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BWW Interviews: S. Denise O'Neal Talks FADE TO BLACK: A Series of New Works Written by Black Playwrights

Actors get down to business in rehearsal for short
Written by Kelvin Douglas
Directed by Cleo House

FADE TO BLACK: A Series of New Works written by Black Playwrights is a rare opportunity. Theatregoers will witness a select group of original plays from all over the United States. Each year the festival takes submissions, this year nearly 100, and whittles them down to present high-quality theatre to its audience.

FADE TO BLACK is literally breaking new ground. In a field with a paucity of diversity and diverse representations, it mounts new works by African American playwrights. For Houston, it is the first and only play festival do so. That FADE TO BLACK is making history brings both joy and sadness. However, talking with FADE TO BLACK executive director S. Denise O'Neal brings nothing but joy.

Thanks for taking the time to answer questions. FADE TO BLACK is an intriguing title to me. What's behind the name?

"Fade To Black" is a term commonly used by script and screen writers to indicate the fading out of light signifying the end of a scene, but I saw it as a "fading into" the blackness of a beautiful new world.

I needed a title that was witty and grabbed attention quickly. It had to make a strong impression with only a few words. I needed it to be something that others thought was really cool, and in perfect alignment with its concept, and then one morning (because a lot of things happen for me in the morning), "Fade To Black" came to my mind! Just as clear as the birds chirping outside, I heard it and knew it was the most befitting name.

Can you tell me about the inception of the FADE TO BLACK festival?

FADE TO BLACK was conceived because a disservice to our theatre community had taken place. In many cities with a booming theatre presence, you see play festivals for Black playwrights all the time but, in Houston, the fourth largest city in the US, it had never been done! After 20 years of being knee deep in the Houston theatre scene, I had grown disenchanted with a lot of things and was ready to move stuff around. I knew it was going to be up to me. I was clear about that because nobody does it for us. You have to make a change like that happen, and I was just crazy enough to try.

Whose idea was it? Where were you when you thought of it?

It was my idea, but many friends help me to bring it to life. I thought of the concept while sitting in a play festival wonder how the hell they chose their final line up.

[Laughs] How long did it take to come to fruition?

About 1 week! Once I got the venue booked, I took off like a rocket. It caught on like fire, because it was time for it to happen.

S. Denise O'Neal

As an African-American playwright yourself, how do you perceive the current climate for African-American playwrights?

I think theaters are as fair and inclusive as they can be. But, with the exception of the work presented by the only two Black owned theaters in Houston - the Encore Theatre and The Ensemble Theatre - who do black plays all the time, most of these "well-meaning" theatres only do so if it serves the financial needs of their bottom-line. Apparently, an annual play festival for Black playwrights didn't. Now that FADE TO BLACK is gaining in popularity, others are seeing how it could have put them on the map if they had just embraced it. Aside from that, most Black playwrights I know must create their own success; they must produce their own shows if they want a guarantee that it will be seen. This is part of the reason why FADE TO BLACK was created: Our climate of "never giving back to the local playwright" needed to change.

What do you think needs to change to create more opportunities for African-American playwrights and/or playwrights of color?

The flawed mentality that there is no need for a platform such as this or that it will not bring in a decent return or that it's simply too much work. Yes, it is a lot of work, but at the end of the day, it gives back 100 fold! We are seeing that every year we produce this great event because our philosophy is that each talent celebrates the other and I place a very high emphasis on that.

I wanted something that would teach, inspire, enlighten, include and build. FADE TO BLACK is one opportunity that does just that. I believe in the years to come it will create many more.

You received 90 submissions this year from Black playwrights across the US, correct? What do you look for in a winning submission?

It is not an easy task to be chosen, because each play goes through a rigorous judging process. A play has to be well-written and embody an intriguing story line. As odd as this may be, we were not looking for plays that dealt with events seen in the news at the present time. We were looking for something else, probably something that took our focus away from that world and onto something else. This year each of our finalists accomplished that.

Also, each play has to "fit" the big picture, and that picture changes every year. We turn away a number of awesome plays, because we can only select ten and those ten must create a night of performance that is diverse and entertaining. We are talking about ways to produce more than just ten plays during our festival in the years to come.

Fun times in rehearsal
Written by Kelvin Douglas
Directed by Cleo House

What are some of the highlights of this year's festival?

This is a new year of marvelous plays with subject matters from the heart of the Black playwright speaking their truths from an African-American perspective. It is a historical moment you will not want to miss!

This year's festival brings ten new amazing works. The new line up brings seven playwrights from the state of Texas; four of them are from Houston.

As always, we have a variety of plays with a variety of subject matters. Each play is sure to find its home with different audience members. We have plays that bring comedy and laughter, drama, views into [African-American] history, and a look into race, interracial relations, and alternative lifestyles. I must disclose to our patrons that this year some of the plays include adult language and one scene where partial nudity is seen.

Another huge thing that is happening to us this year is the fact that we have moved to a larger venue to accommodate our standing room only crowds. The Heavens aligned and allowed us to move into the brand new Queensbury Theatre in the Town and Country area! We are making history twice and we are making a presence in the city of Houston like never before.

FADE TO BLACK is June 11-13 at 8 p.m. at the Queensbury Theatre. Tickets are $20 for all shows. Please visit for more information.

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