Artist Activist Valerie Curtis-Newton Holds Sacred the Communion of Theater

by Beverly Aarons

Theater is a communion, a space where difficult but important conversations take place between a diversity of people holding sometimes radically different viewpoints. It’s this paradigm that has driven Valerie Curtis-Newton to walk her journey as an artist-activist, theatre director, instructor, and co-founder and Artistic Director of the Hansberry Project. And it’s what keeps her going even as theater’s future is threatened by the pandemic and government restrictions that have left many theatre companies shuttered and stages dark. But no matter what form theater takes next or at least temporarily, Curtis-Newton plans to continue supporting Black theater artists through the Hansberry Project.

Curtis-Newton’s tone is serious and professional as she tells the story of the Hansberry Project’s genesis. Founded in 2006, the Hansberry Project began as an incubator inside ACT Theater, where it operated for the first five years of its life.

“I was really interested in seeing our work happening, our stories happening on a platform as well-funded as the regional theaters,” Curtis-Newton said during our telephone interview as she recounted why she co-founded the Hansberry Project with Vivian Phillips. “So we began in that incubator and then we moved into a more independent, more flexible model that allows us to partner with any organization that’s hiring Black artists.”

Tracy Michelle Hughes and Shaunyce Omar are just two of the Black theatre artists who have benefited from professional support provided by the Hansberry Project. There is a certain level of modesty as Valerie speaks of how the Hansberry Project helped Shaunyce get into the union through her equity role in Nina Simone: Four Women and how she worked with Tracy on various productions including Trouble In Mind.

“I look around the city at all of the artists that the Hansberry Project has supported, and I see the trajectory of their careers,” Curtis-Newton said as she spoke of how inspired she feels to know that Hansberry is having a positive impact. “And to know that Hansberry was a part of funding the work of encouraging them, of letting them know that what they’re doing is important.”

While she has been doing this type of work in the community since she was 19, it wasn’t until Curtis-Newton was 33 that she had the language to describe what she was doing. Providing funding, professional support, career opportunities, larger platforms — and love — to Black theater artists is all part of Valerie’s lifelong ministry to support the community.

“I want to work for and about my people because I love them,” Curtis-Newton said. “And I want that work to be excellent. And to have the resources that are necessary to tell it really well. So I would say I knew I was an artist when I was 21. I knew I was an activist and willing to sacrifice to do it when I was 33. There’s an adage that says, ‘As you get older, first you find your voice then you use your voice.’ And that’s been true for me. I’ve gotten more and more bold in talking about what’s important and less and less concerned about whether I upset the power structure, the older I get. It’s like, you know, if you’re not going to give me that, don’t give me that job, but if you give it to me, know that I’m coming to tell my truth. And increasingly people are willing to take the risk of hearing the truth.”

But even as more people are willing to hear the truth that Curtis-Newton and the Hansberry Project help bring to American stages, the future feels uncertain in many ways. It was clear that Curtis-Newton was concerned about how the pandemic would reshape the theater experience. Would the communal power of theater be lost as artists turned to digital platforms to share their work during the pandemic?

“For me, it feels like the difference between going to church and watching church on television,” Curtis-Newton said as she described what she felt was missing when theater goes digital. “A good preacher and/or a good choir and the right spirit hits a room, and it’s electrifying. When I watch televangelists, I find myself saying, ‘Well, that’s a lovely message,’ But it’s very rare that the hair on my arms stands up. Or that I can’t stay seated and have to stand up. That doesn’t happen when I’m watching church on TV. Right? It’s a different feeling. And I believe that theater is a place of communion. And if we can’t have communion because we’re all having our individual experiences, something is lost in the culture. It’s like giving everybody a headset and then expecting them to hear each other – not going to happen. They’re busy having their own experience.”

Valerie spoke of how theater at its core is about live, in-person performances and the connection between the actors and the audience. She expressed the concern that transitioning theater to digital platforms would create a new accessibility gap where some artists would miss out because they don’t have the tools or funding needed to not only produce the work, but also to record and transmit that work to audiences digitally. But what happens if theater does change? What if Black theater artists choose to present their work digitally? How will the Hansberry Project respond to that kind of transformation?

“I think that we’re on two tracks,” Curtis-Newton said. “One of them is to continue to support Black artists as they figure out how they’re going to make their work and what they need to make their work. We will be there with them. Now we’re going to explore how to support them in the new landscape. And also we’re going to advocate for as much communion as possible, as safe as possible.”

Beverly Aarons is a writer and game developer. She works across disciplines as a copywriter, journalist, novelist, playwright, screenwriter, and short-story writer. She explores futuristic worlds in fiction but also enjoys discovering the stories of modern-day unsung heroes. She’s currently working on a series of nonfiction stories about ordinary people doing extraordinary things in their local communities and the world. In August 2018 she produced a live-action game and event where community members worked together to envision an economic future they truly desired to leave future generations. She’s currently writing an immersive play about the themes of migration.

Featured image by Susan Fried