Donnetta Lavinia Grays – a new voice for the American theatre?

Playwright, actress and screenwriter

Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, playwright-actress-screenwriter Donnetta Lavinia Grays had just wrapped a run of her solo show “Where We Stand” at WP Theater in Manhattan and was about to bring it to Center Stage in Baltimore, Maryland. The production — whose examination of punitive vs. restorative justice has proven, in hindsight, especially timely — received rave reviews from critics and earned Grays Drama League, Lortel and Antonyo Award nominations. 

In the months since she’s brought “Where We Stand” to Baltimore virtually instead, and the production was highlighted on the 2020 Kilroys List for work by female and nonbinary playwrights. She performed a monologue from her play “Last Night and the Night Before,” a 2017 Kilroys honoree, at the organization’s book launch party in May, and had another new work of hers, “Take,” published in the theater literary magazine Caffe Cino in July. She was one of six writers to receive a $25,000 Helen Merrill Award for playwriting this past June, and she received a Lilly Award for women in theater just this week.

August 2020

Not to mention the previous 18 years of her career, which includes appearances in two Broadway plays, jobs acting and writing for television, and more than a dozen published plays. She has established herself as a face of the changing theater landscape, one of radical inclusion and accessibility, which stuck out as a theme during our phone conversation, from the earliest days of her career until today.

“I was absorbing all of these things about what it meant to be a writer while I was acting, and what it meant to be a collaborator, most of all, and what it meant to be generous in spaces,” said Grays, who initially discovered her knack for writing and dramaturgy as an actor in the rehearsal room. “So I’m thinking about being in spaces with playwrights now, where I can be attuned to their rhythm, things that they need. And so I ask questions that are motivated by what they need, what they want, what their expectations are. Being an actor is actually being a really selfless person. I kind of got a full-body shaping of what it meant to be a theater person.”

Grays has made Brooklyn her home base — a loose term, as she has travelled across the country for her various gigs — but she developed her theater chops further south. “I didn’t become an artist when I landed in New York,” Grays said. “I became an artist, an actor, a theatre-maker, a theater lover in Columbia, South Carolina. That’s where my art came from … Came from my hometown.”

Her living room, to be precise. Grays’ initial interest in acting stemmed from TV — a “child of the 90s,” she grew up on sitcoms like “Living Single” and “The Cosby Show.” Though she admits it’s “strange” to say now, she credits the latter as a major influence on her. “I remember looking at Keisha Pulliam, who played Rudy on the show; you know, we were about the same age,” Grays said. “And I was like, ‘She’s cute. All you have to do is be cute. I’m cute — I could do this. I could be an actor, no problem.’

“But also,” Grays continued, “the thing that I learned from that show is that those actors that were brought onto that show that I admired so much, they were all theater actors that came out of the Negro Ensemble Company and New Federal Theatre, and all of these big companies that sprung out of the Black Arts Movement.”

She remembers feeling that “there was something kindred” about the way those Black actors expressed themselves in performance, a quality that inspired the shy young Grays, who would join the theater program at Columbia’s Spring Valley High School. She called it “extraordinary” for the training it gave her in performance, production, tech and design and said the program was where she first actively developed her craft and “learned how to tackle things and have inspiration.”

A scene from “Veils,” featuring Donnetta Lavinia Grays and Hend Ayoub.

She also attended many outside performance competitions on the school’s behalf, where she was exposed to a “regional community of theater lovers” that further legitimized the theater as a meaningful career path, enough to pursue it in higher education: Grays attended the College of Charleston for her bachelor’s degree and received her master’s from the University of California, Irvine.

Acting and inspiring

Though she hadn’t strayed from her home state, her theater world grew exponentially:

“[At Charleston,] I had this fantastic mentor, Joy Vandervort-Cobb, who introduced me to Black voices in the theater.

Joy Vandervort-Cobb

“In undergrad, I got to do the work. I did a production of George C. Wolfe’s ‘Colored Museum.’ I got to really dive into the work of Black playwrights, and also Shakespeare, and Tony Kushner, and so it was kind of a well-rounded exposure, I would say, to theater. And I didn’t realize how kind of good I had it until I went to grad school and I met theater artists of color who had never been exposed to those sources. And it was astonishing to me … here are Black artists who had never had this sort of volume to work with, whereas I had access to that.

“[I] tried very hard to pass whatever little experience I had with that onto the undergrads who were there, the Black undergrads who were there. I actually mounted a production of ‘Colored Museum,’ (by George C Wolfe).  I cast every single one of them. Everybody who auditioned for it was all undergrads, Black kid undergrads — I said, ‘You’re all cast, let’s do this, let’s figure this thing out.’ And we had a great little run and I was exhausted at the end of it.

My professors at the time were like, ‘Why are you doing this? You’re earning your MFA in acting here, you should be on stage.’ And I was like, ‘No, these kids aren’t getting this here. So I want to make sure that they’re exposed to something that they can carry with them out of their undergrad experience like I had, in my undergrad experience. So it was important to do that. It was important to kind of create space there and push the envelope a little bit to show the school if you recruit kids of color, the work that they might do outside of this program in a real way, and give them insight into what other pieces of valuable theater there are in the world. It doesn’t just look one way.”

Where she stands now

As theater creators do not “just look one way,” neither, in Grays’ experience, do theatrical venues either. Though “Where We Stand” ultimately had its run in a fairly traditional space, it was not conceived that way. The solo show, narrated entirely in verse and song, follows an outcast from a debilitated town who makes a sordid deal with the devil to bring both him and the town splendor. The audience, doubling as the townspeople, is made to grapple with the consequences — and who must bear them.

