The executive committee of Honor Roll! L to R: Cheryl Davis, Yvette Heyliger, Sarah Tuft, Lucy Wang, Jacquelyn Reingold, Olga Humphrey, and Cynthia Cooper.
In August of 2019, I was invited to attend a meeting of women playwrights on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in the home of Susan Miller. The purpose of the gathering was to begin to organize as a body to address the ongoing lack of parity for female (and ultimately, female identifying) playwrights over forty years of age in the American theatre. As it got underway, attendees learned that the meeting was called to further the goals set forth in a previous gathering a year earlier of women playwrights who had met in the home of Theresa Rebeck. Member Brooke Berman subsequently suggested the name Honor Roll! and it caught on.
Such meetings were familiar to me. As a black woman who had long ago turned to self-producing as a way to get her work before an audience, I knew I had a stake in the outcome of these meetings. I became a member of the League of Professional Theatre Women whose mission is to promote visibility and increase opportunities for women in the Professional Theatre. In 2008, I joined the grassroots movement 50/50 in 2020, whose goal was to raise awareness of the contributions of women to the theatre and to achieve employment parity for women theatre artists by the year 2020, the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage. In 2009, the Dramatists Guild convened a group of five members to recommend concrete steps to address the crisis in gender disparity. This resulted in the birth of the Women’s Initiative (made up of members of the Dramatists Guild) whose mission was to identify and address the challenges facing American women dramatists and develop action steps to advance and sustain fairness, equality and gender parity for all dramatists. In 2012, HedgebrookWomen Writers’ in Residence and The Lark Play Development Center joined forces to host a series of gatherings to address the challenges women playwrights and theatre practitioners face creating work and getting it out in the world. I have been not just a member of these groups, but I have served in various leadership rolls.
In 2015, Martha Richards, Executive Director of WomenArts and Co-founder of Support Women Artists Now Day/SWAN Day, invited me to join a small contingent of women playwrights to attend the Equity in Theatre Symposium in Toronto, Canada to show our solidarity (see my report in The Dramatist). In addition, I attended discussion groups, town halls and I read studies like New York State Council on the Arts’ Report on the Status of Women: A Limited Engagement?which helped to illuminate and deepen my understanding of the parity issue. The next step was to figure out where I stood as a Black woman playwright within the conversation.
In recent years, a study was done by The Lillys in partnership with the Dramatists Guild called The Count, productions for women of color nationwide went up from 3.4% to 6.2% (The Count 2.0). For white women it went up from 14.0% to 20.5% (The Count 2.0). Even with these slight improvements, men continue to get the lion’s share of production opportunities in the American theatre. Statistics like these fueled my desire to serve; to fight alongside other theatre women on the front lines of parity, inclusion, equal pay and greater opportunity.
I have produced events myself, written articles, and started a petition proposing that gender parity be achieved through legislation—essentially that any arts organization or institution that is receiving city, state, or federal funding should be mandated to allocate an equitable portion of that funding to women+ artists, or risk losing government funding. The petition received signatures from all 50 states and a letter from President Obama who said in part, “Thank you, again, for writing. America must be a level playing field, a fair race where anybody who’s willing to work hard has a chance to get ahead. Restoring opportunity for every American—especially for women—will remain a driving focus for our country.” Inspired, I took our plight to First Lady Michelle Obama asking her to invite women to the White House to discuss issues of parity for women artists in general. I asked this of her inspired by a precedent set by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt who singlehandedly diversified the White House Press Corps by saying that if newspapers wanted to know what was happening in her husband’s administration, they’d better send a woman journalist!
Over these years of activism, I have found that the stain of conscious or unconscious racial bias has not escaped any of the women’s organizations that I have ever been a part of—no matter how well-meaning or well-intentioned they may have been. So, as a woman of color, I have had to ask myself, why serve in these organizations if white women are not fighting for us as much as we are fighting for them? Why stay where women of color are not truly seen or heard or given the respect of elected office?
For the greater goal, that’s why.
Like the black suffragettes who fought for inclusion in suffragette organizations despite the relentless racism they endured, I knew that enrolling all women—especially white women—in the greater goal is what would keep women+ of color, around. For any activist group to sustain itself, it can’t just be about me and my little play or you and your little play. It has to be about the whole. And more importantly, it has to be about future generations because none of us living today will see parity in our lifetime. It is the greater goal that gives us strength to stay the course; to fight the good fight.
