How can a Washington, DC, theater group exist for three decades, and yet practically no one has ever heard of them?
That’s a question playwright Alan Sharpe gets asked a lot — one he also asks himself a lot — so it’s not surprising that he has accumulated more than a few answers. Sharpe is the founding artistic director of African-American Collective Theater (ACT), which celebrates its 30th anniversary with a return to live public performance on Sunday, May 29, 2022.
In the Flesh — the vehicle for that return — is a reader’s theater–style program of short, original, LGBTQ+-themed plays written and directed by Sharpe. It’s the latest installment in a series of performances that began back in 1992, inspired by the previous year’s first DC Black Pride Festival. ACT’s annual “DC Black Pride Weekend LGBTQ+ Theater Showcase” has since become a spring tradition on the last Sunday in May — during both DC Black Pride weekend and Memorial Day weekend — for residents and visitors to the District alike.
Those origins probably suggest some of the answers to the question of ACT’s relative obscurity, despite a clear, unwavering identity and mission.
“First of all,” Sharpe speculates, “we are not a theater company per se. I am a struggling playwright who simply wanted to have his work seen before audiences. There has never been any particular interest in my plays among producers and/or theater companies, but being an acknowledged theater geek, I am blessed to have a large pool of friends who were actors. The one quality they all shared in addition to talent was generosity. So whenever I put out a call to see my work performed, they answered that call and brought my efforts to life.
“ACT has no board, no by-laws, no
consistent performing space, no nonprofit status, and frequently no funding,” Sharpe continues. “But year-in and year-out, those friends have gathered to rehearse and perform — not just during DC Black Pride weekend but throughout the year. And although DC has always been ACT’s primary base, they’ve also performed in New York, Philly, Baltimore, Louisville, and Atlanta.”
Any funding has come from ticket sales, the occasional playwrighting grant, and Sharpe’s own threadbare pockets. Those minimal resources inevitably led to a signature barebones style that focused audience attention on the scripts and the talented performers. Ironically, these very qualities helped develop the flexibility that enabled ACT to endure for three decades and survive when, as with so many other artists, the COVID-19 pandemic forced ACT to pivot to virtual presentations.
But in-person performances before a live audience are where the magic of theater really occurs. If mainstream theater institutions have remained basically unimpressed and indifferent, ACT audiences have always been enthusiastic and responsive. “Perhaps, I’m like Tyler Perry, in terms of audience loyalty,” Sharpe jokes. “But without the charisma and business sense.”
Still, regardless of popularity, readings aren’t traditionally reviewed, certainly garner no awards, and minimal production values do not attract much attention in the face of the dazzling stagings DC theater is justifiably known for. “Quite frankly, what we do is probably not considered very theatrical,” Sharpe admits.
“As a writer, I’m just an old-fashioned storyteller, whose style remains rooted in traditions of the ’50s, ’60s, and early ’70s. I’m more interested in human interaction than in developing new forms and blazing unique stylistic trails. Obviously, theater has moved on. What’s fresh, exciting, and popular onstage now…is not what I do.
“In addition,” Sharpe laughs. “We are a niche of a niche of a niche. Our focus has always been the lives, loves, challenges, and triumphs revealed by interactions among LGBTQ+ members of the African American community. Especially early on, that frequently meant the larger Black community and the white gay community took turns being uninterested.
“Nevertheless, 30 years is plenty of time to see things evolve. It’s certainly not lost on me that the three most recent winners of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama have dealt with Black, queer themes [Fat Ham by James Ijames in 2022, The Hot Wing King by Katori Hall in 2021, and A Strange Loop by Michael R. Jackson in 2020]. Here in DC, exciting groups like Brave Soul Collective, Cagedbirds Productions, Breaking Ground, Black in Space, and others are forging new forms and pointing the way toward the future. That’s incredibly exciting, affirming, and — to any small degree that we’ve nurtured, encouraged, and supported the next generation of Black artists making LGBTQ+ theater — incredibly gratifying.”
In the Flesh performs Sunday, May 29, 2022, at 5:00 pm in the First Congregational UCC Church at 945 G Street NW, Washington, DC – conveniently located downtown within a short walking distance from all of the official DC Black Pride Host Hotels, and just steps away from both the Metro Center and Gallery Place Metro stations. Advance tickets ($15) are on sale online.
COVID Safety: Proof of vaccination and mask protocols are mandatory for the performance.
ABOUT ALAN SHARPE
Alan Sharpe began creating LGBTQ-themed projects in 1970, as a freshman film student at Boston University. An on-campus theater company that he co-founded while there eventually evolved into African-American Collective Theater (ACT) after his move to Washington, DC, in 1976.
In the early 90s, African-American Collective Theater revised its original mission from Black theater in general to focus solely on LGBTQ themes and subject matter. In 1993 Sharpe wrote the film Party — an AIDSFilms Production in association with Gay Men of African Descent. Later, he both wrote and directed the serial drama Chump ChangeS — widely acknowledged as one of the first African American web series on the internet. During the subsequent three decades, as an HIV+ artist, he has written and directed over 130 plays and short films — all showcasing the vibrant mosaic of LGBTQ+ life and culture in the Black community.
In addition to fellowships in theater and Larry Neal Awards in dramatic writing from the D.C. Commission of the Arts, Sharpe was selected to participate in the Kennedy Center Playwrights’ Intensive and the Playwrights’ Arena program at Arena Stage. He is also the recipient of awards from the Gay and Lesbian Activists’ Alliance (GLAA), Us Helping Us (UHU), and a Prism Award, for his body of work in support of the African American LGBTQ+ community. In 2012, he was honored to have a Legacy Award named after him by the DC Black Theater Festival. More recently, he became the inaugural recipient of the Alan Sharpe Award, initiated in 2019 by the Center for Black Equity and DC Black Pride Inc. to annually celebrate cultural contributions to the LGBTQ+ Community. In December 2021, he received a Community Pioneer Award from the Rainbow History Project for his pioneering arts work to establish the lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and queer communities of today’s DMV.
Beyond ACT, Sharpe is proud to be a charter member of the Brave Soul Collective (BSC) — for which he has also written an ongoing series of plays — as well as the African-American Playwrights’ Exchange (APEX), Urban Playwrights United (UPU), the NPX New Play Exchange, and the Dramatists’ Guild.