“It [‘Where We Stand’] wasn’t intended for this audience,” Grays said, in reference to the Upper West Side crowd adjacent to the WP Theater. “It was a commission out of The Public Theater’s Mobile Shakespeare Unit.” The Mobile Unit is a travelling company that puts on free performances of Shakespeare for correctional facilities, shelters and other venues to reach communities for whom theater would otherwise be inaccessible. (Grays played Feste in a 2017 Mobile Unit production of “Twelfth Night.”) 

“It was commissioned to be performed not in a proscenium space; it was to be performed for those audiences that generally lack access to spaces like that. That included incarcerated communities at different security levels, and that was the inspiration actually for this piece — to have these people who have no access to be at the center of the story. I wanted to reflect that to that community.” 

The WP run included a singular matinee performance for people from homeless shelters, LGBT centers and those recently released from prison. The Baltimore engagement was a second chance at fleshing out this vision: A two-week tour to women’s shelters and incarcerated communities was planned in addition to the Center Stage run. The coronavirus rendered that impossible. “That was probably the most upsetting thing, you know because I still haven’t seen it in its natural habitat,” Grays said.

Donnetta Lavinia Grays in “Where We Stand.” (Sara Krulwich/The New York Times)

However, she did still travel to Baltimore and ended up filming the show at Center Stage for a virtual release — another unorthodox avenue of performance that is becoming the new norm. But it seemed to me that a show that leans heavily into audience engagement — the main character sings with the townspeople, speaks to them and eventually employs them as a jury — must have still lost something.

“The man is, at the top of the show, very lonely. He’s talking about being isolated and vying for the community. So interestingly enough, the play works with a man in isolation and pleading with the audience to the camera, an audience that should be with him in this space,” Grays said. “There were a couple of moments where it got really vulnerable for me. It was the moment that we’re in and through this pandemic, and also just this knowing that I wanted to be with my family. This access to human beings that I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to see for a while kind of elevated what he was seeking at that moment.

“It’s gotten really beautiful feedback, in not only in the filming but the context and in the moment, so that’s something that’s made me really, really proud.”

Even if something was lost, it seems, Grays is keeping her eye on opportunities for gain, notably in the theater landscape at large.

“What I like to remind the young folk is that art has been made through pandemics before. Through wars before. And they have the responsibility of taking all that they know and reinventing the thing. And this is heavy, but, but that’s kind of where we are,” Grays said.

“How do you tell the story of right now? … How do you tell the story of where we are nationally, politically with this epidemic, with also the epidemic of police brutality? How do you stack all that? Because these are stories that need to be told, but you may not be able to teach them or tell them for a while in the space that you were trained to tell it.”

Grays is part of one movement to change the culture of traditional theater spaces: She was among the initial signers of the “We See You White American Theater” statement that demands the more equitable treatment of Black, Indigenous and people of color and their work in the theater industry.

The movement — which Grays exemplifies with the persistent, prolific presence of her work — can perhaps be best summed up with a statement from one of Grays’ graduate school peers:

“That canon? Blow it up. This is another option.”

Grays’ full statement on race and the theater industry:

We are in a moment where deep structural change has to not only be examined, but put into action. The pandemic brought into light issues of class, race, and accessibility in the theater. This uprising sparked by the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and so many others has brought to light all corners of the world where anti-Blackness and white supremacy have a stronghold. Theater couldn’t escape this. Our industry needs a top-down reconstruction. How funding is distributed – Black-led/focused institutions don’t get nearly as much funding as PWIs with “diversity initiatives” that have been known to stunt the growth of BIPOC artists.  How productions are considered and supported. How Black media outlets, critics and advertisers are considered in the greater theater conversation. How audiences are developed and served and how boards are vetted. I have spoken to so many Artistic Directors who tell me they feel creatively hijacked by their boards and that their audiences “aren’t ready” for certain work. These are excuses to hold up a system. Leg work should be put into play to create boards that operate as creative partners not just holders of status positions. Leg work should be put into play to go into communities you wish to serve. There has to be a reimagining of what purposeful and meaningful artist development is – instead of giving Black and Brown folx the crumbs that aren’t dedicated to main stage productions. The “second class citizen-ation” of our work cripples real development and opportunity. Also, there needs to be full decolonization of theater curricula in our training programs and more rigorous hiring systems for instructors of color.  And so much more. 

The last decade or so brought us the ideas of “diversity and inclusion” conversations. So many panels. So many forums. So many workshops. The failure of these conversations is that institutions (PWIs specifically) began to get comfortable with only having those conversations. The repeated conversations became substitutions for the work when they are actually the tiniest first baby steps toward change. My feeling is that if institutions revert to these workshops, panels and forums as before then they are signalling that they are opting out of real change. The discussions have been had. And we are in the company of brilliant minds. So, it’s a glaring decision to stay at square one, using it as a crutch. The time now is to hold predominantly white theater institutions’ feet to the fire and see what they have learned and what they are willing to dismantle and what they are willing to give up as a result of those conversations. The tools are there. The question is is the courage to do anything about it there? And it is a marathon. This isn’t a time for statements of solidarity and going back to business as usual. No one will be comfortable in this journey. That’s the point. The change will take time and will make for massive discomfort. If in the coming years, we return to an industry that operates within the systems of White supremacy, anti-Blackness, and lack of access after this monumental time in history then we certainly aren’t the innovative and progressive industry we claim to be. In any event, we will get the industry we deserve. My hope is that we truly believe we deserve something that is richer in scope than what we have today.