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DCP EP. 105 Broadway’s Black Renaissance: Tyler English-Beckwith

Transcribed by: Sydney Henriques-Payne

Completion date: March 2, 2022

Shana Pinnock: [00:00:03] What up, Grio Fam, welcome to Dear Culture, the podcast that gives you news you can trust for the culture, I’m your co-host on a panicked social media director here at The Grio, [00:00:11][7.7]

Gerren Keith Gaynor: [00:00:12] and I’m your co-host Gerren Keith Gaynor, managing editor of Politics and Washington Correspondent at The Grio. And this week we’re asking dear culture, are we ready for Broadway’s Black renaissance? [00:00:23][11.3]

Shana Pinnock: [00:00:32] One of the industries hit the hardest by the pandemic was Broadway, with hundreds of shows being canceled, thousands of artists losing work and millions of dollars lost along the way. Now Broadway is back and it’s having a moment of very Black moment at that this season. [00:00:48][15.9]

Gerren Keith Gaynor: [00:00:48] Every news show opening on Broadway is by a Black playwright, and you don’t need to be a fan of theater to feel that impact from hit shows like P-Valley and the She’s Got to Have It reboot two critically acclaimed films like the 40 year old version Black Playwrights Are Shaping the culture. Whether we know it or not. Our guest today, we’ll talk with us about her experience as a writer and Broadway’s Black Renaissance in all its glory. [00:01:13][25.0]

Shana Pinnock: [00:01:14] That’s right. Originally from Dallas, Texas, and currently based in Brooklyn, New York. Tyler English Beckwith is an actress, filmmaker and playwright. Her plays include Mingus, Maya and Rivers Bitch and Tate. She is currently a staff writer on Season seven of Outlander on Starz, and her screenwriting work can be heard on the iHeartRadio scripted podcast. Daughters of DC The adaptation she wrote of Rebecca Hall’s critically acclaimed graphic novel Wake, is set to be released on Audible soon. [00:01:41][26.6]

Gerren Keith Gaynor: [00:01:42] A member of the 2020 Twenty Pay 73 Writers Group Interstate Seventy Three, Tyler is the recipient of the 2020 Leo Ryan Fund for Emerging Women Writers and the recipient of the 2018 Kennedy Center, Paula Vogel Play Prize. She holds an MFA in dramatic writing from NYU Tisch and tubas in African and African Diaspora Studies, as well as theater and dance from U.T. Austin. Tyler hopes to create worlds in her writing, where Black women live beyond the basic means of survival and have the audacity to be autonomous. And we’re thrilled to have her join us on Dear Culture today. Tyler, welcome to the show. [00:02:24][41.9]

Tyler English-Beckwith: [00:02:25] Hi, thank you. I’m so excited to be here. I will say I no longer live in Brooklyn. I live in Harlem now. [00:02:31][5.4]

Shana Pinnock: [00:02:31] Oh, I hate to here, so bad. All right. [00:02:34][2.7]

Gerren Keith Gaynor: [00:02:38] it’s all good. I lived in Harlem for five years and now I’m in Washington, D.C. So it’s all. It’s all love. [00:02:42][4.4]

Shana Pinnock: [00:02:43] OK, that’s fine, girl. I was in the Bronx. It’s all right. So so I want us to start broad because, you know, I at least I don’t often get to have in-depth conversations about Broad-way. But I… — corny, corny mom joke — I watch a lot of TV, probably way too much, but part of my job is consuming media, right? I’m the social media director. I have to… I got to know what’s going on. But theater often gets overlooked in this now very digital age. So while there’s clearly a venue difference when we think about, you know, theater versus TV for our listeners, Tyler, can you share with us the major distinctions between TV writers and playwrights? [00:03:30][46.8]

Tyler English-Beckwith: [00:03:32] I think the big distinction is that playwrights have complete ownership over what they write. So TV writers and screenwriters are almost like contract workers. And then the script works more like a blueprint specifically in film, and the director gets to make the decision on what gets found and what doesn’t what makes the final cut. That all happens in editing, and TV writers have a bit more control just because it’s a much faster pace. There’s not a lot of time to make on the fly changes, but it’s still, I would say, like a producer’s medium. But playwriting is one hundred percent a writer’s medium. What they write on the page is the only thing they get said on stage. They have complete ownership over it. Writers can say how their plays are performed. Where they’re performed. Who gets to be cast in them? All of that is up to the playwright, so I think power is a big difference. And then also money. There’s not a lot of money to be made as a playwright if you’re not doing commercial theater. And TV writers and screenwriters are, though they don’t have as much power, they do make a lot more money. [00:04:44][72.0]

