It’s thrilling to be in the room at the birth of the new. This is just what I experienced on Friday and Saturday, January 26 and 27, 2024, at The Ford’s Theatre Legacy Commissions: A First Look festival. Three plays, representing the second set of public readings of works commissioned by Ford’s Theatre, commanded the venerable stage. (The digital program is available here.)
Tickets were distributed free of charge, and at every presentation, a cross-section of young thespians crowded next to friends, family, and theater lovers. It was clear to this reviewer, that the idea of being “first” to hear these plays, to listen closely to a playwright’s words, was eagerly anticipated.
As noted in Ford’s press release, “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.” All the playwrights were in residence with the notable Ford’s Theatre artistic team for the past week and had undergone a rigorous workshop process.
On Friday night, Sheldon Epps, senior artistic advisor, opened the event, inviting the audience “to be part of the discovery process with this festival.” He then introduced a “Renaissance woman of the theater, Charlayne Woodard,” who took the empty stage and sat on a stool in front of a music stand and her words.
A Designer of Note, A Woman of Style
By Charlayne Woodard
Directed by Delicia Turner Sonnenberg
Dramaturgy by Sydné Mahone
A Designer of Note, A Women of Style by Charlayne Woodard presented the life of a ground-breaking African-American fashion designer, Anne Lowe, who designed the 1953 wedding dress for Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy and her wedding party without any public acknowledgment. The play was read by a singular actor — the playwright — and directed by Delicia Turner Sonnenberg.
As Woodard shared before starting her reading, “I am a simple storyteller. I live in the oral tradition.” Woodard explained that she often tasks her friends to come and “just listen to her stories.” On Friday evening, we were those friends to this actor and playwright.
By Nambi E. Kelley
Directed by Hana S. Sharif
Dramaturgy by Sydné Mahone
On Saturday afternoon, actress, television writer, and playwright Nambi E. Kelley shared her one-person confessional drama, SISTER X, the story of Amelia, a young mother, social and political activist, and member of the Nation of Islam. Amelia, who talks truth to power, is an amalgam of the many sisters in the Nation of Islam. The play is set in the 1960s before and immediately after the assassination of Malcolm X.
Arena Stage Artistic Director Hana. S. Sharif directed. Constance Swain portrayed the character of Amelia.
SISTER X is the second in a three-part trilogy planned by Kelley, and as she noted in her talkback session after the reading, “We’ve seen Malcolm portrayed. But we have not seen the sisters. I wanted to give a sister her own space.” She added about her writing process, “I have no answers. I only have questions, and I follow them.”
In both of the above works-in-process, Sydné Mahone worked side-by-side with Woodard and Kelley as dramaturg to provide the playwrights and directors with context for these historical dramas. As Mahone shared during this talkback, “One of the most liberating places in the theater to be is in the process stage and to help create a place where the artists can take risks.”
The American Five
By Chess Jakobs
Directed by Aaron Posner
Dramaturgy by José Carrasquillo
Saturday evening’s reading had more than one first. This is not only a first look at the play but a first play written by Chess Jakobs, an actor, director, and — like the others in this impressive cohort — a storyteller.
Jakobs’ work, The American Five, presents Bayard Rustin, Stanley Levison, Clarence Jones, and Coretta Scott King alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., with a particular focus on Black and Jewish relationships within the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. Aaron Posner directed an ensemble in the reading: Yoni Bronstein, John Floyd, Jay Frisby, Noah Keyishian, and Fatima Quander.
On stage following the reading, Jakobs shared his inspiration for American Five: “I’m Black. I’m Jewish. I’m queer. All the time growing up, I never had a singular icon…that’s what helped birth this play.” Jakobs, a University of Michigan graduate with degrees in theater and American Culture, also astounded the audience: “I wrote 90 percent of the play in three days before this production.”
All these works-in-progress lived up to their mission to present hidden historical figures — and to discover and delight. Applause to Senior Artistic Advisor Sheldon Epps, Director of Artistic Programming José Carrasquillo, and the Ford’s Theatre Legacy Commissions Advisor Sydné Mahone for leading this initiative.
In its second year, and with a cohort of playwrights already selected for the future, A First Look is well on its way to becoming a must-attend event on the DC theater scene.
Ford’s announces second First Look Festival and next Legacy Commissions (news story, January 17, 2024)