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Love story within a tragedy earns BIPOC Playwrights Festival prize

Coolidge Harris' 'Greenwood' earns production date

Published Sunday, May 2, 2021 by Ashley Mahoney for The Charlotte Post

Coolidge Harris II is playwright of “Greenwood” which won the African American Playwright’s Group and Matthews Playhouse of the Performing Arts BIPOC Playwrights Festival. Coolidge Harris II used a love story to detail the Tulsa race massacre.

His play “Greenwood” won the African American Playwright’s Group and Matthews Playhouse of the Performing Arts inaugural BIPOC Playwright’s Festival. It will be presented as part of the upcoming season at Matthews Playhouse, running in September.

A panel of judges reviewed works submitted earlier this year, deciding on five candidates for staged readings. The staged readings were one-act versions of their work, and performed before a panel of judges. Other finalists included “Speak Easy,” written and directed by Rory Sheriff; “Kings Without a Queen,” written and directed by Kenyatt Godbolt; “Cancer: A Love Story,” written and directed by Crystal Joseph and “Love & Justice and other Fairy Tales,” written and directed by Raven Monroe. The Playwright’s Festival follows a similar model to African American Playwright’s Group founder Vickie Evans’ Playwrights on Parade festival held in 2014, 2016 and 2018 to highlight Black voices in theater.

The full production of “Greenwood” premiers in September. “I was honored and I was excited, because we get to continue to tell the story, and that is really what I want to do, to continue to allow these voices to speak,” Harris said. Said festival judge Quentin Talley, founder of On Q Performing Arts: “It’s cool to be able to have other venues be able to produce Black work, especially new Black work. It is hard to produce new works anyway. Kudos to Vickie and Matthews Playhouse for making that partnership happen, and kudos to Mathews Playhouse for actually putting it up. “On Q, we used to develop a new play every two-three years, because it is a lot of work to develop a new play. It is great that other playhouses are getting into not only producing new work, but new work by Black playwrights.”

Harris became intrigued by the history of an event he heard about in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Dick Rowland, a Black man, was accused of sexually assaulting Sara Page, a white woman. While the accusation would later be found false, it resulted in the destruction of the Greenwood community, a thriving Black business district. Between May 31-June 1, 1921 a white mob burned it to the ground. Contemporary historians believe up to 300 people died during the massacre. “The more I researched, the more I felt an obligation to make everyone aware of this thing that happened that no one wants to talk about,” Harris said. Tulsa officials made a concentrated effort to erase the massacre from city and police records. Victims were buried in unmarked graves. The white-owned Tulsa Tribune newspaper destroyed its front-page article that claimed Rowland sexually assaulted Page.

Harris spent two months researching the massacre, watching documentaries and listening to NPR interviews. He did not want to make the story all about the victims or sound preachy. The more he researched, the more comfortable he felt with conveying the narrative by building a story around it.

“I just wanted to expose the story and let the story tell the event,” Harris said. He constructed a dichotomy with “Greenwood:” the love story and a story of an event that had been covered up for too long. “I wanted to tell the truth about the story and present facts, and then let the audience if they want to pursue that and find out more about Greenwood then they could,” Harris said. “As I had gotten further into what I was doing, I felt that it was important to let those victim’s voices speak, because for 100 years now, this event had been basically swept under the rug.” Oklahoma leaders said in early 2020 that the massacre would be introduced in school curriculum, beginning last fall for students from elementary school through high school. Tulsa Public Schools piloted a program that went statewide. “It’s not even in our schools,” Harris said. “It’s not in our colleges. It’s just not talked about. No one wants to admit that we are that evil inside. We want to forget about all of that, but it did happen. It is only fair that those voices speak to the fact that it happened and that their voices aren’t buried in the unmarked graves that their souls are buried in.” Three artists who were involved in the staged reading will be involved in September production: Diatra T. Langford as Lucile, De’Ron Robertson as Young Boy and Roderick Garr as Red-Manning. Phillip Bernard Smith, who portrayed Sir in the staged reading, may have a conflict that rules him out for September. Harris is currently interviewing directors and auditions will be held for the remaining roles: Tucker, Shawnese and Shriner and potentially replacing Smith in the role of Sir.

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