Fifteen years ago, Columbus-based playwright, director and actor Julie Whitney-Scott saw a lack of venues in the area producing work like hers — contemporary pieces telling the stories of marginalized people.
“People were sticking to the ‘old classics,’” Whitney-Scott, who resides on the Northeast Side, said of the city’s live theater scene.
So, she founded Mine 4 God Productions in 2008 and, a few years later, in 2012, she organized the first annual Columbus Black Theatre Festival (CBTF), joining staples like the Atlanta Black Theatre Festival and the National Black Theatre Festival.
For the past decade, Whitney-Scott, 67, has been bringing original work from playwrights around the world to the people of Greater Columbus. This year, from Friday through Sunday, the festival will celebrate its 11th season with seven short plays under the theme “The Right to Choose,” written by artists of all kinds and creeds.
About the playwrights
The festival lineup — consisting of monologues “Bed of Rose Thorns” and “Daidy or Daddy with an I” and five independent works of dialogue — represents a diverse range of playwrights, including “mature writers, white writers, women, white males, Black females, Black males, with ages ranging from their 30s up to (age) 88,” Whitney-Scott said.
“That makes me feel good.”
Also featured among this year’s playwrights are two Ohioans: Whitney-Scott herself, who penned “Bed of Rose Thorns” tackling questions of sexual proclivity, and Robb Willoughby, of Xenia, author of “Cowboy Chuck,” which explores freedom of expression via dress among LGBTQ+ people.
In every stage of the festival process, Whitney-Scott seeks to uplift fellow artists who may have previously struggled to find work in the area.
The mission behind CBTF, she said, was to curate “a platform where not only could…groups of people of color present their work… but also there would be people that could act, perform it, work behind the stage, lights, tech — all these pieces that come together in the theater.”
Narrowing down 81 play submissions
Whitney-Scott also leans on local artists to help make each year’s selections from the dozens of play submissions the festival receives. A process that begins in December with open submissions and concludes when playwrights are notified in mid-March, this year’s selection panel sorted through 81 submissions before landing on the final seven.
The most important stipulation in making selections, Whitney-Scott said, is that the panel reviews the plays blindly, knowing nothing other than the titles and the content.
This, she said, ensures that the panel understands that, “it’s all about the work…I don’t want people to have any biases.”
Then, once they’ve made their selections, Whitney-Scott will read through the entire lineup, recommending small changes to playwrights if absolutely needed.
“For example, I don’t produce anything with the n-word or that is derogatory to another person’s gender or sexuality,” she said. “So, I might call up a playwright and request those changes.”
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In addition to looking for works that uplift stories of marginalized people, those on the panel value pieces that represent the festival’s theme. This year, under the theme “The Right to Choose,” the selected works will touch on themes of abortion, the right to love whomever you’d like, the right to expression, the right to marry whomever you’d like regardless of race or religion, and more.
“The plays I choose for the Black Theatre Festival, along with the performers and characters that are portrayed, they give the audience a glimpse into other people’s lives, which (inspires) empathy and hope for the future,” Whitney-Scott said.
‘Get into another world that’s not theirs’ — Performances that challenge audiences
Ultimately, Whitney-Scott hopes that the festival will challenge audience members to broaden their worldview.
Her goal, she said, is that “when people walk away from the Black Theatre Festival, they walk away feeling good about themselves, feeling good about what they’ve seen. They walk away thinking about things. We don’t push anything down people’s throats, we’re not there to tell you how to think… we’re about helping people get into another world that’s not theirs.”
All three nights of the festival, starting 4 p.m. Friday at the Columbus Performing Arts Center’s Van Fleet Theatre, will feature raffle drawings to help fundraise for Mine 4 God Production’s youth programming, offering easily accessible, often free theater and art training to the students of Greater Columbus.
Each night of the festival will last just under two hours with an intermission. Tickets starting at $5 are available online at mine4godproductions.com/black-theatre-festival.