Shana Pinnock: [00:04:45] OK, got you. OK, so but you know, we’ve been noticing like there’s been this kind of this this influx of a crossover between play writers in other writers rooms like from your perspective, why are we seeing this moment of crossover and why is this so important? [00:05:01][16.0]

Tyler English-Beckwith: [00:05:01] I think strangely about the moment of crossover has been happening since films became talkies like they always took playwrights from New York and brought them over to L.A. to write dialog. I think it’s just more highly publicized now because of the age of television that we’re in, and because television is much more procedures than it was then. It has been in a long time. I think more people are interested. And bringing sort of different writers who may work in different mediums to expand what television can look like. And I’m really excited about how TV has grown over the years, and I think playwrights can only add to that like beautiful new mosaic of whatever is happening on television. [00:05:51][49.1]

Gerren Keith Gaynor: [00:05:52] You know, Tyler is very interesting to hear you talk about the difference, the different types of writers, because I think that that gets lost in. That’s really important and even work in print media — digital, I guess you could say. And even in podcasting, the type of writing that you do for each medium is different and they all matter. And Black writers in particular matter because Black writers help tell Black stories. And oftentimes those stories are rooted in Black liberation and activism. And I can imagine that also spilling over in the world of theater. But there have to be enough Black writers and Black playwrights in theater to make that happen. Talk about an article in New York Times. Twenty twenty one October writer Michael Paulson said that Broadway’s pre-pandemic theater season featured only two plays by Black writers, and one of them was have been around since 1981. A previous season before that, there were only one, and before that only zero. But fast forward to twenty twenty two. We’re seeing a renaissance of Black playwrights and I want to. It makes me — to go back to the Black liberation piece of this — can you talk to us about the role that Black theater and makers have played in the Black liberation movement and how theater has made an impact in activism prior to this renaissance that we’re seeing now in and on Broadway? [00:07:16][83.8]

Tyler English-Beckwith: [00:07:16] Sure. I think the Black arts movement has always been a key piece of all Black freedom movements. As soon as you said like playwrights as a part of Black liberation movements, I immediately think of like Amiri Baraka, who was working closely with activists at the time, and all of his plays were very closely connected to what was happening in the world in the 60s and the 70s. James Baldwin is also a playwright. I think about one of my favorite places, the Amen Corner. He that was actually one of the first Black musicals to be performed on Broadway, or when we think of Langston Hughes, also a playwright. A lot of Zora Neale Hurston work has been turned into plays. I think a lot of the people who we look to as the like bearers of our history are artists, and it’s a lot more fun, I’d say, to look back on that history through music or through plays, through books, through fiction and get a piece of it. So I feel like theater has always been a cornerstone. There was a quote that I’m going to butcher, but I remember someone saying that W.E.B. Dubois said that theater or Black theater should be for Black people by Black people and mere Black people. And I always think about that as. How I want to continue to make work to make sure that it’s not just like Black people, but it’s for Black people and it’s all. We’re also in a place where Black people can be in the audience. And I think we’re starting to see that, like bigger commercial theaters are being a part of that. But I also have huge respect for what we call the chitlin circuit, which is where players like Tyler Perry plays came up because they got Black people in audience. And I think in commercial, it’s commercial theater right now. Everyone’s talking like, Well, how do we get Black people to the theater? Black people don’t go to the theater. And I know that to be absolutely untrue. We’ve always gone to the theater and still today we’ll show up. I think it’s a lot more about. How welcoming these companies are to Black folks. [00:09:31][134.8]

Shana Pinnock: [00:09:33] You over heretalking about the chitlin circuit. Reminding me of a Martin episode. “Mama done burnt up the chicken.” Listen, I am all for that. So, you know, there are. It’s so it’s kind of frustrating to watch from, and I and I can only imagine what it’s actually like to be in the industry. But to watch, you know, there’s so many Black writers whose work is their work is just not making it into Broadway. And if it is, it’s like very few and far between. But what’s even crazier is if let’s expand that, right? So even when there are Black writers or other writers of color, our our BIPOC as we call them audience, if you don’t know what that is, BIPOC, that’s Black, indigenous and other people of color. You know, a lot of these writers, their work is still being produced by white directors. Right. So let’s get into some stats. We had the Asian-American Performers Action Commission. They put out a visibility report every year, and one of their most recent was that ninety three point eight percent of directors on Broadway were white, as were 100 percent of general managers. Honey, like this? There’s no there’s no wiggle room there. Off-Broadway, there’s seventy eight point seven percent of director positions are filled by white folks. And of the thirty four productions in the 2018 to 2019 season, they reported it with, you know, at least one BIPOC writer. Twenty twenty were helmed by white directors, so it’s wow. Again, the numbers mind blowing, right? So I mean, we know that these barriers still exist, but may look a little bit differently. Tyler, can you talk to us a little bit about how some of those barriers to access for Black theater makers and TV writers in general? Kind of. How does that kind of take shape? And I’d love for you to, you know, share how have you seen Black folks in the industry like work to navigate around those barriers? Or, you know, are we? Is there a glass ceiling? Are people just busting through like like what’s happening on that on that end? [00:11:42][129.6]

