As an artist, people are often interested in your inspiration and your process.
I have to admit that I did try to find a home of traditional playwrights where I was told I didn’t fit. Then trying to migrate to the urban playwright community, there was a closer fit but not perfect. , again with no luck. And while there is sometimes singing in my plays, there are by no means musicals. I could visit but not reside there.
For a time, I was labeled (often by myself) an inspirational playwright. But my writing at times didn’t fit that definition either.
Then, several years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting two icons in black theatre. Woodie King, Jr. the godfather of black theater and Dr. Carlton Molette.
(I am writing this in a calm manner but I have to be honest, when I found out I would be meeting Woodie King, Jr. , I gave out a silent scream.)
After he viewed some of my work and loved it. (Heart palpitations) Then read another play that I had written and was impressed. (On a cloud) He told me that I needed to stop trying to fit in with ‘labels’. That I had a unique voice and that I should be true to it.
Dr. Molette a year later said almost the same thing. Make my own road.
While I am flattered (and glad that people are patronizing black artists), when told I remind some of David E. Talbert, and not so often, Tyler Perry, I remember that each playwright has not only their distinct style but their unique voice. And that is how I write, from a place that is uniquely me.
This brings up several questions from people who want me to fit into their vision or where my work should be. Having been asked both directly and in round about ways the following questions:
Do you have to write ‘so black’?
Why do you write about the things that happen in the Black community and church the way you do? Approaching issues that head on can make people uncomfortable?
Don’t you think that you’d be more successful if you wrote more mainstream?
My answers to the questions–in the order listed:
Because it is imperative that we as a people tell our stories with our voices in ways that we relate to them. Art at its core is activism. It reflects what we live, what we see, what we accept. And to part B or the question, it is not my job to make people comfortable.
I don’t know the answer to that. If it means would I make more money, probably. If it means would I be more popular or have a larger fan base, that’s possible. However, I am writing about to not only entertain but to enlighten those who know a little and education those who may know nothing about the vibrancy of people of the African Diaspora. Either way, I do know that my spirit would not rest easy if I chose to take the popular way.
As my artist statement reflects…
Jeanette W. Hill
As long as only the hunter records history,
the lion’s story will never be told.
Well, I am that lion. Telling our stories with our voice. Telling stories of African Americans and the African Diaspora, who individually and collectively, with faith, love, and perseverance through generations continue to leave a mark in history and carve a place in the future in spite of inconceivable opposition.
My determination can be traced my upbringing. Mornings of watching neighbors step off of their front porch to fight the day’s battle and again in the evenings after dinner sipping sweet tea on their front porches, if weather permitted. I eavesdropped as they discussed grown folks’ business.
Community gatherings–births, home-goings and other celebrations as neighbors showed support with food, love, money, knowing nods, hugs and pats on the back… and yes, even the occasional gossip. Spirited-filled church services where religion inextricably bled into the community, which moved into action in whatever form was needed.
These places were not just structures…houses on a street, that is a neighborhood. It was a community, a village whose bond extended beyond physical locations and scientific DNA. We were…we are family.
So my passion and purpose are braided together to illuminate the strength, determination and resilience that we as a people pass from soul to soul, spirit to spirit and heart to heart- generation to generation.
PAST PERFECT! The Front Porch Divas are hitting the floor running in Past Perfect .
Is the past ever really in the past? First Lady Claire Gilmore is about to find out that the short and long answer to the question is ‘No’.
Elated at being the youngest recipient of the Governor’s Lifetime Community Service Award, she and the FPDs (Front Porch Divas) are celebrating her accomplishment,
She has dedicated more than twenty years selflessly serving the at risk young women in her community. Not even the FPDs know that her dedication is rooted in a twenty year old secret…until now.
Her troubles seem to being when the new college professor, Sean-Michael Abbott moves to town. You see, Sean-Michael is the only other person who knows the secret she has tried to hard to redeem herself from.
What starts as gifts, cards and nice messages turn in to threats and danger. The FPDs rally around her but with no clear indication of where to look, it seems hopeless.
At the point Claire must confess her past indiscretion to Quentin, her husband, it looks like she;s lost everything.
But has she?
Join us for six performances of Past Perfect at the Boyd Vance Theatre in the George Washington Carver Museum April 14-22, 2018!
