In 2021, Steph Hickling Beckman reached a breaking point.
While Different Strokes Performing Arts Collective — where she serves as managing artistic director — has built a reputation over the past 12 years of producing diverse, thought-provoking works, Hickling Beckman had become increasingly mindful of the lack of plays by Black playwrights that celebrate Black joy.
“Not ones just talking about how everything is happy-go-lucky all the time, but plays that don’t concentrate on trauma,” she says. “Plays that aren’t about the struggle of Black people and how, no matter how far we go, we always get knocked back down. I’m sick of seeing that. So, I started looking for plays that were of the ilk that I wanted.”
With this quest, Hickling Beckman has joined a handful of other local arts organizations striving to expand the narratives about people of color and build a foundation from which these communities can be fully seen and heard for generations to come.
Nearly halfway though her yearlong tenure as Asheville Community Theatre’s inaugural Artistic Partner, Maria “Ria” Young reports that the fellowship has gone smoothly so far. Designed to give local artists of color opportunities to hone their skills with experienced ACT staff and share stories of underrepresented communities, the partnership has inspired Young to expand her overall vision on where writing and directing can take her.
Making the most of her time, Young has already achieved much. She created The Narrative play reading series, which analyzed Tarell Alvin McCraney’s The Brothers Size and Choir Boy. She’s in the final stages of preparing for a full production of her play Transition for performances Friday, April 1-Sunday, April 3. And she’s gearing up for a staged reading this summer of her latest play, Through Troubled Waters, the creation of which was funded by the fellowship.
But her greatest accomplishment, the playwright notes, has been her creation of the Young & Gifted Internship, which she considers a vital piece to the fellowship. “It’s not enough just for me to be here when there are so many youth of color who could benefit just as much from this opportunity,” Young says.
On Feb. 1, Olivia Anderson was named the internship program’s inaugural recipient.
“Olivia holds a distinct love and passion of theater that cannot be ignored when you speak to her,” Young says. “She’s a champion of joy and creativity with a deep interest in acting, so this internship gives her an opportunity to expand upon that by shadowing my cast and me in the creation of [Transition’s] production.”
Though Young has plenty left to do before the fellowship concludes at the end of August, she’s already thinking about how to encourage an even better experience for the next Artistic Partner. Above all else, she advises next year’s selected artist to prioritize self and spiritual care.
“That’s been the beacon of my foundation throughout this fellowship when feeling overwhelmed,” she says. “Cultivate the creativity within that space and move in realms that pour into you while utilizing the wealth of knowledge and opportunity around you. Embrace the year for what it is and will be, and trust your intuition to create what’s placed on your heart.”
At the YMI Cultural Center, Equity Director alexandria monque ravenel is involved with a pair of programs for emerging artists of color.
Co-organized with her child, Noir Collective AVL’s Ajax Ravenel, the writing group Le Mot Noir began meeting last August after local author and spoken-word artist Penny Meacham expressed an interest in a place for Black women writers to connect. Weekly meetings are held in the YMI’s art gallery so that attendees are surrounded by the works of local Black artists, with the gatherings designed as a stream-of-consciousness writing and sharing session.
“Writers are also welcome to bring pieces that they are working on to share,” ravenel says. “Topics are usually based on what is emerging in our communities or in the lives of a participant. Sometimes, we play music for inspiration, or we talk and then respond with our pens.”
All female writers of color, regardless of experience, are welcome at Le Mot Noir. Those interested in participating should email email@example.com. The schedule changes according to group availability, and members’ goals range from being published to staging live performances, whiles others, in ravenel’s words, “write to write.” Local playwright Monica McDaniel, who’s also the YMI’s operations director, is partnering with some of the more ambitious members to help bring their ideas to a stage setting later this year.
“Writing creates an opening for thoughts and feelings to emerge and then to live outside of our bodies,” ravenel says. “As much as we can allow our truths and the impressions of our lived experiences to live outside of our body, the better it is for our bodies.”
That mindfulness likewise holds true for the YMI’s Rising Young Black Artist program, which was launched to bring more visibility to developing creatives in the community. In addition to having their works displayed in the gallery, artists engage in an educational component to help learn what it takes to establish themselves as professional artists and, according to ravenel, “how to identify themselves as uniquely different from other artists, especially within the same genre.”
In turn, they better understand how to package and display, price, market, advertise and sell their creations. McDaniel oversees the program operations while local photographer and artist Micah Mackenzie serves as program mentor.
“The YMI intends that for every young artist that wants to paint, draw, craft or take pictures, they will have their whole community behind them,” ravenel says.
Meanwhile, in her search for plays rooted in Black joy, Hickling Beckman has partnered with Aaron Snook, co-founder and curator of American Myth Center, to create A Different Myth. The project offers Black playwrights a chance to develop their work with experienced mentors, directors and actors before eventually performing their plays in front of an audience at the Tina McGuire Theatre, Different Strokes’ black box home in the Wortham Center for The Performing Arts. Snook will handle the dramaturgy and one-on-one mentorship of the playwright, and once the play is ready for the stage, Different Strokes will step in as producer with Hickling Beckman or another Black artist handling director duties.
With 14 years in Chicago’s renowned theater scene before moving to Asheville a few years ago, Snook says he is dedicated to using his experience to increase representation on local stages and better reflect Asheville’s diverse community.
“I really believe in the development process of a play. It’s not a person in a room writing it, and then it goes out straight to the stage. That’s just not how things happen,” Snook says. “Giving playwrights that team around them so that it’s not this lonely, ‘processed in a vacuum’ thing before it hits the stage — they can feel fully confident in their story and how it’s being told and that their voice is clear.”
Though A Different Myth isn’t limited to Asheville-area playwrights, the collaborators feel it’s important to involve as many local artists as possible, especially in the initial phase. The goal is to select three playwrights for the first round and hopefully grow that number in subsequent years.
“All these myths exist about Black folks, just by the nature of the theater we’ve seen and the way our country is. And now we get to hear a different perspective. We get to see Black people just living their lives, not regretting their lives or living in torment,” Hickling Beckman says. “It’s just people living their lives as people, just like we’ve always gotten to see white characters do. Now, white folks get to see that Black people also have just regular and sometimes boring lives. We are more alike than we are different.”
As submissions for A Different Myth roll in, Different Strokes is also fielding applications through the end of February for its apprenticeship program aimed at high school and college students who are Black, Indigenous and people of color. The nine-week BIPOC Apprenticeship program is designed to be as specific or broad as the selected student would like. Interest, however, has thus far been fairly low, and while that doesn’t surprise Hickling Beckman, she’s determined to change that narrative as well.
“When we look around at both the colleges and the high schools, the numbers just are not there for BIPOC kids enrolled in the arts. And that’s one of the issues, because if we don’t get these kids at an early age, it’s just not something culturally that’s introduced to us,” she says. “I didn’t know that it was possible for me to be involved in theater until I was 17, and that was because I stumbled upon it in high school. So, it’s just trying to populate that pipeline to get an introduction to more of these kids.”
For more information on A Different Myth or the BIPOC Apprenticeship program, visit avl.mx/b8s.