by France-Luce Benson
On March 12, 2020, I flew from Los Angeles to Ft. Lauderdale to watch my 14-year-old niece, Shelby, act in her first play. The year prior we’d spent months, at her request, preparing for her audition for Dillard Performance Arts High School. Days before her audition, she desperately asked, “Auntie, do you think I have a chance?” As any loving aunt would, I replied, “Are you kidding? They’d be crazy not to accept you!”
Truth is, I was worried. Not about whether she’d get in or not—I had no doubt she would. I was actually worried about what would follow when she did get in. What would happen if she fell in love with theatre, just as I did at that age? What if it became her passion, her profession, her vocation, her life? I wanted to protect her from a life of rejection, of disappointment, of cutthroat competition, of financial instability, of heartbreak. I know, right? Project much?
Needless to say, Shelby’s school show did not go on. Like theatres all over the country, the school shut down that week and stayed closed for the remainder of 2020. What this last year without live theatre has taught me is that all the things I love and miss about theatre far outweigh the fears and anxieties I projected on to my niece. I was so focused on the ways the industry can hurt and disappoint. But 2020 reminded me of the ways the art of theatre loves. Theatre heals. Theatre connects. Theatre teaches. Theatre activates change and even revolution.
And probably most evident in this past year, no matter what, theatre survives. I am in awe of the ways my community has demonstrated this truth, and am immensely grateful for the opportunities I have had to create, connect, heal, and teach through my own work. In July 2020, I was one of four female-identifying playwrights, representing the African Diaspora, commissioned to write plays in response to the prompt “Conversations with the Ancestors.” A production of Project Y Theatre, All Hands on Deck streamed throughout the summer.
From April through December, I hosted “Saturday Matinees” with the Fountain Theatre, a virtual salon that featured theatre artists from all over the country, including Kit Yan, Antonio Lyons, Lisa Strum, Dennis A. Allen, Vanessa Garcia, and more. The weekly series celebrated BIPOC artists, while providing audiences time and space to connect with each another during a time when many of us endured incredible isolation. In November, I led a four-week workshop hosted by Global Voices Theatre in London. Participants joined from all over the world—Hong Kong, Philippines, India, the U.S.—to develop new plays aimed at correcting revisionist history.
In January of this year, my play Tigress of San Domingue streamed as part of Atlantic Theatre Company’s African Caribbean Mixfest, and last month I was among six playwrights featured in Long Distance Affair. Produced by Juggerknot Theatre and Popup Theatrics, LDA brought together playwrights and actors from six cities around the world—Los Angeles, Portland, Beirut, Lagos, Mexico City, and Mumbai—to create immersive theatre. With over 60 live performances, LDA is the closest thing to in-person theatre I experienced all year. Audience members interacted with one another in intimate Zoom rooms, and with the characters whose lives they interrupted, often at odd times depending on the city (2 a.m. in Lagos).
I had the pleasure of collaborating with L.A.-based actor Wendy Elizabeth Abraham, who bravely invited us into her home in Sherman Oaks, and into her emotional journey through grief and motherhood. I attended about six of the 60-plus performances, and no two were ever the same.
Finally, I launched Fountain Voices, a new arts education initiative I developed in my role as community engagement coordinator for the Fountain. The program promotes empathy and community building, teaching students how to write original plays based on interviews with members of their own community. The successful pilot run of Fountain Voices at Hollywood High culminated in January, with a powerful presentation of work that explored homophobia, depression, and homelessness among teenagers. This month, Fountain Voices begins a partnership with Compton Unified School District, where we will serve over 100 students, longing to be seen and heard.
My time spent with these students reaffirmed what the last year taught me. And when my niece is ready to return to school and inevitably enjoys her first moment onstage, rather than prepare her for the darkness, I will encourage her to embrace all the light and love theatre shines on us.
This post originally appeared in American Theatre Magazine.