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The Theme is Blackness

Local theater festival focuses on black experience

Playwright Ed Bullins will premiere during "The Theme is Blackness" festival.

A futuristic tale of blacks in space and a classic story of a North Carolina slave girl offer varying portrayals of the black experience during "The Theme is Blackness" theater festival next month.

Curated by Duke University faculty and presented by The Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern Nov. 3-13 at Manbites Dog Theater in Durham, the festival features two weeks of plays and discussions on the state of theater and race in America.

"We wanted to create a forum where new plays by black playwrights could be showcased outside the month of February," wrote Jay O'Berski, Duke theater studies assistant professor of the practice, in an email message. "Because we have so many incredible black artists in Durham with connections to internationally renowned playwrights working in the U.S., we knew it was time to start something in Durham."

The festival kicks off with the world premiere of playwright Ed Bullins' play "Night Beast" about a man who awakes on a dystopian black planet in the midst of a civil war. O'Berski directs the play.

Lydia R. Diamond's story "Harriet Jacobs" follows, adapted from Jacobs' American classic "Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl." The story has a local connection, as Jacobs was born in Edenton on North Carolina's Albemarle Sound.

Events also include a preview of Durham playwright Howard L. Craft's upcoming black superhero trilogy, "The Jade City Chronicles."

O'Berski and Jennifer Brody, professor of African and African American studies and theater at Duke, are teaching a class on black theater this semester. The class is involved in all aspects of the plays, from production to publicity, and has been analyzing major themes from the plays including science fiction, Afrofuturism and the slave narrative.

Supported by a grant from Duke's Office of the Vice Provost for the Arts, playwrights Bullins and Diamond will teach and work with the students during the festival.

"[The plays] are both fresh in the genre and kinds of themes they'll discuss -confinement as a form of freedom and the future of blacks in space," Brody said.

Amaris Whitaker, a 2009 Duke graduate and actor in Diamond's play, also notes that the festival presents a diversity of black literature.

"[The festival] addresses the consequences of a constricting societal structure and complicated social dynamics, not only in the past but in a hypothetical future," she wrote by email.

O'Berski said that although the plays fall into different genres, their themes run parallel.

"In both plays an individual triumphs over oppression as a result of banding together with other rebels," he said. "We're hoping the finished works will elicit more questions and inspire ideas in audiences from the most diverse backgrounds."

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