After months of peering at performers through pixelated Brady Bunch boxes, I'd basically sworn off watching any more online plays. But just when I thought I was out, playwright Paris Crayton III pulled me back in with last weekend's world premiere of Birth of an Artistic Director, a riveting dramedy that should be considered required viewing for anyone invested in social justice and theater.
Producer Beth Marshall, who previously collaborated with Crayton on his autobiographical musical Spare the Rod, has a history of presenting plays examining racial issues, including 2014's multi-part Trayvon Martin Project. In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement – which Beth Marshall Presents hosted a three-day virtual protest for in June – the pair have teamed up on an original script that, although ostensibly fictional, is sure to strike a sensitive nerve (or 10) among Orlando's theater community.
Directly inspired by last summer's "We See You, White American Theater" petition supported by Broadway stars, Crayton's story starts as a Tony-winning regional theater has been publicly called out by BIPOC activists for being insufficiently inclusive.
Bob (Patrick Flick), the company's entrenched artistic director of three decades, is cajoled into a Zoom meeting with the protest leaders by Marsha (Beth Marshall), his performatively woke executive director. Bob agrees to present more playwrights of color – enthusiastically suggesting August Wilson's entire Pittsburgh cycle, and an all-Black Christmas Carol with a tap-dancing Scrooge – but he loses his cool when Jasmine (Meka King) and Daniel (Stelson Telfort) demand he step aside and install Susan (Alaina Kai Chester), the company's business manager, as its new head.
The passionate negotiations and polarizing name-calling that ensue could have been drawn verbatim from real-life arguments I've heard in recent months, and Crayton smartly allows each side to have their say; although it's evident where his sympathies lie, he allows every character to express valid points, while simultaneously poking holes in their positions.
Even Bob, whose cheerfully condescending liberalism belies an ocean of entitlement, elicits some human sympathy as a once-productive artist who doesn't know when it's time to step out of the spotlight. (For the record, you don't have to be Black to be infuriated at longtime leaders who won't move aside for younger talent.)
The only character not subject to such equivocation is Susan's father, Peter (Dennis Neal), who sagely advises her to seize her own power, instead of relying on others to grant it.
This is powerful subject matter, and could easily fall prey to becoming a ponderous polemic that only preaches to the choir.
Birth of an Artistic Director is effective as a piece of entertainment, as well as activism, because Crayton and the cast – directed by Roberta Emerson with surprising subtlety and precision, considering the streaming format's limitation – aren't afraid to find the humor in such a serious situation. Much of the comedy comes courtesy of the narrated stage directions (Susan Neal), which provide fourth-wall-breaking meta-commentary in a witty twist on a tired technique.
That laughter encourages viewers to let their guard down long enough for the script's provocative ideas to slip into their brains, where they're likely to reverberate for days after.
And while the play's premise seems to depict the arts as a zero-sum game, its conclusion leaves me optimistic that we can enlarge the pie of opportunity for all, instead of fighting among ourselves over crumbs.
Tickets to stream Birth of an Artistic Director can still be purchased through bethmarshallpresents.wordpress.com until Nov. 30, but attendees on opening night had the opportunity to participate in a virtual talkback with Crayton, Marshall and other members of the production, which turned out to be as engaging as the play itself.
I'll let them have the last word, in their own words:
Beth Marshall: "This was not an easy role for me. It made me think a lot about the conversations that I have with people. ... I'm in a gatekeeper position; open this door, share the space, and let people do their thing. ... It's a lot of food for thought, and it's a lot of work that still needs to be done. And I am, I have to say, pleased to see more and more theaters – globally, but specifically Central Florida arts organizations – having these conversations and doing some work."
Paris Crayton III: "Just don't let it stop there; don't let it stop with conversation, let's see changes. ... In order to make change we have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. It's not going to be easy; these conversations will not be easy, but these are conversations that we need to have. Trust me, as a Black man [I] don't walk this life in a comfortable position. I'm always uncomfortable; anytime I step outside, I'm uncomfortable. ... It's time for you all to be OK with being uncomfortable."