Don’t Call Me Brother! –Andrew Merritt’s recent promotion to Assistant Police Chief of the Community Liaison Office, carries the responsibility of restoring trust between the police department and his old neighborhood a priority. The fragile balance between his life, career and family is broken when an unarmed African American youth is killed by a white police officer under questionable circumstances. All eyes are on him. The community is asking is he Black enough? The police department is asking is he Blue enough?
He is asking himself if this promotion was a step up or…a set up?
Don’t Call Me Brother is a story that moves seamlessly from the front page of any major newspaper into the homes of those with the dual citizenship of being African American and in law enforcement.
I wrote this play as a result of watching news coverage of the social unrest in Ferguson, MO and Baltimore, MD as I watched the faces of African American police officers who were dispatched to quell the unrest. How must they be feeling? There is no doubt they joined the police force to protect and serve their community but there was absolutely no doubt that they fully understood why their brothers and sisters in communities of color were angry. Many of them were probably angry too.
I will preface this piece by saying that they is without question improvement needed on both sides of the badge. Law enforcement and communities of color have much work to do. Unfortunately, these changes will have to happen concurrently with improving the
So I contacted a number of African Americans who were in law enforcement and asked their feelings about the recurring situation in this country, in fact, in their cities about unarmed African Americans being killed by police officers…without any consequences or accountability.
Their feelings, though not publicly stated were similar to those expressed by the African American communities across the country. It goes beyond cultural literacy. There are officers wearing the ‘blue’ who shouldn’t be allowed to.
(Don’t Call Me Brother! WOW Production in Columbia SC)
They also know that key to improving relations between communities of color and law enforcement is that this problem must be corrected. According to several of the law enforcement officers, one of the biggest problems is that it is almost impossible to remove the unsuitable officers on the force from the inside. Community involvement is needed, meaning residents must step forward when there is a problem concerning an officer’s behavior.
Unfortunately, the people who have the most to gain from lodging complaints, also have the most to lose. They are residents of the communities with the problem sand are acutely aware of the cliché that ‘snitches get stitches’. The fear of reprisal from the police is very real to the people in these same neighborhoods.
I watched and listened to the interviews with the families and friends of the dead men. I watched and listened to the politically correct and crafted response to the shootings from the various police departments made by someone who didn’t look like the victim. I started thinking about those with dual citizenship. Being African American and being in law enforcement.
*My next blog addresses some of the push back I got for the play…*
Theatre Producer, Toni Simmons Henson grew up in Hillside, NJ in the backyard of Broadway. Her passion for theatre stems back as early as when she was 8 years old when she and her sister, Wanda Simmons, the writer and age 9, produced plays in their backyard and basement for neighborhood kids.
In 2004, Henson became the Executive Director of Drama Kids of Princeton. Drama Kids is the US franchise of the Helen O’Grady Acting Academy.
The Australian based academy is the largest children’s acting academy in the world. In just a few short years, under her tenure, the Academy enrolled over 750 students and produced over 80 plays and presentations. The program grew to five locations and two summer camps. The explosive popularity of the program attracted national publicity including articles in Entrepreneur Magazine and the cover of the Princeton Packet Weekend Magazine. Henson received two awards for distinguished achievement.
In 2007, Henson moved to Atlanta and founded Micah 6-8 Media, LLC. Under that company, she produced two hit plays entitled Once Upon a Dream by Khristi Adams and Big Girls Gotta Eat, Too! by Melissa Blackmon and Wanda Simmons. Big Girls Gotta Eat, Too! toured four cities and was a part of the 2012 DC Black Theatre Festival.
In 2012, Henson founded the Atlanta Black Theatre Festival where over 200 artists perform 40 plays in four days. This annual event attracts thousands of theatre lovers from 24 states and three countries. In 2014, Micah 6-8 Media, LLC was nominated and awarded first runner-up as Emerging Business of the Year by the DeKalb County Chamber of Commerce for the Festival’s “significant contribution to economic development and community impact.”
The festival hosts an annual event gala that has honored theatre legends such as Taurean Blacque, Melba Moore, Pearl Cleage, Alia Jones-Harvey and American Theater Hall of Famer, Woodie King, Jr.
Henson holds a B.B.A. from Howard University and an M.P.A from New York University. She has been married for 25 years to Antonio Henson, V.P. of PNC Bank and together they have four children.