Credit: National Black Writers Conference photo

What does it mean to write a script using the “Black gaze”? How does hip hop impact Black playwriting and screenwriting? How should Black writers approach activism after the age of Trump? Presented virtually by the Center for Black Literature at Medgar Evers College of the City University of New York and AKILA Worksongs, the 15th National Black Writers Conference (NBWC) takes place Nov. 11-14. Like pretty much all other large events nowadays, it will be held virtually.

Roundtable conversations, panel discussions, a town hall, film screenings, a presentation of conference papers, author readings, writing and playwriting talkshops, a local vendor marketplace and much more will examine playwriting, screenwriting and filmmaking as they relate to the Black community.

With a grievous procession of images of violence against Black bodies and bitter protests against such violence occupying our screens over the past few years, it’s a fitting focus. Many of the discussions will deal with writing for stage and screen and choosing the Black gaze, one way that Blacks can empower themselves in the midst of such trauma.

Addressing the importance of playwrights and screenwriters, Founder and Executive Director of the Center for Black Literature, Director of the National Black Writers Conference and Chair of the English Department at Medgar Evers College, CUNY Dr. Brenda M. Greene commented, “In a culture that is driven and shaped by race, class, politics and the media, they are the documentarians, creative writers and artists who are providing a Black gaze and a critical lens from which to view the lives of Black people. They are debunking stereotypes, uncovering assumptions and making visible what has been invisible and silenced.”

Specifically, panelists and special guests will examine the ways race, identity, politics and popular culture shape the production of plays, films and television shows, and how to expand on recent progress in those areas.

Dartmouth graduate, lawyer, professor and novelist Wallace Ford II will moderate the panel “Defying Stereotypes: Writing Plays, Films and Scripts from the Black Gaze.” Panelists Sandra Shannon, Shay Youngblood, Eisa Davis and B. Nandi Jacob will discuss the manner in which Black playwrights and screenwriters provide the Black gaze in the works they create, and the importance of writing stories that resist stereotypes and creating complex Black characters to reveal Black interior lives.

Ford commented on the tendency of not just Hollywood but the Black community itself to only tell certain stories from certain points of view about Black life. “Black writers can sometimes be pigeonholed in the demarcation of things we write. There are categories of stories that make it to publication and after a while writers get trained to stay in those lanes.”

Depicting the full spectrum of the Black community and experiences is one key to further representing Black characters realistically in stage and screen.

The zeitgeist has also traditionally played a significant role in determining what stories are introduced to the public and how they are put forward. Ford agreed that the recent decidedly rightward shift of politics evidenced by the last three Supreme Court confirmations among other things, was reason for some concern that further progress in presenting ever more diverse stories could be hampered. “They’re putting judges in there in their 30s and they are there for life. We have to be very vigilant because we’ll start seeing court decisions that would have been unthinkable in the past in terms of censorship. Already Trump has declared that the 1619 project is unpatriotic. It’s something people ought to pay attention to.” He indicated this is one of the questions that will be addressed on the panel.

A number of outstanding creatives from the world of stage and screen will be honored for their enduring excellence. Conference honorees this year are Carl Clay, playwright and TV writer Dominique Morisseau, documentarian Stanley Nelson, theater producer and filmmaker Voza Rivers, and playwright and NYU professor Richard Wesley. Awards will be distributed during its virtual NBWC Awards and Tribute Program, Nov. 14, 2020. There will also be a tribute to iconic novelist Toni Morroson, who passed away in August 2019.

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