Next to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary’s definition of “go-getter,” there really should be an image of Maria “Ria” Young.
In the past few years, the Asheville-based multihyphenate has established herself as a self-starter by penning her memoir (Lost in a Game), writing and directing for the theater (Transition) and filmmaking (The Power of Our Village).
Now, she’s poised to take the next step in her creative journey as the inaugural Artistic Partner in a new yearlong fellowship with Asheville Community Theatre. Beginning this month and running through August 2022, Young will undertake a staged reading, workshop and production of a new, original work; direct a full, staged production of Transition; launch the Young & Gifted internship for youths of color; and facilitate a play-reading series for the public.
True to her enterprising nature, it was all her idea.
In early 2019, Young reached out to ACT by way of its 35below black box space’s programs, seeking to better understand the steps that were involved in bringing fellow Black playwright Monica McDaniel’s works to the stage. That connection led to the development of Transition, a theatrical adaptation of Lost in a Game, which chronicles Young’s decision to walk away from life as a college basketball player. The play was slated to debut in 35below in 2020 as a part of the Artistic Horizons program, which grants local artists the opportunity to pursue new creative paths in theater.
Those plans were nixed, however, when ACT closed amid the statewide stay-at-home orders stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic. Disappointed but undeterred, Young worked with the theater to present the play as a filmed, staged reading — a novel endeavor for ACT that required plentiful problem-solving. The production streamed in December.
Through the experience, the artist says she was moved by the ACT team’s authenticity and genuine desire to welcome her into a space where she’d rarely seen herself represented on stage. Following the thoroughly positive all-around experience in adapting Transition for the digital realm, Chanda Calentine, then ACT’s artistic director, and marketing director Jenny Bunn chatted with Young about other projects she was working on. The dialogue got Young thinking, and, at the start of the 2021, she inquired about a development deal.
“I just saw an opportunity for a deeper partnership with them, allowing me to bring my ideas and my stories to life without me having to compromise my vision,” Young says. “It’s a chance to knock down a barrier and be the first to walk through these doors, so that once I leave it, it’ll be a little bit easier for the next Black artist or person of color.”
The three women worked together to tailor the fellowship specifically to Young so that it wouldn’t limit her creativity, while still constructing a template that could be applied to other playwrights, designers, choreographers and directors for years to come. They also came to an agreement on sufficient financial compensation for Young’s efforts, and the more they discussed the fellowship, the more it became clear that the partnership was an excellent fit for all involved.
“Ria is very clear about what she wants, and yet is also a good collaborator and listener. I think that’s what we need to be as a theater: good collaborators and good listeners,” Bunn says. “And the way she thought about theater seemed to make sense of the way that ACT has existed — that it is putting community members onstage, telling stories that are important to people in the community.”
Though Young considers the digital staging of Transition a success, she notes that a live, in-person audience was “the only element that was missing.” All components will be in place next year, when the same cast from the reading performs the work on ACT’s Mainstage, Friday, April 1-Sunday, April 3. While Young is excited and somewhat nervous about presenting her play in this capacity, knowing that her follow-up creation is funded and has the full support of the theater has given her a major boost of confidence.
“I can focus on the themes and the ideas that I have for this next piece, and I don’t have to cut certain things off,” Young says. “I don’t have to make my characters speak a certain way or make them code switch.”
She continues, “I don’t have to stay away from a certain topic that may make people uncomfortable. Whatever comes to me naturally through my experiences and the stories and experiences of the people around me, I can just write that down as authentically as I feel them, and it can translate from the page to the stage in the same way.”
Consistent with that community representation is the Young & Gifted internship component. Two youths of color will work directly with Young during the full rehearsal process and performances of Transition and may also play a role in bringing her new piece to the stage.
“It’s a way for me to pay it forward and give back to the next generation and bring [ACT’s] resources to kids who have an interest in writing and directing, but don’t know where to go to grab those opportunities,” Young says.
For the fellowship’s final piece, Young will select plays written by some of her favorite authors and coordinate a public reading series. Bunn says these free events will likely be held over Zoom to encourage greater community participation, and she plans to work with Buncombe County Public Libraries to have copies of the plays available for patrons to borrow.
Though Young is keeping the titles under wraps for now, she’s committed to featuring the work of Tarell Alvin McCraney, whose semiautobiographical play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue (2003) was adapted into the Academy Award-winning film, Moonlight (2016). It all makes for a lot of hard work over the next year, but Young feels up to the task and looks forward to crafting a legacy with the theater.
“There’s going to be some challenges that come with this type of partnership in its inaugural year, but I’m honored to be the first Black artist to even be put in this situation when it comes to ACT,” Young says.