By Evie King
Mounting Richmond’s first-ever Women’s Theatre Festival has involved making a lot of decisions, both large and small: from crafting narrative arcs and landing a production’s memorable takeaway moments, down to the detailed choice of what color pants an actor will wear onstage.
But now it’s showtime: The festival, housed in TheatreLAB’s black box theater, includes four one-woman shows: “Message From a Slave,” “Bad Dates,” “Pretty Fire” and “Golda’s Balcony.” The plays rotate in rep with one another through April 20.
During an afternoon fitting with costume designer Ruth Hedberg, Hedberg, actress Haliya Roberts and director Carol Piersol of the show “Pretty Fire” decided what Roberts would wear in the production.
After trying on a few pairs of pants and looking over some patterned blouse options, the three women chose a simple ensemble: a black tank top tucked into a pair of black pants.
Co-hosted by 5th Wall Theatre and TheatreLAB, the Women’s Theatre Festival production team is made up of 14 local women who take on the roles of producers; directors; actors; and lighting, sound and costume designers.
The only man working on the project is Deejay Gray, artistic director of TheatreLAB and co-creator of the festival. Gray said he was inspired to start the festival because of the strong influence many women have had on both his artistic career and personal life.
“My entire life I’ve been surrounded by strong, powerful, incredible women, and something like this is exciting because if I can use my privilege to create space for other people, that to me is the greatest thing that I can do as an artist and as a human being,” Gray said.
By offering support from the sidelines, Gray said his role in the project is largely peripheral. Though stepping back as a producer was initially uncomfortable, he said, he was excited to be a part of the team and see the women involved in the project take ownership of telling these stories.
“They don’t need me, but it can be a really great opportunity for folks to understand that you don’t have to identify directly with something to support it,” Gray said.
Giving women ‘a strong role’ in society and on stage
Carol Piersol is artistic director of 5th Wall Theatre and the other co-creator of the festival. Piersol said when she began producing theater over 20 years ago, women’s voices were rarely featured onstage; that’s why this festival is important to her.
“It’s respecting women and giving them a strong role in our society and making them make a difference in the world, as opposed to being a secondary character in a play that revolves around men,” Piersol said.
Gray said the decision to produce one-woman scripts highlighted a through line of female camaraderie between the individual stories.
“We thought that a great way to introduce the idea for this festival would be the singular voice of individual women coming together to share a much larger narrative,” Gray said.
Though each production presents an entirely individual narrative, Gray and Piersol said a common theme of personal liberation and triumph is evident in each story.
From unfortunate dating anecdotes, told by a cocktail-sipping Maggie Bavolack, in Theresa Rebeck’s “Bad Dates,” to one woman’s history being enslaved and the effects of generational trauma in Margarette Joyner’s “Message From a Slave,” the female protagonists end each play in hope.
Depicting racism the actress has experienced in life
“Pretty Fire,” written by Charlayne Woodard in 1995, is an autobiographical coming-of-age story about the playwright’s own childhood, growing up as an African American in the 1960s. The play depicts vignettes of Woodward experiencing significant moments in her life: from being racially discriminated against by her white classmates to singing her first solo in church.
Haliya Roberts plays Charlayne Woodard’s character as well as the 20-plus supporting roles. Roberts said after reading the script for the first time, she burst into tears because the story and cast of characters were so intimately familiar to her.
“I saw a lot of women in my life … my grandmothers, my parents, and I connected with it in a way that I don’t think I’ve ever connected with any piece that I’ve done this far in my career,” Roberts said.
Wearing a simple all-black outfit, Roberts transforms from grandmother to granddaughter, child to adult, exchanging dialogue sequences with herself.
Piersol, the play’s director, said the fluid nature of the script demanded a simple design aesthetic. One red bench constitutes the set, as Roberts sits, stands, climbs and crawls over and under it, guiding the audience through Woodard’s childhood.
Piersol said directing the show has brought to light her own ignorance of the prejudice faced daily by African Americans. While working on a scene in which Woodard is called the N-word, Piersol learned that Roberts has had that same experience in real life.
“It opened my eyes that we as white people don’t have any idea about the black experience. We can’t know it all. We think we’re not prejudiced; we think we know, and we don’t. We don’t have a clue,” Piersol said.
Roberts said the show’s rehearsal process was a collaborative experience between Piersol and herself. Where Piersol offered direction and guidance, Roberts brought her firsthand experience of African American culture and identity.
Roberts said the show humanizes “the black experience as an American experience” and speaks to racial division as both a historic and current obstacle for American audiences to consider.
Evoking feminism from an earlier generation
With the red bench from “Pretty Fire” moved off stage and a table and chairs added to the space, “Golda’s Balcony” is set.
Jacqueline Goldberg Jones travels around the stage as Golda Meir, Israel’s first female prime minister. William Gibson’s script reflects on Meir’s life and the events leading up to her decision that guided the nation from the brink of nuclear warfare during the Yom Kippur War in 1973.
Director Debra Clinton said that although the play is about feminism of a different time, certain themes hold true.
“I think for women of a lot of generations, we have all always struggled with what we’re supposed to be doing as women and what we feel we want to do as human beings, and what is the price that we pay for following our vision for what we want,” Clinton said.
The female protagonist navigates the male-dominated political world, holding her own in leadership and determination. Clinton said Meir was an anomaly in a time when women were not encouraged to be powerful leaders.
Having previously mounted the show nearly 10 years ago, Jones said she is thrilled to revisit this immense script and portray such a strong character again.
Jones and Clinton said producing this show in the festival’s lineup celebrates their talents as proud Jewish women and active artists in Richmond’s theater scene.
“We are the face of what is happening now. And some of us are older and some of us are younger, and some of us come from the education world and some of us are professional, but we are the face, and I think there’s a huge empowerment in that,” Clinton said.
Piersol and Gray said tentative plans are already in motion for next year’s Women’s Theatre Festival. The co-creators said they look forward to exploring new avenues for expanding the content and audience, with potentially larger casts and involving more community partners.
Gray said a lot of those decisions are dependent upon the current moment.
“Art imitates life and vice versa, and so we want to be able to make sure that the festival is projecting what’s happening in the world around us as well,” Gray said.
Roberts said she is honored to be part of Richmond’s first Women’s Theatre Festival at a time when she says people are listening.
“I think it’s great,” Roberts said. “We’re having a moment and an uprising, and a time when people have ears to hear women’s stories.”
Upcoming Performances at Women’s Theatre Festival
All of the plays are being presented at TheatreLAB’s black box theater, 300 E. Broad St. Tickets can be purchased at http://www.5thwalltheatre.org/
“Message From a Slave” — April 10 at 8 p.m.; April 14 at 4 p.m.; April 19 at 8 p.m.
“Bad Dates” — April 11, 16 and 20; all performances at 8 p.m
“Pretty Fire” — April 12 and 17, both performances at 8 p.m.
“Golda’s Balcony” — April 13 and 18, both performances at 8 p.m.