Dr. Richard Wesley is an American playwright and an associate professor of dramatic writing at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. His canon of work and influence on Black Theatre and television spans more than 5 decades, beginning in the late 60s. But his first critical acclaim was in 1971 for his play Black Terror at the New York Shakespeare Festival, which The New York Times calls a “winner” that “makes the case for black revolution and against black revolution.”
Dr. Wesley has written five plays, four screenplays, three teleplays, and most recently, in 2016, he wrote and produced Five, an opera about the 1989 Central Park Five jogger case in New York City, composed by Anthony Davis with a libretto by Wesley, which premiered at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark.
He has received the Drama Desk Award, the NAACP Image Award, the AUDELCO Award and the Castillo Award for his work in political theater. He is also the author of the recently published book It’s Always Loud in the Balcony: A Life in Black Theater, from Harlem to Hollywood and Back (Applause Books, 2019). And on Saturday, March 28, Dr. Wesley will be honored for his work and contributions to black theatre and writing at the 15th National Black Writers Conference at Medgar Evers College.
BK Reader recently had the pleasure and honor of sitting down with Dr. Wesley to discuss his new book, his process, and the evolution of Black Theatre over the past 50 years.
BK Reader: Your very first play, Black Terror, was about Black Revolution Movement of the 60s. In your view, how has the Black Revolution most significantly changed today, and how would that inform any differences in your approach to writing?
Richard Wesley: At that time, in the late 60s, the political energy that was driving the movement was out of the successes and disappointments of the Civil Rights Movement. And we were very heavily influenced by the liberation movements that were going on overseas. So those influences and those forces don’t quite exist today.
I think if I were writing the play today, the energy that drives the play would be less international and a lot more domestic. It would be a direct outgrowth of something like “Black Lives Matter.” There are elements of BLM that remind very much of the same kind of energy we tapped into in the early 70s, and I think that that energy is something that has been consistent inside the black community domestically since the days of slavery. We have been trying to figure out just what our place is in what Elijah Muhammad used to refer to as “The Wilderness of North America.” We have been trying to first define it and then decide how we’re going to exist within it.
We’ve also been struggling to recognize that we have as much– even more– invested as time, blood, spirit and ancestral connection than any other group outside of Native Americans, right here in this country. So our political drive has been connected to whatever that energy is; whatever those memories are. We are the survivors of the Middle Passage. We are the legacy of many thousands gone. And we can never forget that. And so, yeah, that’s where all of this comes from and where it comes out. The Gen-X’ers and Millennials that are coming along now learn from of our old writings. But the revolution today does not have to be a mirror image of the revolution yesterday. The revolution today is going to be shaped by the forces of today.
BKR: So what was your motivation and passion along the way as a playwright? During that movement, what were you hoping to achieve?
RW: We were about the process of building something. We were trying to expand on structures that were already in place in before we came along. We were expanding on ideas of people like W.E.B. DuBoise, Alain Locke, Rose McClendon … There were so many black theatre artists in those first 50, 60 years of the 20th Century whose work had been started, stopped, resurrected… That is what we were doing: We were building on that structure.
And that’s what’s going on now: The continued expansion of that structure. We’re in the continuous process of codifying a Black theatre canon. That’s what’s been going on ever since 1900.
BKR: What was it like to work with and apprentice under actor and film director Sidney Poitier?
RW: I talk about it a lot in the book I wrote, “It’s Always Loud in the Balcony.” I talk about those days what it was like coming along during that period.
But it was wonderful! I’m trying to think of an even better word than that *laughing* … Working with Sidney, I was always learning something new. It was exciting. It was one grand adventure after another for someone who was 27 years old. Sidney was the first person that brought me outside of the United States. Because I wrote the final draft of Uptown Saturday Night in Sidney’s home in the Bahamas. And, I was in the Bahamas that last year that the Bahamas was under British rule, just before independence. So I was watching a new country being born while I was working on Uptown Saturday Night.
BKR: At the upcoming Black Writers Conference in Crown Heights, you are being honored during the first-ever time they will be including screenwriters and playwrights in their programming. Why do you feel it is important we now make literary and performance writers stand side-by-side?
RW: I think it’s a recognition that is overdue, and I wondered why it has taken this long. I also think it’s an outgrowth of the fact that so much of the information that has been transferred and passed around inside of the Black community has gone beyond books, for years now.
I think this is just a recognition of the fact that our processing of information has moved beyond just reading books. We have to include the visual medium as well now. It’s what we’re able to do now with something like the smartphone that I’m holding. So filmmakers, the way in which they tell stories; television writers and the way they are developing stories for T.V., in the new golden age of T.V… recognizing that some of the work that’s being done deserves a scholarly consideration; deserves to be examined, debated and talked about in the same way that our counterparts in literature have been talked about and debated for decades now.
It’s about time this is happening. And I hope to see more of it as time goes on.
Dr. Richard Wesley will be honored at an awards ceremony and also participating in a roundtable discussion, Black Theater and Film: Looking Back, Moving Forward “Celebrating 50 Years of Advancing Knowledge, Social Justice, and Excellence” on March 28, 4:15pm in the Edison O. Jackson Auditorium at Medgar Evers College during the National Black Writers Conference.
For more information and to purchase tickets to the National Black Writers Conference, go here.