Tyler English-Beckwith: [00:11:43] Well, I think that the pandemic really enlightened for a lot of us just how unsustainable the Broadway economic model is because I don’t think a lot of people understand that usually when a play is produced on Broadway, it does not make a profit. It’s very rare for a player to make a profit. And when he does make a profit, it’s something like Hamilton, a Lion King, where it runs for a million years and it makes everyone a million dollars. But most usually plays if a play breaks even that is a success. But usually they’re losing money. And so what happens –because we live in a capitalistic society– people like to say that they only want to go with sure bets. So they’re like, we only want to put a playwright on Broadway that we know will attract audience members, but we have to have a star in this play because we know it’ll attract audience members because ultimately, at the end of the day, Broadway is about tourism. New Yorkers do see plays, but it’s mostly about the people who are coming out of town to go see them. So they want to make sure, but I’m sure you guys have heard this a lot that everyone in Middle America feels comfortable to see. Those plays in Middle America is called for white people, right? So that’s how you get this scarcity model that there, if there is a Black playwright, it has to be a white director because Broadway plays can cost millions of dollars and we want to make sure that we’re putting in it in the hands of someone that we trust. And also, Broadway producers are usually just like old white man with like lots and lots and lots of money, and they’re trying to figure out how to invest or use it or whatever. And they don’t. They’re usually in a position where they lose a million dollars, from a show it doesn’t hurt them. So there’s just a big fear of taking a chance on Black theater makers. And unfortunately, we’ve seen in these past few seasons where that they’re taking a chance doesn’t seem to extend to white writers where we’ve seen, like folks who are perceived to be prolific playwrights, get chance after chance to come back to Broadway and work out new plays, even though all of their plays have usually a negative net profit. So I think at the end of the day, just like just about everything, it boils down to capitalism and folks not wanting to lose money. But what we’ve seen I saw some stats about thoughts of a colored man which had to close early because of Cobain. It had the most new audience members of any other play in this past season, like people who had never been to a play before and never been to. Broadway, before we’re coming to see that play, which is not a musical in the middle of a pandemic, and that is a huge, huge feat, and that’s a Black playwright, Black lead producer, Black director, Black ’cause I think it’s important that we actually look at the numbers because there’s people perceive that Black plays don’t make money. But when we look at the stats, they absolutely do. [00:14:51][188.7]

Gerren Keith Gaynor: [00:14:52] Wow, wow. You know, I’m not surprised that there is a double standard like that for Black writers versus white writers. But when you hear that, it just really is very troubling. And when you think about theater, that double standard may mean the difference between your work never, may never make the stage. And I think that that’s really unfortunate when we think about that double standard, because really, we’re talking about oftentimes when we talk about double standards, whether it’s in theater or other industries, it’s white mediocrity versus Black excellence, and we have to be twice as good and yet still might not get that opportunity might not get that shot. And that’s that’s really unfortunate. But going back to talking about production, we had a producer on their culture a few shows ago, the wonderful talented Denise Davis, who talked about her work on Insecure. And on that show, we talked about the white gaze and we brought on that on this topic, and it really brought this question of Do we care about the white gaze? Should we care about white institutions like the Grammys or the Oscars? And playwright Lynn Nottage, who is the only Black woman, the only woman who has won a Pulitzer Prize twice for drama and happens to be a Black woman. She said quote that she still grapples with why Broadway matters and why we are so deeply invested in presenting our work in these commercial realms that traditionally have rejected our stories. And in interviews similarly, film scholar A.J. Christian talked about how TV and film have turned to Black audiences out of desperation when ratings and box office numbers saw a slump. And the first thing I think of is UPN and how you deal with Black shows and these shows, we’re doing extremely well. Obviously, Black audiences were tuned in every single night, and then when UPN had built up their audience, they scrapped all the Black shows and then all the programing was white center. And so my question to you, Tyler, is when we think about theater, is this renaissance that we’re seeing happening? Is it? As we return from the pandemic, is this a moment for a season or do you think that this is really progression for Black artistry? [00:17:12][139.7]

