Dawn Simmons: Lifting Up a Community Through the Diaspora

May 25, 2018

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Alexis Smith

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Last week, I had the chance to talk with Betsi Graves, director of Urbanity Dance, and we spent a lot of time talking about the importance of collaborating with artists across various fields. Why would she be the one designing a costume, when Boston is so filled with incredibly talented costume designers? Why pay a high fee to use the rights to a pop song and choreograph a dance to it when you can find a fantastic Boston-based composer who is looking to work with a dance company? Why not collaborate and challenge each other stretch the ways of thinking? To create something greater than you previously imagined you could do?

The week before that, I sat down with Lina Gonzalez-Granados, artistic director of Unitas, an ensemble dedicated to promoting the work of Latino-American musicians and composers. One of the things she talked about was building a bridge instead of a wall. When she moved to Boston, she noticed that there wasn’t any Latino-American representation in the city and so she created an orchestra to fill that void.

This week, I sat down with Dawn Simmons. Dawn is the director of  Lyric Stage’s current production of The Wiz. When I first decided to interview Dawn it was because the premise of The Wiz sounded super fun, it’s a re-telling of the classic Wizard of Oz in the context of modern African- American culture. There are clips of the 1978 film version on YouTube with Michael Jackson, Diana Ross, and Richard Pryor, and they are FUN! Throughout my research and conversation with Dawn, these themes of representation and collaboration that were so central to both Lina’s and Betsi’s interviews, were the cornerstones of Dawn’s work with The Wiz and Front Porch Arts Collective, which seeks to create a place where perspectives and experiences of Black and Brown are an integral part of the global conversation. Where The Wiz was pivotal in creating a voice for African- American culture and bringing it to Broadway and mainstream in the homeochromatic environment of the 1970’s, Front Porch Arts Collective is integral to creating a platform for artists of color to get the chance to have a consistent space for the celebration of Black culture and the opportunity to create a conversation using a diaspora so often overlooked and undervalued.


How did the idea for Front Porch come about?

Three years ago, I directed Saturday Night/Sunday Morning at Lyric Stage. Saturday Night/Sunday Morning is another show with an all-Black cast and on opening night, Maurice [Parent, co-founder of Front Porch Arts Collective] came to see the show and afterwards we sat down talked about how nice it would be if there were these kinds of shows all of the time and not just once or twice a year peppered throughout different theater companies. Wouldn’t it be great if there was somewhere that was doing these? With Saturday Night/Sunday Morning, it wasn’t about the struggle or about the slave experience or victim narrative, it was just Black people being people, struggling with war. How do we get more of those stories that show more of our experience in the world on-stage? From there, things just really started falling into place! Maurice and I had a really good working synergy and we had similar goals and ambitions for what we thought we could bring to the city—a place to make space for not just our stories, but also a space for actors of color to have a place to continually work. We wanted to create an opportunity for students and people who were new to say, design, to have a place where they could get their feet wet and get their careers off the ground. By providing these employment opportunities, training opportunities, and the opportunities to make big decisions, we’re going to feed the ecosystem and make it better. We really are about creating a feeder system and increased opportunities. One of the other things that’s really important to us is that we don’t want to be the only place that you see stories about people of color, but we want to be a constant. We want to add to the landscape and provide more opportunities for storytelling.

You want to create a consistent space for black celebration at a very high level.

Yes! That’s exactly right! 

I love the name of the Front Porch Arts Collective, it makes me think of people gathering on a front porch in the summertime and telling their stories. I am curious though, why is it the Front Porch Arts Collective and not Front Porch Theater Company?

At the time when we first got together, and this is probably definitely more future ambition, we were hoping to branch into film, dance, visual arts, and music. We had these really grand ideas to bring more people in, but as things have sort of happened, it’s been that we’ve focused more on theater. The people who have helped us pick up the ball, Central Square Theater, Lyric Stage, Greater Boston Stage Company, are obviously all theater so our focus has become more theater-focused but what we would like to do as we build our circle of artists is branch out. We can focus on who the choreographers are that we are working with and instead of them just working on a show that we’re doing, why not eventually put on a dance concert? Visual artists can come in anywhere from creating the design art for the program or season and if there’s the possibility where we have some space for a gallery show, how are we presenting their work so there’s this opportunity for them? Any musical you do, you’re working with these amazing, talented musicians so can we have a concert series after a show? Again, that’s all ten or fifteen years down the line. If we want to be successful we have to bite off little chunks at a time. As people come to us and want to work with us the more space we have and the faster we can put some of these things into practice.

I read an interview where you and Maurice talk about how you’d liked to do African-American work that is not defined solely by the struggle, that there’s this incredible black culture and diaspora to be celebrated. I’ve been watching the videos of the 1978 Wiz movie and there are beautiful costumes and the music is unbelievable. The Wiz is really taking a white premise and turning it into a celebration of African-American tradition.

