Bronx-based playwright Ina Norris is for the children. Her first job after graduating from Hampton University was with the New York City Administration for Children’s Services, where she staged a sit-in at the ACS Commissioner’s Office to get a nursery built.
“I don’t know necessarily where I got this passion [from] other than my parents,” said Norris. “I wasn’t afraid to fight for others—put it that way. I worked at the Learning Tree [Cultural] Preparatory School. I was the director of performing arts when I worked there for eight years but it’s just a passion, for children to have the opportunity to be in a space that they’re safe. They can be their best creative selves.”
She initially thought she’d end up as a child psychologist, but as luck would have it, Norris’s advocacy for local youth led her to theater. At the time, she was working for the Housing Authority, but was looking to raise money for her eventual employer, Learning Tree—the Black independent school in the Bronx was on the verge of closure then.
To raise money for the school, Norris stitched together her collection of poems and skits, then pitched the work to the Henry Street Settlement’s Abron Arts Center & Playhouse—a theater traditionally impenetrable for first-time playwrights. But the director loved Norris’s creation. The end result was her debut play, “Nobody Loves a Black Little Girl When She Becomes a Woman.”
“We were the longest-running play at the Symphony Space Theater on 95th and Broadway,” said Norris. “And then I wrote another one and another one and…I kept writing, and that’s how I got into producing and writing plays.”
Today, she runs a theater and film company, In A Woman Productions. Norris also started the Kwanzaa Film Festival, which she’s quick to point out runs beyond just Dec. 26 through Jan. 1. After all, there’s enough dramatic pause from her stage actors—Norris’s work is year-round. The concept is simple: The films have to exemplify one of the seven principles of the Pan-African winter holiday.
And while she gushes over the HBCU education Hampton provided her, Norris still found her way back from Virginia to the “Big Apple.”
“There’s always something to learn in New York, there’s always someone new to discover in New York, and I like that as a writer,” she said. “And when people want to go to the hills [to] look at the water, I want to ride the train. I want to find my character as well. I’m riding the train, because there’s going to be so many varied people on the subway. You walk down the street and you can walk from one street and go through different types of community, different types of ethnicities, different types of income and all of that. For me, in New York, it’s just so vast and it’s just a melting pot that I just love.”
Although she never quite became the child psychologist she aspired to be, Norris still managed to go on a journey of self-discovery, both for herself and the youngsters she aspired to help.
“The plays I wrote—‘Nobody Loves a Black Little Girl When She Becomes a Woman,’ ‘A Secret Lies Inside My Sister’s Womb,’ ‘Ain’t Yo Mama Crying On The Pancake Box-Car,’ ‘The Turnstyle Warrior’ and ‘Don’t Play That Song for Me’—you will see a theme in all of those plays of us fighting for our young people…and trying to heal some of the ills of society that prohibit them from having the life that they deserve. You’ll see that being overwhelmingly in my work,” she said.
Tandy Lau is a Report for America corps member and writes about public safety for the Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by visiting https://bit.ly/amnews1.