Michigan by Anita Gonzalez
Storytelling, Playwriting and Outreach
Von Washington, one of the newest Michigan members of the Dramatists Guild, has had an active career, writing more than 25 stage and/or Story Theatre creations, and performing in, or directing hundreds more. He currently leads WPI (Washington Productions Inc.), a theatrical/educational and video company which he runs with his wife. He is also an Air Force veteran who served in Vietnam and Germany.
I feature Dr. Washington this month because his journey as a playwright begins with the oral tradition. As a performer, Washington fell in love with oral tradition after researching how the African Griot adapts his performance to various audiences, and how history can be communicated through the Griot’s storytelling. Playwright Washington began to write stories which would appeal to a cross-section of audiences, educating them about lesser-known histories within the state of Michigan. His play In Search of Giants, for example, highlights the lives of several Michigan people who participated in the Underground Railroad. The production, although staged in the traditional style of the African Griot, uses more than one narrator.
Adapting storytelling techniques from international performance styles expands a writer’s repertory and may lead to unique collaborations with diverse cultural artists. In Michigan, there is particular need for stories representing a multiplicity of political and cultural communities within the state. Washington states: “As a writer, I look for moments in the past that aid the living in planning for the future.”
Von Washington first joined the Guild when he was working in New York, then moved away from the organization when he began to work and teach primarily in Michigan. This year, he reconnected with the Dramatists Guild to reach out to a national community while maintaining an active Michigan professional network. I am particularly captivated by his work because of my interest in how diverse cultural forms can impact the American theatre. Dr. Washington’s approach to telling stories captures the spoken word or the oral tradition, then shapes it to reach community and school audiences.
Von Washington advocates for African and African American performance styles and believes the Dramatists Guild and its membership can help advance the artistry of people of color by showing a solid interest in their experience and setting up a system to help develop young writers. It’s important for these burgeoning voices to be heard; he is very glad the Dramatists Guild is active in the regions and connecting with new communities. One suggestion he offers for increasing diversity within the organization is to reach out to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU’s) and other Native American and Latino educational institutions to encourage playwrights of color to become active writers. He believes these students need to understand their experiences can be listened to, and will be valued in the wider world.
Michigan Dramatists Guild events will start up again this Fall after a summer respite. The first event will be a “Meet and Greet” preceding the 7:30 pm performance of Banned Together: A Censorship Cabaret at The Comedy Showcase at 212 S. 4th Ave, Ann Arbor, MI 48104. I’ll share details about the location of the “Meet and Greet” via email. It will be a great opportunity to plan and think about events for the upcoming year.