Rita Anderson: We’re talking to JEANETTE HILL today. Please tell us about how you came to theatre.
Jeanette Hill: I am originally from Akron, Ohio, but I’ve spent half of my life in Texas and I’ve been writing since I picked up a pencil—as attested to by the 150 plays in my computer, although I’ve only produced a few of them. Writing came natural to me because I am a textbook introvert, and it has always been my way of dealing with the issues of life, and it’s my weapon of choice to bring awareness regarding social and civil injustices and to be a voice for the voiceless. It is me marching on paper. I’ve been blessed with several awards/acknowledgments on my journey, including Woodie King Jr. and New Federal Theatre’s Ntozake Shange Reading Series, the Atlanta Black Theatre Festival, the Kingdomwood Film Festival, Black Pearls Literary Excellence Award, and others.
RA: Playwrights like parents “shouldn’t” have “favorites,” but what is the favorite play that you’ve written and why?
JH: It changes (hope the other children don’t rebel). Currently, it’s Clean Sheets. It literally took me years to finish this play because of the pain, theme, and impact I knew it would have on women, especially women of color. It personifies how trauma, left unchecked, may sleep but it doesn’t die. Clean Sheets is the story of what happens when a family’s generational secrets are revealed, triggering a situation where their blessings and their curses collide.
RA: Regarding “Racism in the American Theatre,” I read that BIWOC only see a 6.4% representation on stage. Describe your experience as a Black female playwright and an AD.
JH: The late playwright/author/activist James Baldwin spoke truth to power when he declared churches the most segregated place in America on Sunday mornings. I believe the second most segregated place in America is traditional theatre on Saturday night.
I question if 6.4% isn’t too high. How many African American playwrights, actors, dramaturgs, stage managers, technicians, and others can list a traditional, regional theatre on their resume? In those traditional institutions, who sits on their Board? Is it reflective of their statements about the social constructs of diversity and inclusion? Who are the decision makers? What plays/playwrights are produced? What roles do BIWOC fill?
I decided to self-produce after being told repeatedly that my work isn’t a good fit for traditional (white) theatres nor their constituents (white audiences). Some believe my writing is ‘too Black’, even some people of color. The consensus is that if I want to be successful, I need to adapt my work for ‘wider’ acceptance.
I define success for myself. Meaning, my work may not have a regional premiere or be seen on a Broadway stage, but it will always be true to who I am and what I believe. My plays are about life the way Black people live it. They are our stories, told in our voice. I encourage playwrights of color to produce their work!! Collaborate with other artists if you can but get your stories out there—whether on the back porch or Broadway stage—do it. Don’t adapt or filter it, don’t wait to be cajoled, chosen or critiqued! One silver lining of this pandemic is that the playing field has been leveled. We have access to a broader, more diverse audience than ever before. Let’s work together to leverage that.