So, what makes Honor Roll! different?
Yes, I am a playwright and yes, I am over forty, but that is not the only difference I have found. What clinched my participation in Honor Roll! was that some white members of group—without any prompting, begging or demanding by women of color—openly proclaimed the need for diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility in this new advocacy group. This really surprised me as a Black woman who is accustomed to walking into rooms where I am in the minority, and once inside, having to fight for every inch of ground described in Martin Luther King Jr.’s proverbial quote, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
In his Huffington Post opinion piece, The Truth About ‘The Arc of the Moral Universe’, Mychal Denzel Smith says, “Before we can be active participants in bending the arc of the moral universe, we have to know what we’re bending it toward. How we define ‘justice’ will determine the work that we do to achieve it. And unless we do the work to define ‘justice,’ we never will.” And define it we did. Our mission says it best:
HONOR ROLL! is an advocacy and action group of women+ playwrights over forty—and our allies—whose goal is our inclusion in theater. We are the generation excluded at the outset of our careers because of sexism, now overlooked because of ageism. We celebrate diversity in theater and work to call attention to the negative impact of age discrimination alongside gender, race, ethnicity, faith, socioeconomic status, disability, and sexual orientation in the American theatre and beyond.
Defining ourselves was of upmost importance. All of our activities—realized and unrealized—as well as the decisions we make, flow from there. We are often reminded that we are a “grassroots group of self-initiated actions—if you don’t initiate, nothing happens!” Here are a few examples of our activities:
Securing publishing opportunities including with Applause Theatre and Cinema books, She Persisted: 30 Ten-Minute Plays by Women Over 40 and She Persisted: Monologues from Plays by Women Over 40 (February 2021).
Reading and recommending one another’s work on the New Play Exchange.
Learning to write and edit profiles of our playwrights on Wikipedia.
Initiating online events and podcasts including: Honor Roll! Talks TV panels, Liberty’s Daughters: Immigrant Women’s Voices (with Nuyorican Poets Café), 00:08:46 Plays: Say Their Name (plays about Black Women+, Indigenous Women+ and Women+ of Color who have died at the hands of law enforcement), and a collaboration with Playing On Air, a radio program and podcast, dedicated to sharing great short theater with the public.
Identifying fellowships for women+ playwrights over forty years of age.
Reaching out in letters and in-person meetings asking theatres, foundations, and artistic directors to remove ageist limitations on opportunities and to be aware of the intersectional effects of age, gender, race, disability.
And finally, the all-important happy hour gathering.
We are a movement of citizen artists bound together by a common plight, fighting from the trenches, without permission or need of validation from “the establishment.” Much like the former Occupy Wall Street movement, Honor Roll! began with rotating leadership—that is, no one person in charge—with the goal of shared responsibility designed to empower and activate the membership. But our growing numbers (nearly 800 members on our Facebook page) have made it necessary to form an executive committee: Cynthia Cooper, Cheryl Davis, Olga Humphrey, Sarah Tuft, Jacquelyn Reingold, Lucy Wang and yours truly, Yvette Heyliger. We found a home for our meetings in the Mary Rodgers Room at the Dramatists Guild, but like many theatre groups and organizations we have had to transition to online platforms for our meetings in the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic.
An “honor roll” is defined by dictionary.com as “a list of names, usually on a plaque in a public place, of local citizens who have served or died in the armed services.” Armed with our pens, and iPads and laptops, we stand on the shoulders of those unsung, unrepresented, and under-produced women playwrights who came before us. Likewise, the women+ playwrights who are coming after us are standing on our shoulders and are benefitting from our struggle. We welcome more Black Women+, Indigenous Women+ and Women+ of Color over forty, to join our ranks. Please write to us at email@example.com.
We got this.
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YVETTE HEYLIGERis a playwright, producing artist, activist and author of What a Piece of Work is Man! Full-Length Plays for Leading Women. Yvette is the recipient of the AUDELCO Recognition Award for Excellence in Black Theatre’s August Wilson Playwright Award among other awards, and has contributed to various theatrical anthologies, magazines, journals and blogs. She currently serves as the Dramatists Guild NYC Ambassador.