By Quenna L. Barrett
I don’t necessarily call myself a playwright, but I have written plays and participated in workshops and playwriting classes. I was once in a class where I showed up on the first day to find out I would be the only person of color. This is, unfortunately, not an atypical experience.
I was very hesitant about having the other writers read and give feedback on my Blackity-Black play about very Black things. I was certain they would miss half the references (they did); I wasn’t sure if they could provide the specific kind of feedback I needed to grow my work (they couldn’t); and I was genuinely afraid when they would have to encounter “the N word” (as a Blackity-Black play, of course it was going to be used).
I share this to say that even in my limited experience as a playwright, I have encountered and witnessed the ways in which many processes and practices in the American Theatre do not center or make enough space for works that are written from a non-white perspective.
Future Labs is one path that seeks to address some part of this very large problem.
What is Future Labs?
In 2021, Future Labs will support the development of up to nine plays written and directed by primarily Chicago-based artists of color who have not yet had a play produced at the Goodman. The selected playwrights will receive rehearsal, casting, artistic and dramaturgical support, and the process may culminate in a free, public reading of the work if they wish. All of these works are considered further for future opportunities and production.
Future Labs was indeed born at the intersection of the Covid-19 pandemic and the racial reckoning currently catapulted to the forefront of the sociopolitical sphere. Days after Breonna Taylor and George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery, the Goodman held a virtual all-staff meeting allowing for collective space to grieve, to listen, to breathe. In the weeks that followed, we began to meet in committees to analyze Goodman’s current practices that uphold white supremacy—whether consciously or not—and began to offer pathways towards addressing and accounting for them. During this process, We See You White American Theater, led by a community of Black, Indigenous and People of Color theatremakers, released its own set of demands, calling for more equitable and anti-racist policies across the institution of the American theater.
In this moment of genuine reflection and looking to make authentic change, Future Labs was conceived.
Why Future Labs?
We knew that it was not only important that the plays and playwrights this program sought to support were from the voices of Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian American, Pacific Islander and other voices of color, but also that how these plays were curated had to be vastly different from the typical process.
We wanted to disrupt the traditional power structures inherent in artistic curation and create a more lateral and inclusive system. The staff evaluation team who reviews every play that comes in through this program includes staff from every department in the theater (from casting to costumes!) and is two-thirds folks of color. It also happens to be two-thirds women and contains no senior leadership staff who typically hold the decision-making powers. Quarterly, this team will meet in pods to read and discuss each submission.
The plays with the highest scores will then be read by Ken-Matt Martin (Associate Producer), Jonathan L. Green (New Works and Literary Manager) and myself (Associate Director of Education) to then be curated into the Future Labs season.
As we are nearing the end of our first round of evaluations, we are already learning much from the process and by working with our colleagues we don’t often collaborate with.
While Future Labs won’t fix the problem of being the “only” in a space, I do hope that it can be a model of shifting of power dynamics, processes and systems that allow for that kind of space to exist in the first place. It will center the experiences and value the voices of artists of color at every point in the process, making at least a little bit more room for us to breathe.