Tyler English-Beckwith: [00:17:13] I don’t know. I feel like I could really just say a diatribe about progression in general. But I I don’t think progression is linear. I think it’s cyclical. And I think that a lot of what we’re seeing now we’ve seen before. So there was a huge boom of Black theater in the 70s. That’s when you get like for colored girls who have considered suicide. When the rainbow is enough on Broadway, you get Melvin Van Peebles on Broadway. Like all these prolific, very radical Black playwrights who get a chance to be on Broadway, post civil rights movement, post Black liberation movement. So a moment like this happening as a reaction to what’s happening on the streets is not at all new and not at all uncharted territory. I think what worried me when I saw that all of those new Black plays were being announced was that it felt almost like they were using Black plays as guinea pigs. So none of us really knew what the model was going to be in theaters post-COVID, right? It was not very. It’s maybe six months or so post vaccine. New York was an extremely open year. Nobody knew what the protocols would be and saw. The first play that opens on Broadway is Passover, which is a play by a Black playwright, Antoinette Nwandu. And then you get the announcements of like thoughts of a colored man and all these other Black playwright Black plays that premiered this season. And I was just fearful that what happened would happen where these plays are forced to close early because people are afraid to go back to the theater. You get the Omicron coded way, and unfortunately, they don’t get the season that they deserve. So while I’m excited and happy that we’re back in a time again where producers are actually listening to people and the real people who live in this city, it’s unfortunate that they only get the chance quite literally during the play and hopefully once Broadway is completely and. It’s completely open, and hopefully we’ll see more and more Black playwrights get the chance to get their commercial debut. [00:19:33][139.7]

Shana Pinnock: [00:19:34] Hmm. Yeah. Because that and I love that you brought up that point, that there was a lot of all of a sudden, here’s this insurgence of Black plays and you’re like, Huh? Well, what is this about, you know, especially when are you considering things like just something just basic knowledge of being like, Oh yeah, well, you know, like Black audiences will probably be the more susceptible to COVID in the first place. So what what is this about? You know, so and unfortunately, you got to put your tinfoil hat on for a moment, you know? But I definitely I’m really interested in how do you feel about and this might this might be slightly getting off the topic, but I am curious, how do you feel about, you know, we’ve seen certain playwrights who have been able to make a huge burst in in the industry, right? Lin-Manuel Miranda, for example. And you know, and I remember he had said in the heights it took him like 10, 15 years for them to even, you know, say, Oh no, we’re going to put it on Broadway. Oh yeah, we’re going to do a film adaptation of this, this musical. And you know, that was pretty valid criticism in terms of the heights. Don’t look like that. I live in I lived in the Bronx, the Hizbul, but I don’t look like that. So, I mean, one of my questions would be, what is your advice, I guess, if you can even give it? But to other playwrights of staying true to the work, like because I feel like there’s also there’s almost there’s this little this little voice in the back where it’s like, am I going to have to feel the pressure of changing my work because of the white gaze, because of what’s going to be comfortable for Middle America? Like, how do we know what’s what’s the advice for for playwrights on on that end? [00:21:27][113.1]

Tyler English-Beckwith: [00:21:28] Well, I’ll say like patience is key. I mean, I was blessed not to have a play of mine. Mingus optioned by a commercial product producer that was I started working on it in 2016. I got the option in twenty twenty one. So that is a five year span of time before even producers were looking at it. And from now until whenever it’s produced, who knows how long that will be? But I think folks who work in theater know that patience is key because it doesn’t move as fast as the TV and film industry does. There’s a lot of time with development and rewriting, which I think is something that I enjoy because I’m not like. I like to take my time with writing. I do think of it as an artistic endeavor, so I don’t like to be rushed to, um, to create content because I don’t think of what I create as like crafts and to be put on the internet or be put out as soon as it’s done. I think of it as a true collective piece of art. Um, but I guess. I don’t know. The advice would be to stay true to who you are, because at the end of the day, you’re going to be the one sitting in front of the computer every day writing it. And if you don’t like it, it’s going to be incredibly hard to finish. A friend of mine smiles to see just had her off Broadway debut at Atlantic with her play English, and she had a profile in the New York Times. And she said writing a play is a very embarrassing thing. It’s like so fringy, which it is. And she said the only way you finish is if you really love and care what you’re writing about, and it’s so true. So if you are saying, well, you know, this year, they’re really into this type of thing, so I’m going to write a play on this subject. Your play now might not be produced for another four years and then you just write a play about frogs and nobody’s talking about sex this year. So like that, never, ever write for like for what you think it’s producing all. Because all I hear whenever I go and generals meet with studios, production companies, producers is we’re looking for a fresh take. We want a voice. We want to know why you’re the person to tell this story, and nobody else can tell it like you. And that’s much more important than trying to appease whatever you think is hot in the [00:23:50][142.2]

