A Dream Deferred: Black, Indigenous, and Women+ of Color Playwright-Activists

A Dream Deferred: Black, Indigenous, and Women+ of Color Playwright-Activists

By Yvette Heyliger
30 January 2023

One evening at bedtime, my twelve-year-old grandson asked me, “Nana, are you happy with your life up to now?” I was taken aback by his question. Did he sense something in me? Some disappointment or dissatisfaction? It took me a few beats to muster up a response. Finally, I said, “Well, yes... and no.”

Let me explain.

For me, there is life before I read “The Count 3.0” and life after I read “The Count 3.0.” “The Count” is an ongoing study by the Lillys in partnership with the Dramatists Guild which analyzes and presents data on who is being produced in the American theatre. Before “The Count 3.0” was published, I was what feminist, journalist, and activist Gloria Steinem coined a “hope-a-holic.” Things in the industry were slowly improving and I was hopeful that more plays by women+ would not die on the vine, unplucked and unproduced. I knew I may not see parity for women playwrights in my lifetime, but as an activist I was doing my part to, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. reminded us, bend the “arc of the moral universe towards justice.”

In 2015, “The Count 1.0,” the first study by the Lillys, was published. When reading about the number of produced women playwrights, I was shocked to learn that I was one of the 96.6 percent of women of color whose work had not reached production in our nation. This was through no fault of our own. Talent (or lack thereof) had nothing to do with it. The quest for equal opportunity fueled my continued fight for parity. I was compelled to soldier on despite my nagging suspicion that white women would likely benefit more from my advocacy efforts than I would as a Black woman.

If ”The Count 1.0” were not enough of a wake-up call, that same year, in an article, “Playwrights and the New Play Exchange” written by Gwydion Suilebhan, project director of the New Play Exchange for National New Play Network reported:

There are about 15,000 to 25,000 playwrights working in the United States right now. Let’s call it 20,000 just to make it an even number. And those 20,000 playwrights seem to create about one new play per year, on average. Which means that there are about 20,000 new plays per year entering the cultural ecosystem. At the same time, there are about 2,000 professional world premieres of new plays in the United States every year. So let that sink in. That’s 20,000 new plays and only 2,000 world premieres every twelve months. The unavoidable, mathematical conclusion is that 90% of all new plays never get produced. Only one out of ten ever go from the page to the stage. So if the average playwright writes one new play a year, that playwright can reasonably expect one world premiere production per decade. One. World. Premiere. Per. Decade.

Suilebhan’s article, coupled with the findings of “The Count 1.0” presented a particular challenge for me. I have been an activist for most of my life, lifting the flag and charging onto the battlefield, seeking justice for one cause or another. It is one of my passions. These statistics were enough to make any artivist think about where to put their energies!

For the first time, I saw myself as part of a community of Black women+ activists in the continuum of time.

In 2019 I went to see Gloria: A Life by Emily Mann, a play about the life of Gloria Steinem. I was moved, inspired, and humbled by the play. Most surprising was learning that Black women, and later a Native American woman chief, played a pivotal role in Steinem's development and growth as an activist. The first act of the play was Gloria’s story. The second act was our story—the story of audience members who would step up to the mic and share what was on their hearts and minds in a sacred Native American tradition called a talking circle.

In a Playbill interview, Mann was asked to describe what a talking circle was. She remarked, in part, that the talking circle was:

One of the biggest life lessons [Gloria] had ever learned. Years later, she saw the power of talking circles in the consciousness-raising groups formed out on the road. No one came in as an expert. The people on the ground were saying what they needed and what was going on in their lives. That form of grassroots organizing is how great social justice movements happen.

Act two of each performance was led by different notable special guests. The night I attended the show, the second act was led by Gloria Steinem herself. She re-created the talking circle where women would commune that we learned about in the play. The talking circle was a safe space, a space where there was freedom to say whatever was on their mind. Sometimes ideas for activism grew from these talking circles. Interestingly, the seating in the theatre lent itself to this activity, as it was theatre in the round. It was very compelling how community was instantly created in this setting.

In that moment, I was moved to stand up and speak. I could hardly believe I was sharing my story before this new community I was a part of, much less to this icon of the women's rights movement. Other than a friend who accompanied me to the show, I knew I would probably never see the majority of the people in that audience again. But for this moment in time, and through the magic of theatre, we were all bound together by our experience of the play and the creation of community brought about by the talking circle.

Yvette Heyliger and Gloria Steinem during Act II (the talking circle) of Gloria: A Life by Emily Mann at the Daryl Roth Theatre.

My voice was shaking with emotion as I shared, “It is hard to be Black in America. It is hard to be a woman in America. It is hard to be aging in America.” I did not add this at the time because it seemed self-evident, but it is also hard being an artist in America. Steinem listened intently as I briefly expounded on my thesis. After I finished, she kept thanking me for my honesty and bravery. I was stunned by this. Gloria Steinem was thanking… me? She continued on, saying that Black women have always been at the forefront of activism in this country. For the first time I saw myself as part of a community of Black women+ activists in the continuum of time. Steinem encouraged me to take refuge in the historic leadership of Black women in the fight for justice and equality in America. And by their clapping, the majority white audience seemed to agree (another stunner).

