Ford’s announces second First Look Festival and next Legacy Commissions

Free public readings of three new works to be offered on January 26 and 27.

Ford’s Theatre presents The Ford’s Theatre Legacy Commissions: A First Look
on January 26-27, 2024, as well as the second cohort of commissioned playwrights. The Ford’s Theatre Legacy Commissions is designed to serve as an artistic incubator for stories about unsung heroes responsible for changing the course of civil rights and equality in American life. In its second year, this festival will include the following readings: A Designer of Note, A Woman of Style by Charlayne Woodard, about the life of fashion designer Ann Lowe; SISTER X by Nambi E. Kelley, about a young mother’s quest to share her life’s challenges with Malcolm X; and The American Five by Chess Jakobs, which explores present-day biases and racial discord inside a graduate classroom. The second cohort of The Ford’s Theatre Legacy Commissions is composed of Nilo Cruz, Chess Jakobs, Gloria Reuben, Jeanne Sakata, and Madeline Sayet

“We are thrilled to present workshops and readings of these undiscovered stories in their early stages in A First Look. The works of these writers bring us stories of unparalleled resilience in the face of extraordinary challenges,” said Ford’s Theatre Director Paul R. Tetreault. “The Ford’s Theatre Legacy Commissions first started because we asked ourselves: What are the stories yet to be uncovered? As we look to expand the scope of the commissions with our second round of playwrights, we are inspired and hopeful to continue writing this new chapter in the American theater.”

The Ford’s Theatre Legacy Commissions: A First Look is a free, two-day festival, providing a preview of new plays in development, with opportunities for expanded conversations around the work. This year’s festival marks a follow-through on Ford’s Theatre’s commitment to BIPOC artists, with readings of the remaining works of its inaugural class of commissions, along with the first reading from the second cohort. With A First Look, Ford’s gives audiences an unparalleled inside peek at the process and voices that shaped these works. Kelley and Woodard’s works complete workshops for the inaugural cohort of playwrights, which also included playwrights Pearl Cleage, Rickerby Hinds, and Dominic Taylor.

Tickets for the readings are free and available to reserve now. Each reading runs approximately two hours. More information is available at

Senior Artistic Advisor Sheldon Epps, Director of Artistic Programming José Carrasquillo and The Ford’s Theatre Legacy Commissions Advisor Sydné Mahone lead the initiative. Epps has shared his fascination with what he calls unsung heroes: “Those men and women who are not well-known, but who should be celebrated and placed in the spotlight for their contributions to the growth and evolution of our country, either in big ways or small.”

The lineup for the 2024 festival includes the following:

A Designer of Note, A Woman of Style

By Charlayne Woodard
Directed by Delicia Turner Sonnenberg
Dramaturgy by Sydné Mahone
Public Reading: Friday, January 26, 2024 at 7:30 p.m.

Charlayne Woodard

A Designer of Note, A Woman of Style by Charlayne Woodard gives us a window into the life of fashion designer Ann Lowe. Ann Lowe designed dresses for high society women and movie stars before she was commissioned to design Jacqueline Bouvier’s wedding dress. Her remarkable artistry set her apart from her male counterparts, but her achievements as a couturier and artist remained unknown for decades despite having stores on the fashion avenues of NYC. In a journey that begins in 1898 in Clayton, Alabama, Charlayne Woodard’s work traces the remarkable life and artistry of a true original American designer.

“I chose to write a play about this extraordinary woman because I must give credit where credit is due. As a creative, I know what it’s like to follow your dream, in spite of numerous obstacles, foreseen and unforeseen,” says playwright Charlayne Woodard. “However, the story of Ann Lowe is a tale of perseverance, creative excellence – never giving in to victimhood. A single mom for most of her life, Ms. Lowe ran over hurdle after hurdle: Racism, sexism, financial instability, health issues. After discovering this ‘hidden figure,’ and researching her life, I am empowered and inspired. I trust others will feel the same. Ann Lowe’s very unique story must no longer be ‘their little secret.’”

According to the Washington Post, “What is ultimately fascinating about Lowe’s designs – in addition to the story of the woman behind them – is their very Americanness. They are glamorous, to be sure, but they share a triumphant sense of pragmatism, even in their embellishments.”

Delicia Turner Sonnenberg will direct Charlayne Woodard in a reading of her work in progress. Ford’s Theatre Legacy Commissions Advisor Sydné Mahone serves as the dramaturg. Brandon Prendergast is the stage manager.

Charlayne Woodard (Playwright/Performer) is an American playwright and actress. Woodard’s two-character play, The Garden, commissioned by La Jolla Playhouse, had productions in 2021 at both Baltimore Center Stage (summer) and La Jolla Playhouse (fall). Woodard’s solo plays, which she has originated to great acclaim, include Pretty Fire, Neat, In Real Life and The Night Watcher. Her plays are published by Dramatists Play Service and performed at regional theaters around the country. Audio versions are available at As an actress, Woodard has extensive film, television and theater credits, including playing the role of Kate in The Taming of the Shrew at the Shakespeare Theatre Company (2007).