Gerren Keith Gaynor: [00:23:50] moment and tell you, this is our last question for you. And we always love to have a call of action here on Dear Culture, and we want to make sure that we are supporting Black creators and Black shows in particular. What have what have been some of your favorite shows by Black theater makers on or off Broadway? Because we know that Broadway isn’t only for those who are, you know, the amazing shows on not just on Broadway. I’ve seen some of my favorite shows that actually have been on off-Broadway. So what’s out right now and what should people go out and see? [00:24:19][28.9]

Tyler English-Beckwith: [00:24:20] Well, I just mentioned my friend synopses play at the Atlantic Theater English. I think it’s open through the end of March through the end of this month. It’s called English. It’s about a group of Iranian people who are taking the total test to enter America. And it’s all about loving your home language while also trying to figure out like what it means to be an immigrant. Also in just clothes. But I saw Tambo and Bounds at Playwrights Horizons on Sunday by Dave Harris. I loved it, but he has another show that’s opening at a roundabout in a few months, I think call exception to the rule. Beautiful, beautiful play. Wonderful Black comedic playwright. Um, what else have I seen that I? I really loved the musical, which Lynn Nottage wrote the book for. I had a really good time. I was there. You see, it was very expensive to produce and you see all the money on stage, which I like. I like a big, flashy musical. Yeah. Well, I guess I’ll just say those three. For now, I’m blanking. I’m sure later I’ll like, be so upset at myself for not remembering because I feel like I see two or three plays a week, but those are the ones that I really enjoy lately. And Dave Harris, it’s nice to see, are both like new emerging playwrights. And I think it’s important to support the up and comers and and and know what’s coming because they’re going to, I know, make a huge splash. [00:25:46][86.5]

Gerren Keith Gaynor: [00:25:47] But I’ll make sure whenever I’m in New York, I will check out those shows. Thank you for those suggestions and just thank you for joining us and kicking off Women’s History Month in particular. This show is called Dear Culture and Recognition. That Black culture is the culture, and it’s always so inspiring to see moments like this Black renaissance that affirm just that. If you want to learn more about Tyler English back with, you can visit her website at Tyler English Back with dot com. That’s T y l e r English BTC, k w i t h Gqom. And as always, for more news and commentary on the culture, visit the Grail’s website at www.youtube.com. And be sure to follow us on Instagram at Dear Culture Pot. [00:26:31][43.2]

Shana Pinnock: [00:26:39] We want to remind our listeners to support your local Black businesses and donate to your local organizations and religious institutions. The business that we will highlight this week is Legendary Media LLC. Legendary Media Group is a boutique multimedia studio focused on digital audio production and talent development. Founded by radio syndicated DJ, host, producer and entrepreneur Abdul “DJ Damage” Quddus, Legendary Media Group supports aspiring multimedia professionals and becoming true powerhouses. How do I know? Well, I mean, Abdul “DJ Damange” Quddus is definitely the DCP technical producer extraordinaire. So trust us. Legendary Media Group focuses on sharpening core media skills perfect for podcast radio and television. To learn more about Legendary Media Group, visit WWW Dot, a legendary media group dot com that’s L-E-G-E-N-D-A-R-Y Media Group dot com. And before we close today’s episode, we’re popping in to let you know that DC is heading into spring break for a few weeks vacation me. [00:27:47][68.1]

Gerren Keith Gaynor: [00:27:48] Yeah, that’s right. We know you’ll miss us. We’ll be charging and reimagining what their culture should be. Feel free to tap into past episodes or catch up on what you may have missed. Thank you for listening to Dear Culture. If you like what you heard, please give us a five star review. Subscribe to the show wherever you listen to your podcast and share it with everyone you know. [00:28:06][17.9]

Shana Pinnock: [00:28:06] And please email all questions, suggestions and compliments. We love those two podcasts at theGrio dot com. The Dear Culture podcast is brought to you by The Grio and co-produced by Taji Senior, Sydney Henriques-Payne and Abdul-Quddus. [00:28:19][12.6]

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