Right. One of the things that we’ve always talked about is this idea of re-inserting Black people back into classic narrative—how have we participated in different art forms over time even though we’ve sort of been written out of them? Front Porch is doing a show called Breath and Imagination and it’s about the first nationally recognized black opera singer and then there’s The Black Odyssey which is Marcus Garvey’s take on The Odyssey. Then, we’re doing an adaptation of The Three Musketeers, so we’re very much exploring this idea of where have we been at all of these different points in history and how do we get a chance to explore these themes through different methods of storytelling. I find it’s the same with The Wiz! Like you said, it’s this classic narrative that has been told many different times, many different ways, from the movie to musical adaptations to Wicked and so The Wiz is our take on the story. 

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There is this celebration of our culture and of our heritage within it, but we’re still exploring those ideas of home, of displacement, of growing up. When L. Frank Baum originally wrote The Wizard of Oz, he was looking at things like economics and class issues, and I think that through the lens of home what we have done is lean into the home aspect especially as a people who have been displaced over time. How do you look at where you are now and make a decision as to whether or not to stay and make it the best place you can make it, or to go back home and deal with whatever issues you need to deal with? Whether that’s questions of belonging, questions of opportunity, what is it that makes a place home and why do we come back? We’re trying to find a lens to explore different parts of different narratives that we don’t often get to explore. On is surface it is called the “Black Soul Musical” and our take on it is exactly that, but at its heart the thing that is running underneath it is this idea of what is home, what is family, and how do you make the choice to leave or stay in situations that you’re in? 

What are some of the steps you’ve taken to re-imagine classics? What are some of the challenges?

This particular season we are looking at classic art forms. We’re looking at classic texts and reinserting ourselves into them. The Black Odyssey is written similar to The Odyssey but it’s through a Black lens—we’re using the diaspora, we’re using African folk-telling to tell these stories. There’s also a very modern take of it in Garvey’s writing but we also as we go forward, we hope to create work ourselves, we hope to focus on New England playwrights of color, and writers of color from outside of New England so the idea is that we’ll have a much larger expanse of stuff that we can tackle. That being said, we also understand that there are some classic texts that we would not be ordinarily cast in and we have to ask not only how do we get an opportunity to tackle those but also does it make sense to tackle them? There are some shows that it’s just not worth that statement, perceived or real, there’s no reason for it. We have to think critically about the kind of work that we’re doing, but at the end of the day what we really want to do is make sure who is generating these ideas and are they Black or Brown people and then we lift that forward first.

What can an audience member expect from your production of The Wiz?

WIZ1I’ve worked on some pretty incredible sets, but this is the most incredible set, it is SO COOL! This show also has some of the best singing. I don’t know how we got this lucky but we amassed some of the greatest singers in Boston, some really amazing new kids who are coming out of Boston Conservatory. Dorothy (Salome Smith) has a set of lungs on her that will bring you to your knees! If you are not crying by the end of the show, something is wrong with you. 

The costumes are amazing! The show has this sort of Creole/ New Orleans flavor which gives us a huge canvas to paint on and Amber Voner who did our costumes was like, "CHALLENGE ACCEPTED!" The things she does are unbelievable: our Tin Man is a living statue, our Scarecrow is a voodoo doll, the Lion is a drugged up, pill-popping club kid. It’s just visually stunning and I think it supports the music. It’s just big and loud and fun! If I would say anything to anyone coming, it is that you will have a good time. Everybody is having a good time. I hope that we are faithful to the original 1970’s musical in how we carry out the songs and the music and I hope that we are faithful to the movie in it’s over-the-top campiness and it all comes together. The world that we’ve created is just fully fleshed-out and the actors have given themselves over to this production.

Any last thoughts?

One of the other things that Front Porch is hoping to do is a lot of training work. We have a lot of interesting partnerships that Maurice is working on, specifically with a group called Castle of Our Skins, working with youth to write their own spirituals that we are hoping to either have sung at a show or have other performances where those things will happen. Also, we want to lift up other groups and other artists of color who are doing the same kind of work that we’re doing and come up with more ways to provide space and visibility for us all. We would love to take Three Musketeers to Franklin Park in the summer. Three Musketeers happens next summer, June 2019, and after the show it would be so amazing if we could go from Greater Boston Stage and do something out in a park with super high visibility and accessibility. 

We have these big ambitions for partnerships and we’re just looking for more people to keep coming out of the woodwork, to keep talking to us. We can’t do everything, but down the line things will happen. The more we put it out there, the more that hopefully will come to us and the more opportunities we’ll have to push our dreams further.


Photo: Rose Lincoln

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