In January 2022, during my tenure as an executive committee member of Honor Roll!, an advocacy group for women+ playwrights over forty and their women+ allies over forty, I invited literary agent Beth Blickers of Agency for the Performing Arts (APA) to speak to our members in an event called Honor Roll! Presents: A Conversation with Beth Blickers. In response to a question on Blickers’ favorite and least favorite part of her job, Blickers said: “The thing that breaks my heart is when I am sitting with someone of a certain age talking about their career frustrations. [I ask them:] ‘Well, do you do this or do you do that’. I can watch the mental calculation of what has maybe been lost years of not doing self-advocacy and it is frequently because they have been busy advocating for other writers.”

I felt like Blickers was talking about me. In addition to Honor Roll!, I have held volunteer and leadership positions in the (now defunct) 50/50 in 2020, Lark/Hedgebrook, and the Women’s Initiative (made up of members of the Dramatists Guild), as well as the League of Professional Theatre Women, now celebrating its fortieth year of advocating for opportunities and visibility for professional women+ in theatre. As the years wore on, advocacy began to take more of my time and creative energies. Truth be told, I enjoy advocacy and, like Blickers suggests, I did put it ahead of my own self-interests. For this reason, I had to redefine success for myself.

So, in answer to my grandson’s question, here’s the “well yes” part:

I had become a producing artist and was able to give myself opportunities to grow as a playwright by seeing my work living and breathing on smaller stages. I published a collection of my full-length plays. My shorter works and monologues appear in theatrical anthologies. I pen theatre-related articles for online magazines and blog posts. I have been interviewed on theatre-related podcasts. I have curated and produced events promoting women’s work around the social issues of our time like the brutality and murder of women of color at the hands of the police and the #MeToo movement.

These steps ensure that my grandchildren and future generations of theatre lovers will know I was here and had something to contribute to the American theatre. And finally, although in the minority—not unlike the Black suffragettes and Black feminists who fought for inclusion despite the unrelenting bias they endured—I found community with white women theatre artists fighting for parity.

And, here’s the “… and no” part:

All of these efforts have afforded me the street cred and respect of my peers but not the nationally recognized awards and accolades that garner the attention of regional theatres and Broadway producers. I have failed in balancing my work as an activist with my work as an aspiring playwright in that sense. (In fact, right now, I am sure there is a submission opportunity, or a grant, or residency that I should be applying to as I write this article!) I am “of a certain age”—too old, perhaps, to be the next “hot thing,” “flavor of the month,” or “theatre darling.” I am a recovering “hope-a-holic” who cannot go backwards and recover those “lost years of not doing self-advocacy.”

The icing on the cake came with the Lillys’ most recent findings in the “The Count 3.0” which says, in part: “It’s clear that, although the American theatre has continued to add to the diversity of its playwrights, neither gender nor racial parity has yet been achieved in terms of production. Anecdotally, it appears that women over the age of fifty, especially Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) women+ who led the push for the diversity we now enjoy, do not appear to have directly benefitted.”

There it was in black and white. I had been fighting all this time for white women to have more opportunities in the industry than women like me. This news was very disheartening. It caused me to call into question the last fifteen years of my life as an activist fighting for parity for women+ theatre artists. What now? Do I keep fighting for those BIPOC women+ under fifty and future generations?

The truth is, now in my sixties, I am tired and ready to turn this particular fight over to those who are younger and stronger. After years of advocacy, I was looking forward to spending more time writing, networking, submitting more consistently, maybe getting an agent, and securing that all-important regional production that may have a future on the Great White Way. I was looking forward to taking my seat at the table.

Knowing I am part of a historic lineage, a continuum of Black women activists on the frontlines of one cause or another who may not see the fruits of their work in their lifetime, I am wondering how to reconcile and be at peace with the findings of “The Count 3.0” while still fighting the good fight. I am wondering what the response to these findings are by other BIPOC women+ playwrights in my shoes, or if they even know. I am wondering, “What happens to a dream deferred,” a question posed by poet, essayist, novelist and playwright, Langston Hughes in his iconic poem, “Harlem”:


What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up

like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore—

And then run?

Does it stink like rotten meat?

Or crust and sugar over—

like a syrupy sweet?


Maybe it just sags

like a heavy load.


Or does it explode?


I don’t yet have an answer to Hughes’ question because I am still living it. But I can imagine the mountaintop. And as I crest, I see my dream deferred exploding—not in my lifetime but a hundred years from now when women+ playwrights in great numbers explode onto the American theatre scene. In my dream deferred, I see BIPOC women+ having the same opportunities as their white sisters and together as womenkind, they have the same opportunities as white men. In my dream deferred, I see producers discovering the plays of BIPOC women+ over fifty and posthumously dedicating whole seasons to their unsung work. In my dream deferred, I see a seat at the table for all of us. In the words of voting and women's rights activist, community organizer, and leader in the civil rights movement, Fannie Lou Hamer, “We didn’t come all this way for no two seats when all of us were tired.”

And now… I welcome you, dear theatre community—especially BIPOC women+ theatre artists over fifty—to our first virtual talking circle. As is the tradition, I will light a (virtual) candle and open the talking circle with a prayer that will rest our comments and reflections in the hands of a nondenominational higher power: May our virtual talking circle be blessed and the voices of all within it be honored as equal in importance. May the collective wisdom of the circle uplift the theatre community at large, as well as the audiences who come to us seeking fellowship.

And now, your comments and reflections on today’s question: What happens to a dream deferred?

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