BWW Interview by Vickie Evans Sep. 15, 2021
Theater patrons - I would like to introduce you to the masterminds behind the historical stage play, Greenwood, based on the 1921 Tulsa Oklahoma massacre - the annihilation of an economically successful African American community, referred to as the Black Wall Street. Coolidge Harris II is the playwright of this awesome production, which happens to be the winner of the very first-of-its-kind BIPOC Playwrights Festival, performed in Matthews, North Carolina, on April 10, 2021. This awesome event is a collaboration between Matthews Playhouse Performing Arts Center and The African American Playwrights Group (AAPG). Elizabeth Flax is the director of this historical depiction of a love story foretold the night before the attack on Greenwood, that was reportedly sanctioned by the U.S. government.
Who Is Elizabeth Flax?
Elizabeth Flax, the director of Greenwood, was born and raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She moved to New York as a present to herself for her 30th birthday. In 2011, she accepted a directorial opportunity at Triad Stage, in Greensboro, North Carolina. She enjoyed the experience in Greensboro so much that she decided if Triad Stage called her back for a second opportunity, she would take steps to move to North Carolina. In 2015, she received that call-back. So, she and her husband packed up their belongings and relocated to North Carolina.
Do You See A Significance Difference Between The New York And Greensboro Theater Communities?
No, I really don't see a difference. In New York City, you have to hustle. In Greensboro, you have to hustle, too. You just have to get to know people and get involved in their circles. The only difference I see, is the pace. Being from Philadelphia, I was accustomed to a more slower lifestyle. I know many may not think that about Philadelphia. New York is faster! Always ON. Always GOING! There were moments when I can honestly say in a day that I had to stop, stand against the wall, and let life walk by me because I needed a break. Down here, I don't have to worry about that so much.
I've had the opportunity to direct a couple of shows with Community Theatre of Greensboro (CTG). One of the projects that I truly loved with CTG was being a co-director of a program, OnStage And Inclusive for persons with disabilities. We paired them up with actors to tell their stories on stage. I was a part of that program for three years until COVID-19 stopped us.
How Did You Hear About The Directorial Position For Greenwood And What Made You Accept It?
I heard about it from Lawrence Evans! He is with the National Black Theater Festival, based in Winston-Salem, NC. I call him my guardian angel because he consistently sends me projects that he thinks would interest me. That's how I got my introduction to Greenwood. He told me about the playwright, Coolidge Harris II and that he was looking for a director. In all honesty, this project came at a time that, as an artist, I had not done anything but learn how to work on Zoom. I had a couple of conversations with Coolidge and asked to read the script. The one thing I knew I had to deal with was the transportation because I commute an hour and a half one way from Greensboro to Matthews. I researched Matthews Playhouse of the Performing Arts and found it to be interesting. Then, I researched the African American Performing Support Group (AAPG) and found it to be equally interesting. I thought this would be a good opportunity to jump back in, start working and being creative again. As an artist, if you are stopped from creating...it takes a hit on your soul. Something inside of you just gets drained and you want desperately to do something.
How Has The Experience Been For You?
I have really enjoyed it! I have enjoyed working with Cassie Prodan and the folks at Matthews Playhouse. I found this community where we share so much laughter and joy. Yes, it is community theater, but I consider it semi-pro theater.
Who Is Coolidge Harris II And How Did You Become A Playwright
Coolidge Harris II is from Merced, California. He is a graduate of Sacramento State University. Initially, he was an English major, yet he soon developed a love for The Arts. After completing a class assignment, the creative writing instructor set up an introductory meeting between Coolidge and the drama professor, T. Michael Gates. It was there he became involved with the Sons of Ancestors Players theater troupe, and soon after wrote a one-act entitled A Trial For Buchy, under the leadership of the late T. Michael Gates and directed by Thomas Ellis.