By Nambi E. Kelley
Directed by Hana S. Sharif
Dramaturgy by Sydné Mahone
Public Reading: Saturday, January 27, 2024 at 2:30 p.m.

Nambi E. Kelley

With SISTER X, Nambi E. Kelley has given us the story of Ameilia, a young mother and a social and political activist who seeks a meeting with Malcolm X during a time of social and political upheaval. Seeking guidance and answers, Ameilia reveals the haunting truth of her life. Kelley has written Ameilia’s galvanizing story in verse, thus amplifying the voices of a generation of young women whose unique stories and perspectives have seldom come to light.

“The role of women in the Nation of Islam, as both a religious and political organization, has been muted. I began to search for who these women were and what their role in the movement was,” says playwright Nambi E. Kelley. “The information available was scarce, but early on, I hit upon the stories of young women who had been impregnated by leaders of the movement. Excavating their specific stories gave me a focus that began my quest to hear their voices.”

Arena Stage Artistic Director Hana S. Sharif will direct. Constance Swain will portray the character of Ameilia. Joan Foster McCarty is the stage manager.

Nambi E. Kelley (Playwright) is an actress and playwright with an extensive résumé in the United States and internationally. Most recently, she appeared in the lead role of Dominique Morisseau’s Pipeline (City Theatre) and the Off-Broadway production of Kunstler (59 E. 59). Her television credits include Elementary, Person of Interest, Madam Secretary, Chicago PD and Chicago Justice. Kelley is a former playwright-in-residence at the National Black Theatre and the Goodman Theatre. She is a former Dramatists Guild Fellow. Kelley was the recipient of the 2020 National New Play Network annual commission, the Prince Prize (2019) and a Dramatists Guild Foundation Writers Alliance Grant (2018-19). She was chosen by Toni Morrison to adapt Morrison’s Jazz, which premiered at Baltimore Center Stage in 2017. Kelley’s adaptation of Richard Wright’s Native Son (Samuel French) premiered Off-Broadway at The Duke on 42nd Street (The Acting Company; AUDELCO Award for Best Play). She is currently developing a Broadway-aspiring play about Dr. Maya Angelou and is a writer on Showtime’s The Chi.

The American Five

By Chess Jakobs
Directed by Aaron Posner
Dramaturgy by José Carrasquillo
Public Reading: Saturday, January 27, 2024 at 7:30 p.m.

Chess Jakobs

The American Five offers an incisive look into a single, society-shifting moment in American history while turning our perspective toward a horizon of plurality. This play’s kaleidoscope structure examines the multi-generational relationship of Black and Jewish Americans. When a perspective-challenging professor invokes the “Rules of Engagement” inside the classroom, tensions rise over a discussion about anti-Semitic headlines. A viable framework for understanding present political discord and social paradigms is found in Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

“What does it mean when the history that helps us achieve understanding often excludes critical moments and people? It means that historical giants such as Bayard Rustin, Stanley Levison, Clarence Jones and Coretta Scott King are left out of critical retellings of the March on Washington and the ‘I Have A Dream’ speech,” says playwright Chess Jakobs. “Through this play, I am inquiring into our collective perception of each other, our presumed alignment based on shared background and how identity manifests through us in how we speak, relate and dream. Where do we go when our plurality causes friction in a singular-driven world? How do we retain our individuality when communities are built through homogeneity? What can vulnerability and change do for us when masculinity and tradition are insufficient to remain powerful? Why do race, ethnicity, religion, nationality, ability, sex and sexuality define us? Who is allowed to undefine themselves?”

Aaron Posner will direct an ensemble that includes Yoni Bronstein, John Floyd, Jay Frisby, Noah Keyishian, and Fatima Quander. Ford’s Theatre Director of Artistic Programming José Carrasquillo serves as the dramaturg. Craig A. Horness is the stage manager. Learn more about Chess Jakobs and the next commissions below.

Festival Events
From Quill to Curtain: Crafting Plays Inspired by History
The Ford’s Theatre Legacy Commissions: A First Look Playwriting Workshop
Wednesday, January 24, 2024 at 5:45 p.m. – 7:45 p.m.

Join Ford’s for a two-hour community workshop where writers of all levels are invited to work on elements of playwriting centered around building a narrative based on a historical figure or event. Themes covered will include historical research and the use of primary sources, creative license, crafting the storyline and characters and connecting the past to the present.

Playwright Nambi E. Kelley will share insight into her process in the creation of the play SISTER X in a Q-and-A-style interview at the top of the workshop. Time will be allotted to in-session writing, after which participants will share their work with the group. Register here.

