In December of 2017 I was approached by the Performing Arts Program Coordinator at RYSE, Molly Raynor, to see if I would be interested in doing dramaturgy for their upcoming production titled Richmond Renaissance. I knew of RYSE from my time working the teen poetry slams and seeing the rise of Donté Clark so I was super excited to work with them on creating their new piece. At first, I thought that the piece was going to be about their creating a renaissance in Richmond in their current time, but Richmond Renaissance was actually going to be a love-letter in musical form from the youth of Richmond to the richness of their city’s history.
[Image Description: A flyer for the play Richmond Renaissance. The background of the flyer is teal, with red, orange and white lettering. Two orange figures stand across from each other — the man on the left is wearing a red suit jacket and fedora and playing a saxophone and the woman on the right is wearing a teal dress and standing at a microphone. The flyer has writing advertising the show, including “RYSE Presents… Richmond Renaissance A Play By Richmond Youth. Save the Date May 6th and 7th from 6 – 8 PM, At the El Cerrito Performing Arts Theater.” A sepia tone film strip goes across the bottom of the flyer showing four photographs of young people dressed in clothes from the forties.]
I have never worked with young people so clear in their decisions about the art they are trying to make until I began working with DeAndre, the playwright of Richmond Renaissance. This young man was dedicated to telling this story with honest and loving authenticity. DeAndre was interested in creating a piece that truly put the audience in 1940s North Richmond while also speaking about themes that the audience can see playing out in their lives currently. My work focused on finding out what Richmond “was like” in the 1940s. What/who were they listening to? What was their slang? Where were they coming from and why?
[Image Description: Five young black people stand in a row in front of paisley red and gold wallpaper, looking into the camera. The two men who are furthest to either side wear fedoras, dress pants and button-down shirts; the three women in the center wear dresses and either a headwrap or a flower in their hair.]
[Image Description: A young woman in a white lace blouse stands turned towards her right, singing into a wooden spoon as if it is a microphone. She wears bright red lipstick and a red flower in her hair.]
While it was awesome to do this work in support of young artists, I personally enjoyed learning about the richness of the city’s history. Richmond has a bad reputation for being a center of scandal and violence, so to learn that it was a hub for Black artists and musicians, a place where Black people could own property and create a world of their own, was enlightening and allowed me a deeper view into Richmond’s heart and soul. DeAndre was dedicated to knowing what exactly people wore, what major artists would be filtering through the jukebox at AnnaBelle’s, and what the particular structure of the songs during that time were. We also unpacked the textured language of Richmond in the 1940s, how the lullabic accent of the South paired with the sing-songiness of the Midwest merged together to give Richmond residents a sound and vernacular of their own.
[Image Description: A young man stands with his right hand over his heart, looking down over his right shoulder. He wears a light brown suit jacket with a white shirt, green vest and yellow plaid tie.]
Along with all of that though, in crafting the script DeAndre wanted to layer in the issues he saw his community dealing with in real time: predatory gangsters, family secrets, PTSD/the effects of war, and more. Furthermore, he really wanted to focus on the role of the Black woman in the creation of Richmond’s culture. The play was set at AnnaBelle’s juke joint with a savvy and motherly lead character named AnnaBelle who not only helped her employees and family members navigate through their various trials and tribulations but also navigated through her own trials, not with angelic grace but grit, perseverance and love. So too it was with the other characters and the very flawed, human, loving, growing realness of Black folks trying to obtain success and maintain community despite being tested every day.
[Image Description: A young woman stands in front of a standing microphone, looking toward the camera with both arms raised. She is wearing a pink dress, an off-white fur coat, purple gloves and a black hair wrap.]
Overall, I left the experience extremely grateful and inspired by the art that is being created by young people in the Bay Area. Often, we are informed that the next generation is at risk, that they are subpar in some way and that they lack true artistic vision and discipline. To those people I would say, watch Richmond Renaissance, work with RYSE. If they do, they will be promptly shown that the next generation of artists is disciplined, focused, socially conscious and extremely talented.
[Image Description: An excerpt of Richmond Renaissance at the 2017 Life is Living Festival. A young woman is on an outdoor stage beneath a leafy tree. She is wearing a black long sleeved blouse with a brightly patterned blue half-apron and red lipstick. She is clapping her hands together and looking off to her right.]
[Image Description: Nine people, part of the cast and creative team, stand in two rows in front of a white background, looking toward the camera. They are dressed in clothing from the forties and many are smiling.]
Ashley Smiley aka Smiley is a proud San Francisco native who currently serves as the Youth Theatre Programs Director for Community Works West, a restorative justice-based nonprofit that works with justice-impacted youth and their parents. Smiley is currently curating the first annual CWW Youth Theatre Festival, which will be occurring April 18th-20th, 2019 at Z Below in San Francisco. Smiley is also an active member of the Campo Santo performance collective and acts as a freelance writer, director, stage manager, and production manager.
[Image Description: a close up of Smiley, who is looking directly into the camera. Smiley is wearing a black shirt and black blazer, silver dangling earrings and pink lipstick, and has closely cropped hair.]
Cal Shakes supported Smiley’s dramaturgy on Richmond Renaissance as part of our partnership with RYSE Youth Center.