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Refocus Project, Kicking Off Today, Offers Free, Virtual Readings Of Historically Overlooked American Plays

Roundabout Theatre Company in New York, known for producing revivals in Broadway and off-Broadway theaters, today is kicking off the Refocus Project, an annual program dedicated to elevating rarely produced and formerly marginalized theatrical voices from communities underrepresented or historically overlooked in the American theater. 

The project will feature a series of five play readings and related materials, all available online and free to the public and industry professionals.  

The first series of play readings, presented in association with Black Theatre United, will spotlight twentieth-century Black plays and their playwrights, Angelina Weld Grimké, Shirley Graham Du Bois, Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Childress and Samm-Art Williams. 

Founded last June by Black actors, directors, musicians, writers, technicians, producers and stage management to elevate a cause or to overturn policies that target Black people in any one state or community, Black Theatre United draws on members with local connections to use their visibility and influence for good in theater and on the national stage.

All suggested donations for Refocus Project readings will directly support Black Theatre United.

In addition to the readings, the project will offer historical information, educational tools, panel discussions with artists, a “Literary Ancestry” essay series curated by Dave Harris (Roundabout’s Tow Foundation playwright-in-residence) and a community conversation hosted by Roundabout’s education department.  A partnership with the New York Public Library – spanning its branches, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and Library for the Performing Arts – will further engage audiences.

Plays being read during the project include:

Homeby Samm-Art Williams (1979), directed by RTC senior resident director Kenny Leon, available from April 30-May 3, 2021. This was originally produced by the Negro Ensemble Company at the St. Marks Playhouse, a production that transferred to Broadway in 1980 for an eight-month run that received a Tony nomination for best play.

Rachel, by Angelina Weld Grimké (1916), directed by RTC resident director Miranda Haymon, available from May 4-7. Originally produced by the NAACP’s Drama Committee in Washington D.C., Rachel is believed to be the first play by a Black woman professionally produced in the United States.

I Gotta Home, by Shirley Graham Du Bois (1939), directed by Steve H. Broadnax III, available from May 7-10. This had an early production by the Gilpin Players at Western Reserve University; The Cleveland Plain Dealer called the playwright “one of Yale’s most promising playwrighting students.”

Spunk, by Zora Neale Hurston (1935), directed by Lili-Anne Brown available from May 14-17. This play is based on Hurston’s short story, Spunk, published by Opportunity Magazine in June 1925. Ten years later, Hurston wrote this theatrical adaptation, which was never published and was considered to be lost for many years until the text was located in 1997.

Wine in the Wilderness by Alice Childress (1969), directed by Dominique Rider, available from May 21-24. The first-ever performance of Wine in the Wilderness was televised on WGBH-TV in Boston as part of the series, “On Being Black.” Some networks refused to air the performance, considering it too controversial for viewers because of its depictions of racial issues. Roundabout’s 2021-2022 Broadway season will begin with Childress’ Trouble in Mind, directed by Charles Randolph-Wright. 

Roundabout will work with theater makers and artistic directors nationwide to encourage viewership and future engagement in the plays, with the intended goal of future productions of these works at theaters across the country. 

The second year of the Refocus Project will feature Latinx playwrights. 

“As our theatre begins this long overdue work, I’m grateful for the talented group of artists who have gathered to create Refocus. I’d also like to thank our friends at Black Theatre United, Ford Foundation and Bank of America for joining us. We look forward to doing our part to realign ourselves with the great works of these American artists,” said Todd Haimes, RTC artistic director and chief executive.

“We are thrilled to participate in Roundabout’s Refocus program this spring since our focus at Black Theatre United encompasses inclusion, education and making necessary changes in the business of theater,” said Black Theatre United founding member and RTC board member Vanessa Williams.

Discussing the Refocus Project, Leon—a Tony and Obie Award-winning and Emmy-nominated Broadway and TV director and member of Black Theatre United, who last year directed the Tony-nominated Broadway premiere of Charles Fuller’s Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece, A Soldier’s Play, for which Leon also received a nomination for best director—said he hoped it would “broaden the idea of what a revival is, what it means—it’s not just Eugene O’Neill and Arthur Miller. 

“How do we broaden the stable of artists that we go to when we present revivals on the stage? And that’s also tied to diversifying the audience . . . and it’s also to give our audiences a wider breadth of great writers. The Roundabout is (also) giving early career directors and other directors of color an opportunity to discover material and to work with artists.”

Leon said he had loved playwright Williams’ work “for a while,” particularly Home, and suggested it “deserves a revival on Broadway. I want to put it on refocus, to ascertain if am I right in my instincts, can it be on Broadway, can I make it fresh for a present-day audience?”

He also called the Refocus Project a “tool for my colleagues in the regional theater space (who) can see the plays online. It serves as a tool for our smaller theaters and our non-profit theaters as well.”  

Leon’s upcoming personal projects include a March 2022 Broadway revival of Melvin Van Peebles’ musical, Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death, and a collaboration with Suzan-Lori Parks.

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