The New Cohort of The Ford’s Theatre Legacy Commissions

Ford’s Theatre is proud to announce the second cohort of the Ford’s Theatre Legacy Commissions. This cohort expands the scope of the commissions. They include diverse trailblazers in the American theater, including a Pulitzer Prize winner, multi-hyphenate artists and noted stars of the stage and screen. Their works will receive development and support from Ford’s in the next few years. Learn more about them at

Nilo Cruz

Nilo Cruz is a Cuban American playwright, director, lyricist, scriptwriter and teacher who weaves magical realism into stories about the immigrant experience. Cruz gained international prominence when Anna in the Tropics won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, for which he also received a Tony Award nomination. Works include Dancing on Her Knees, A Park in Our House, Two Sisters and a Piano, A Bicycle Country and more. They have been produced at South Coast Rep, Mark Taper Forum, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Studio, The Public and GALA Hispanic Theatre. He was mentored by Maria Irene Fornes. Affiliations: New Dramatists; past Playwright-in-Residence at McCarter, New Theatre. Teaching: Yale Drama, Brown University, University of Iowa. Training: MFA, Brown; Honorary Ph.D., Whitter College.

Chess Jakobs

Chess Jakobs is a Black and Jewish American storyteller and historian. He is the playwright of The American Five. Jakobs’ work seeks to engage storytelling as a form of historical preservation and cultural engagement. Jakobs is the Associate Director and Dramaturg of Dracula: A Comedy of Terrors (Off-Broadway/New World Stages, 2023) and Writer/Co-Executive Producer of Sister Nature: Women of Color in the Environmental Movement (under development with People over Plastic). Theatrical credits include: Steppenwolf: Downstate; Indiana Rep: A Christmas Carol; Alliance: Colossal; Olney: Fiddler on the Roof. TV: BET, NBC, Bravo. Affiliations: Member of AEA, Associate Member of SDC and DG. Training: University of Michigan.

Gloria Reuben is an accomplished Canadian American actress, singer and writer. She played Jeanie Boulet in ER (two Emmy noms., Golden Globe nom.), Elizabeth Keckley in Steven Spielberg’s Mr. Lincoln, and Krista Gordon in Mr. Robot (opposite Rami Malek). She appeared in 1-800-Missing, Raising the Bar, Drop Dead Diva, and NBC’s Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. Reuben was a backup singer for Tina Turner in 2000. Solo records include Just For You, and jazz albums Perchance to Dream (2015) and For All We Know (2020) under MCG Jazz. She is developing a play about the life of seamstress Elizabeth Keckley. Gloria’s non-fiction book My Brothers’ Keeper: Two Brothers. Loved. And Lost. was published by Post Hill Press in 2019.

Jeanne Sakata

Jeanne Sakata is an award-winning actor and playwright whose versatility spans across theater, television, film, voiceover animation and audiobooks. Center Theatre Group commissioned Sakata’s first play, Hold These Truths. It is produced nationally and internationally and is at the Library of Congress Playwrights Archive in the Asian American Pacific Islander Collection’s Jeanne Sakata Collection, established in 2011. She wrote For Us All for L.A. Theatre Works. Regional: Center Theatre Group: Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992; La Jolla: Here There Are Blueberries (World Premiere). Other: Lincoln Center; Kennedy Center; Vineyard; People’s Light; Northlight; Theatre Works Silicon Valley; Berkeley Rep; ACT San Francisco; ACT Seattle; Portland Center Stage. Awards: L.A. Ovation Award (Outstanding Lead Actress); East West Players Trailblazer Award; Playwrights Arena Lee Melville Award.

Madeline Sayet

Madeline Sayet is a Mohegan theatermaker who believes the stories we pass down inform our collective possible futures. For her work as a theatermaker, she has been honored as a Forbes 30Under30, TED Fellow, and recipient of The White House Champion of Change Award from President Obama. As a writer, her plays include Where We Belong, Up and Down the River, Antigone Or And Still She Must Rise Up, Daughters of Leda, The Neverland, and The Fish. The national tour of her play Where We Belong, produced by Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in association with the Folger Shakespeare Library, included such venues as The Public Theater, The Goodman Theater (Jeff Award Nomination for Best Solo Performance), Seattle Rep (Recipient of Heilman & Haver Award for Best Play), Baltimore Center Stage, Hudson Valley Shakespeare, Philadelphia Theater Company, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and Portland Center Stage. She is a Clinical Assistant Professor at ASU with the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies (ACMRS) and has served five years as the Executive Director of the Yale Indigenous Performing Arts Program, creating new programs, awards, and opportunities for emerging Native Theater artists. Recent directing work includes Bard at the Gate: Joy Harjo’s Wings of a Night Sky; Perseverance Theater: Tlingit Christmas Carol, Whale Song; Krannert Center: The Neverland, Poppea; Connecticut Rep: Henry IV; South Dakota Shakespeare: Midsummer Night’s Dream; Delaware Shakespeare: As You Like It; HERE Arts: The Winter’s Tale; Glimmerglass: The Magic Flute.

About The Ford’s Theatre Legacy Commissions

Ford’s Theatre presents a new artistic initiative for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) playwrights that will broaden the American theater canon. Established in 2021, with first workshops in 2023, the Ford’s Theatre Legacy Commissions serves as an artistic incubator for stories about unsung heroes responsible for changing the course of civil rights and equality in American life. The Commissions process provides extensive development for artists, including first readings, developmental workshops and world premiere productions in the next decade. These commissions seek to broaden the American theater canon by fostering and developing playwrights, incubating stories about social justice and racial history, and exploring the varied experiences of underrepresented characters and lesser-known historical figures and their contributions to American life.


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