Writer Octavia Butler is that rare African American woman who found success in the normally male-dominated science fiction literature genre; her work is beloved by fans of all ages and races. She’s known best for her 1979 novel, Kindred, which incorporates time travel and is modeled on slave narratives.
The Freshh Theatre Company will be honoring the author with the first-ever Next of Kin Festival, a collection of one act plays written, directed, and performed by black women, which will take place April 27-29 at the Anacostia Arts Center.
“The festival came about, much like most things at Freshh come about, and that was in trying to keep a close ear to community’s conversations and where there are voids and interests,” says Goldie Patrick, founder and executive director of F.R.E.S.H.H Inc. “There is a community of black women writers who informally began meeting about two years ago, so much of the conversation was centered around who were their favorite writers were and why they were a favorite.”
The name Octavia Butler came up time and time again, with the writers talking about what an inspiration she was and a trailblazer in the literary world.
“She was and has been this icon of a very bold and imaginative voice and she really influenced women to write in theater,” Patrick says. “We started talking back then about what it would look like to have a festival in tribute to her, and we recognized that so many of the writers in our community are pre-professional or mid-career, so we thought what would be most tangible to digest would be a one-act festival.”
Patrick admits that it was somewhat difficult to get support outside of the immediate community of artists and writers, so the theater applied for a grant hosted the ARCH Development Corporation as a part of its Theatre Residency Incubator and was awarded help. Once it was, the festival organizers started to expand what the work would encompass and what the engagement would look like.
“We did more research on Butler’s impact and began framing out how we would most want to honor her legacy,” Patrick says. “We put out an open call for women to submit if they had already created work, interested in creating work or revising work centered around the topic of Kindred.”
The festival is comprised of six black women playwrights, three directors and ten actresses.
“The directors had an opportunity to submit their resume or work and artistic statement so we could get an idea of where their interest was in this,” Patrick says. “We had auditions at the Vanguard for actors who would play the characters in these plays, but also be our year-round acting ensemble. One play may have two characters, another six, but all the roles are played by a collection from these actors.”
One of the things Patrick is most excited about with this festival is the variety of plays taking place and the range.
Playwright Nina Angela Mercer, a D.C. native, wrote Elijaheen Becomes Wind, a marvelously vivid look at life in the future where the main character is a 17-year-old girl who is also 183.
“This main character lived in a world where the land is surrounded by water as result of the damage being done to the environment today,” Patrick says. “She talks about this relationship to the earth and land and her ancestors guiding her to remedy what has happened.”
Heather Gibson wrote Black Bones, an innovative look about issues of color that have historically been presented and how it will look in the future. This play also has a theme of ancestors present and how they influence and change and help the protagonist move forward.
Haven is a play by Ebony Rosemond that Patrick feels is clearly the most connected to Butler’s work, with a setting in the year 3050.
“It talks about this idea of a world that is designed and protected by women,” she says. “It’s a conversation between a mother and a daughter about what these women must do to ensure that generations live on through them. It’s a very strong political commentary about their relationship with men.”
Maryam Foye has the play FANM KI PA JANM MOURI that is translated from French Creole to Women Who Never Die.
“This is fun because it’s a dramatic comedy,” Patrick says. “It really is what you would imagine the political world of today would grow into 200 years from now. It talks about colonization, it talks about a woman as a protagonist trying to move forward for her community and the challenges she may face, and it really pokes fun at the idea of gentrification in the future.”
Brand new playwright Adanna Paul, a senior at Howard University, wrote Eva for the festival, then there’s Teshonne Powell who wrote Afromemory, which talks about complexities of relationships.
“One of the things we see in all of the pieces is women stretching their imaginations to identify what humanity will look like in the future,” Patrick says. “Often when we think about the future, we think of robots and technology; these pieces deal with spiritual technology and dive into technology. It’s really a human take on life 200 years from now.”
Sybil Williams, a professor at American University, is serving as dramaturge for the festival, charged with supporting the playwrights and directors so that there is continuity and consistency in their work.
The ensemble of actors consists of Ashara Crutchfield, Fatima Quander, Tiana Thomas, Risikat Odekeyi, Lori Pitts, Kareema Wambuii, Tara Yates-Reeves, Bryanda Minix, Karen Elle and Damion Perkins.
The three directors for the festival are Ayesis Clay (directing Afromemory and Elijaheen Becomes Wind), Niree Turner (a senior at the University of Maryland who will be directing Black Bones and Eva), and Patrick herself (directing Haven and FANM KI PA JANM MOURI.)
“I’m working with actors I have never worked with before, so it’s been a real rewarding experience,” Patrick says. “This is so fresh and so new and it’s been super fun. They are keeping me on my toes.”
From a producorial lens, Patrick feels this is an important festival so black women can imagine their best lives.
“The physical exhaustion, the spiritual exhaustion and the mental drain of fighting racism and sexism is a lot,” she says. “The fight is so present and so constant that we wonder what the impact will be like in the future. At the center of this work is this idea – can we imagine a world where our descendants are free from sexism and classism and racism and all the other isms as we know it. And if we can imagine that, can we go back to present day and prepare and plan for that future?”
Next of Kin Festival: April 27 at 8pm; April 28 at 3pm and 8pm and April 29 at 3pm at Anacostia Arts Center, 1231 Good Hope Road, SE, Washington, DC . Tickets
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