrian C. Wetzel

This is art about Black women, made by and for Black women

The importance of this vision can’t be understated. Theaters that put Black women’s experiences and contributions at the center of the conversation are in short supply. While the Greater Washington area is saturated with talented theater pros, a gaping leadership hole exists where Black women are concerned. Justified criticism of this failing often goes unaddressed. Yet the void affects every aspect of a production, shaping it before we viewers ever purchase our tickets. Two Strikes joins a growing chorus of organizations and individuals working to shift the paradigm of inclusion in local theater, and a model like the bake-off could be a blueprint for developing and showcasing Black women’s voices on a broad scale.

More than half of the festival’s featured plays are penned by first-time playwrights

A large aperture exists between access to opportunity and assurance of opportunity. In recognizing this, Two Strikes held a playwriting seminar prior to the event, specifically targeting new and emerging talent.

Moreover, the workshop catalyzed their local call for play submissions from Black femme writers. Wetzel describes her team’s surprise and elation when applications started rolling in from across the country. Writers from 12 different U.S. states sent in stories for the festival.

Featured playwrights at Two Strikes’ ‘Brown Sugar Bake-Off’ festival 2020.

Equipping Black women with tools to tell their own stories is vital. We are the healers of our communities and households. When our voices are heard fundamental change occurs.

Specificity, nuance, and intersectionality undergird the featured plays 

While the concept of a bake-off was first popularized by Paula Vogel,  Two Strikes’ gave it a dynamic twist that just might give the festival vital staying power in the DC theater scene.

Christen Cromwell

Each play is capped at ten minutes and includes five core ingredients: A Black womxn protagonist, a sign, a gathering, a wig, and, of course, brown sugar. Wetzel credits fellow co-founder, Mistress of Play Development Christen Cromwell, with devising the bake-off’s format.

This menu of ingredients sends an affirmative nod to me as a Black woman viewer. It says yes, you are about to witness Black women unabashedly take up space and reclaim their time, Maxine Waters style. The minimal list of ingredients by no means shortchanged the breadth of topics covered across the ten-play mosaic. A range of relevant issues were addressed, often with humor and on occasion with chilling, unvarnished truth. The latter was the case with the play “Georgia Rose” by Onyekachi Iwu, inspired by the real story of a 15-year-old girl sentenced to juvenile lockup for not doing schoolwork during the coronavirus pandemic earlier this year.

Overall, the festival leveraged simplicity and engaged storytelling to dazzle audiences, and it paid off. However, the festival’s execution was not flawless, technical issues occurred throughout the live viewing and for a bake-off that branded itself as intersectional, important Black femme voices were missing from the conversation, namely Black women living with disabilities. For example, the live viewing did not include closed captioning, effectively leaving out the Deaf and hard of hearing community. In our interview, Wetzel acknowledged the missed opportunity and Two Strikes is working to enhance their capacity to reach those vital voices.

Running Time: Two hours 46 minutes, with two brief talkbacks featuring the event’s playwrights.

The Brown Sugar Bake-Off festival is available to watch on YouTube, now with closed captioning.


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