At first, I didn't think about becoming a scriptwriter, I just fell in love with the intimacy of the stage. Two significant events changed my interest from just being a theater patron to becoming an actual playwright:
I had an opportunity to see actor James Earl Jones' spectacular performance in Master Harold and The Boys. One particular scene that stood out is when one of the actors spit in James' face. Mr. Jones didn't flinch, he just kept talking for several minutes as the spit ran down his face. I was amazed because he had to do that for eight consecutive performances. After the performance, an actor friend and I went into a back stage door and requested to speak to James Earl Jones. He invited us into a private room and spoke to us for several minutes. What I remembered the most was his big booming voice and that he had the softest hands. That conversation changed my life.
The second event was seeing Charles Dutton in August Wilson's Ma Rainey Black Bottom. August Wilson's writing skill was so different - I had never seen anything like it before. My love developed from hearing August's voice, it was something so dynamic about it. I went to the theater over and over again to see all of his ten-cycle productions. It stirred up a desire in me to become a scriptwriter instead of just being a student of the theater. My first original work was a one-act play entitled, Footsteps In The
What Inspired You To Write Greenwood?
I knew that my first full-length production play that I would write would be about Greenwood. I had heard the story about an airplane that had dropped bombs on a Black town. At first, I didn't know it was in Tulsa. I just thought that was the craziest thing. I started to read a bit about it. The whole story was the most egregious thing a country could do to its own people. Some forms of racism have been sanctioned since the abolishment of Jim Crow. There has always been institutional racism; but to actually be so bold and blazoned to drop bombs on an innocent community that had proven to be successful was something I just couldn't imagine this country doing. And when I think about it, I understood why our country didn't want this story told.
In 2010, is when I heard of this incident. At that point, I was just being amazed that this happened. When the Oklahoma bombing occurred...someone revealed to me that this wasn't the only town in Oklahoma that a bomb had been dropped on. So, I began my research and learned about Greenwood. Ten years later, in 2020, I retired from my career in Human Resources. That's when I started writing Greenwood. I actually wrote it during the pandemic.
My goal in writing Greenwood was to get people to see and know the historic background. However, I didn't want to write a story about something that had so much animosity that no one who sit through it. I felt that in order to do it, I had to have a story behind the story. So, I wrote about a group of people who had an experience the night before the actual event occurred, which also involved a love story,
Besides Being The Winner Of The Very First BIPOC Playwrights Festival, What Other Accolades Have Greenwood Received?
Greenwood has been performed in three stage readings prior to entering the BIPOC Playwrights Festival. It received an honorable mention at the Pandora's Box Playhouse, in Long Beach, California. It was a finalist in AACT (American Association Of Community Theaters). It was a semi-finalist in The National Playwrights Conference at the Eugene O'Neill Center. As a result of winning the festival, I have pitched Greenwood to a series of theater producers. Mary Davis, who is a Tony-Award winning producer read it and liked it. As a result, I am involved with the Abingdon Theatre Company in New York City, who is considering how to produce Greenwood in their next season. Becoming an award-winner has opened the door for more opportunities.
How Has The Process Of Being The Winner of The BIPOC Playwrights Festival Been For You?
It has been a rewarding process. It has been gratifying and it was an honor to win. There were
some great plays that were semi-finalists. It has been such an honor to have the voices in Greenwood speak from the grave, especially since this is the commemoration of the 100th year observance of Greenwood. I think seeing the process and witnessing the collaboration between Matthews Playhouse of the Performing Arts and African American Playwrights Group...how everyone has been "all in" in making this production a success, has been a great experience. Seeing the process unfold from the script to the stage is like being in a master class. To be a writer doing his first production... to have a voice in the direction and just to be able to be "in the room" has been a rewarding experience.
What Advice Would You Give To Next Year's Playwrights Who May Be Interested In Submitting To The BIPOC Playwrights Festival?
"Put Your Best Foot Forward In Terms Of The Product Your Bring To The Contest Because it Will Be Met With A First-Class Response!"
Greenwood Will Be Performed At Matthews Playhouse Of The Performing Arts On September 17th And 18th At Fullwood Theatre, 100 W
. McDowell Street, Matthews, North Carolina. Tickets Are Available Via The Website: http://www.matthewsplayhouse.com