“I’m speaking.”–Kamala Harris to Mike Pence at the Vice Presidential Debate.
That simple, emphatic statement could serve as the rallying cry for the new theater company, Two Strikes Theatre Collective, founded in the midst of COVID19 and a summer of racial violence that continues to scorch-earth America’s soul.
Two Strikes Theatre Collective is an artistic response to the worldwide outcry against systemic racism that goes further by championing Black women, whom, says Aladrian C. Wetzel, Executive Director, have two strikes against them–being a woman and being Black.
“These two strikes seen as a negative in society,” she continues. ‘Something to not be proud of and is often times disrespected, neglected and unprotected. It reminds me of the Malcolm X quote, ‘The most disrespected person in America is the Black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the Black woman. The most neglected person in America is the Black woman.'”
Wetzel then gives me this bel hooks quote to chew on:
“White women and black men have it both ways. They can act as oppressor or be oppressed. Black men may be victimized by racism, but sexism allows them to act as exploiters and oppressors of women. White women may be victimized by sexism, but racism enables them to act as exploiters and oppressors of black people. Both groups have led liberation movements that favor their interests and support the continued oppression of other groups. Black male sexism has undermined struggles to eradicate racism just as white female racism undermines feminist struggle. As long as these two groups or any group defines liberation as gaining social equality with ruling class white men, they have a vested interest in the continued exploitation and oppression of others.” ? bell hooks, AIN’T I A WOMAN: BLACK WOMEN AND FEMINISM (1981)
“bel hooks talks about how Black men and White women have it both ways. They can be oppressors and be oppressed because of their race or gender. Black women are always the oppressed,” Wetzel says.
In response to this hard reality, Two Strikes was founded to change the perspective of these strikes. “We actively choose both ‘strikes’ because we see the power that they yield to spark social change and creativity,” she adds. “Who better to see the power in our voices than us, fellow Black women? We have a voice and want to use it to express our unique position, the intersectional place of being female identifying and being Black.”
Wetzel notes that there are artistic spaces for women or for Black artists, but none solely for Black femmes. “We want to be in control of our narrative and support people who look like us to express their voice through theater. We are the backbone of America…why not prioritize us?”
Part of that prioritizing involves The Brown Sugar Bake-Off Festival, a collaboration with Baltimore’s Strand Theatre that begins virtual performances October 17.
Based on playwright Paula Vogel’s bake-offs, the idea is a quickly written exercise on an assigned theme with assigned elements that folks do within a short period of time. The theme for the Brown Sugar Bake-Off is being a woman and Black.
Two Strikes sent out requests for submissions and conducted a virtual workshop this summer with Black women playwrights and authors from Maryland, D.C., Virginia, New Jersey, New York, Georgia, Minnesota and Tennessee–the geographical diversity of the voices a plus in the era of Zoom and You Tube meetings.
“A virtual workshop was great because we were able to accommodate writers from all over, not just Baltimore or Maryland,” says Christen Cromwell, Director of Play Development. “As a playwright, knowing that you have someone in your corner is important. There is such a lack of accessible community theatre education; it can be very costly and have limited openings. Even before COVID, our goal was to kick down the gate that stands between Black writers and theatre; it’s a very closed-off community, but we intend to embrace and celebrate Black femme stories. There will definitely be more workshops, virtual and in person, in the future.“
Out of the workshop came the 10-minute plays featured in the festival. “It was a very powerful experience to see so many aspiring and experienced writers who wanted to write about their gender and race-related experiences for the stage,” Cromwell continues. “I expected women who wanted to come and talk about the ingredients and rules for the submissions, but writers came to discuss their personal stories and thank us for the opportunity.”
Cromwell says the workshop allowed for the creation of connections between the writers and Two Strikes, which enhances the collective’s future play development.
In early press material on Two Strikes, the call to action for the collective was not wanting a seat at the table, but to set it on fire.
Two Strikes decided they were not going to wait to be asked to have ‘a seat at the table’ and have a discussion about the current push for diversity and equity in traditionally White and male theater spaces.
“The table and the act of asking still harbor institutional racism and patriarchy,” Wetzel says. “We’d rather burn the table and build a new one from the ground up that prioritizes our voices from the beginning, not as an afterthought. A table crafted by us (Black femmes) and for us. We need to be the architects of our own stories instead of being invited to build. We need to put ourselves first.”
This power shift from White male to Black womxn is revolutionary, in Wetzel’s view. “The time is now to be in charge of our own stories and to support ourselves,” she says. “There have been too many Black womxn (cis-female and trans women) who have died for us not to prioritize, celebrate and champion for ourselves. What is happening in society today surrounding race and social justice is a call to action for Black womxn to light the match for change.”
The igniting begins for Two Strikes with the Brown Sugar Bake-Off Festival. But that’s just the beginning for this theater collective’s mission to “create art that is unapologetically Black femme centric, to upset the White patriarchal status quo, and to provide creative outlets for Black womxn in the Baltimore community to express themselves through art.”
Future plans include the development of an original radio drama episodic series reminiscent of the old radio shows in the 40s and 50s. “Black femme writers with Black sound engineers and actors telling Black stories focused on generational issues across different time periods–radio soap operas in Coronavirus time,” Wetzel explains.
The Brown Sugar Bake-Off virtual writing seminar germinated the idea to develop an ongoing writing workshop for Black womxn writers. “The future is to have an education program to grow other theatre-related skills/positions for Black womxn as well,” Wetzel continues. “I am an engineer by trade who has grown up loving and supporting theater. It’s important to understand that artistic skills are transferable in the technical world and vice versa. Black womxn can do anything, but we have to be exposed to art and feel supported in order to be successful.”
Two strikes is also working in partnership with another theater company for a reading series of non-traditional classics in 2021. “We are still choosing the play for the project, but the playwright will be unapologetically Black femme,” she adds.
Wetzel’s big dream is to have an entire production, cast and crew, of Black women: Tech, playwright, actors, directors, creative team, etc. “This idea to have control of our art, support each other, collaborate with each other and tell our stories our way, is more important than ever. I want to see this happen with Two Strikes Theatre Collective and within the greater theatre community at large.”
Two Strikes Theatre Collective Presents: The Brown Sugar Bake-Off Festival is October 17, 2020.
Suggested donation amount starts at $5.
Details and tickets.