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Fade to Black: Houston’s First and Only African-American Playwright Festival

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By Donalevan Maines

Did you just call me ‘bitch’??” (as RuPaul sings in “Oh No She Better Don’t”).

Why, he ought to be whipped!

In fact, “Whipped” is the gay entry in the third annual Fade to Black play festival in Houston.

The collection of 10 short scripts by African-American playwrights is set to christen the newly constructed $7 million Queensbury Theatre (formerly Country Playhouse), says Denise O’Neal, Fade to Black’s executive director.

“Whipped” is about a pair of male lovers who take a tentative stab at some S&M sex. Their bumpy baby steps toward bondage bliss are funny, but the attempt to spice up their love life sweetly leads to a breakthrough in their relationship.

Oh, and there’s a hunky pizza-delivery guy ringing their bell. (Or, to riff on Ru, “Domino she better do!”)

“Whipped” is the work of out Austin playwright Travis Tate, who tells OutSmart, “All my plays contain queer and queer-friendly characters. The letters LGBT have a wide spread, and I try and represent all of those queer folks in my plays.”

However, he says, “I don’t believe I have been ‘pegged’ as a gay playwright or a black playwright. I don’t mind those labels. My identities are very important to my work as a playwright.”

Ananka Kohnitz, who is helming “Whipped,” also directed a reading of the script April 26 at the Montrose Center, where festival director O’Neal announced the winners of her nationwide call for entries. She has assembled a bevy of actors and directors of many ethnic backgrounds, and at the close of the festival she’ll award a cash prize to the playwright who wins the audience vote for best of fest.

Fernando Dovalina, an out Houston playwright who is helping publicize Fade to Black, says, “This year’s plays range from thoughtful dramas to outlandish comedies. Some include strong adult language, and one contains partial nudity.”

Speaking at the April 26 event was Randal K. West, Queensbury’s new executive director, who promised his theater group will celebrate diversity with colorblind casting and a broad array of material. For example, Queensbury’s first season, which is set to open June 26, will include the racially mixed To Kill a Mockingbird and Big River on its main stage and, in its smaller “black box” theater, the sparkling comedy As Bees in Honey Drown (by out author Douglas Carter Beane) and (the pre-Glee) Fame the Musical.

Kohnitz tells OutSmart she plans on “having fun with costumes, awesome music and sound bites, and some very interesting props” when presenting “Whipped” at Fade to Black. “I will be buying the props,” she adds. “No used ones for this production.”

Dovalina asked Tate where he got the inspiration to write “Whipped.” The playwright laughed, “I visited a sex shop. The majority of the merchandise was targeted at heterosexual couples. How-to books, toys—almost everything. Navigating gay sex can be rather, for the lack of a better word, tricky. I think that it’s important to have stories that reflect those weird, awkward, funny, and sincere moments in queer life. The sex-shop workers [I met] were very friendly and like working there. I could tell they were free spirits and not narrow-minded. And then this play came [to mind].”

Tate adds that his plays contain moments that range from amusing and pointed to kind and sincere. “I think it’s important to laugh at the ridiculous moments in life.”

O’Neal says she created Fade to Black because she hadn’t seen many works by African-American playwrights in other Houston theater festivals. “I decided it was time for a change,” she says.

The first two productions were so successful (playing to standing-room-only audiences) that O’Neal sought out a larger venue.

She says that Fade to Black, which received a grant from the Texas Commission on the Arts “for artistic excellence and community impact,” will donate part of its proceeds to St. Hope Foundation, a Houston-area nonprofit community healthcare organization.

Among the plays chosen for the festival, in addition to “Whipped,” are several by Houston authors, including “In the Still of the Night” by Melanie E. Burke, “Driving Miss Crazy” by Kelvin Douglas, “Color Blind” by Thomas Meloncon, and “The Vessel by Which” by Angela Y. Rice.

More information about the festival can be found at fadetoblackfest.com.

Shows will be June 11–13 (Thursday through Saturday) at 8 p.m. at the Queensbury Theatre, 12777 Queensbury Lane in west Houston. Tickets are $20. For reservations, call 713.467.4497.

Donalevan Maines also writes about the Tony Awards in this issue of OutSmart magazine.

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Don Maines

Donalevan Maines is a regular contributor to OutSmart Magazine.
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