Ten years ago, a lightbulb went off in S. Denise O’Neal’s head that would change the theater landscape in Houston.
At the time, O’Neal was on the board of Scriptwriters Houston and she was very much enjoying their annual Ten Minute Play Festival. “I thought it was a delightful thing and I was very much enjoying the process”, says O’Neal. “But I wasn’t really seeing any plays that showed the African American experience.”
After doing some research, O’Neal was shocked to learn that never in Houston’s history had there been a short play festival for Black playwrights. So, she did what all creative innovators do, she created it herself.
Ten years later, the Fade to Black Play Festival remains the only event of its kind in Houston and has grown from humble beginnings to a beloved, anticipated, and important event in the community.
The festival, this year running June 23 to 25 at MATCH, features ten, ten-minute plays (all premieres) by Black playwrights whose work runs the gamut of topics and genres. There’s a Victorian play about a duel, a show about Alzheimer’s, a play set in a popular Houston sports bar about a man cheating on his wife as well as a historical work about Hattie McDaniel, to name a few.
By now the festival is a well-oiled machine, but like all theater arts endeavors, it was a scrappy beginning.
“When Fade to Black started, I had no funds”, says O'Neal, who used her own money to get the festival up and running. "I talked to friends of diverse backgrounds and said, I want to do this, can you help me, I can't pay you."
Enough people loved the idea to keep it going and soon enough O’Neal had partnered with Leighza Walker of Obsidian Art Space, who gave her a venue for the festival and a lot of good advice along the way, including opening up submissions nationally.
“A magical thing happened our first year, says O’Neal. “On Thursday the theater was pleasantly full, then on our second night there was standing room only, and on our third night there was standing room only plus people sitting on the floor– we were packed."
Word of mouth worked and Fade to Black took off like a rocket with similar crowds the following year and a move to the newly opened Queensbury theater after that. Now, with MATCH as its home, Fade to Black is once again expecting a successful year. One that provides a much-needed platform for Black playwrights, but welcomes everyone to come enjoy the work.
“The likeliness of a Black playwright play being produced in the mainstream has gotten better, but it's still very low," says O'Neal who notes that African American playwrights will most of the time produce their work out of necessity/lack of opportunity. "But the festival is not exclusively for us, by us, to us. We invite everyone to the party – the Black playwright needs the support of the whole community.”
Playwright Simone Black, whose play, From This Moment On, was featured at the festival a couple of years ago remains impressed with how Fade to Black allows African American playwrights the space to tell their diverse stories.
"It can be very hard for us to get out different kinds of stories when people look at us and often only see our struggles," says Black. "What I love about Fade to Black is that it gives us a space to tell all of us and it allows people outside of the Black community to see us and get to know us a little bit more and realize that we’re not different from one another.”
Being accepted into this year's Fade to Black Festival is like coming full circle to Houston playwright Eric Jones. "I was one of the first ten playwrights accepted back in 2013 and we didn't know it then but we were about to revolutionize Black theater in the state of Texas."
Jones' play this year, Going Up! is a true-life encounter between America's first Black WWI flying ace and NBC’s Today show pioneer, David Garroway. During the casting for the festival, Jones got a look at the other shows in the festival and he was excited by what he saw.
“Houstonians are going to love this season’s shows”, says Jones. “The plays are the most diverse I’ve ever seen at the festival. I can’t wait for them to come and support.”
Performances are scheduled for June 23 through June 25 at 8 p.m. at MATCH, 615 3400 Main. For more information, visit fadetoblackfest.com. $25 - $40.