Making bold statements

Lisa Langford • Playwright

by Bob Abelman

In the play “Rastus and Hattie,” black friends visiting white friends are served dinner by two black robots, the titular characters that are salvaged prototypes of a kitchen appliance developed by Westinghouse in the 1930s. The play was selected for the prestigious National New Play Network’s (NPX) National Showcase of New Plays, was a 2019 finalist for the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center National Playwrights Conference in Waterford, Conn., and the Bay Area Playwrights Festival in San Francisco, and according to an NPX press release, “offers a playground that makes some pretty bold statements about race and history.”

The surreal “The Art of Longing” follows the lives of three graveyard shift security guards at the Cleveland Museum of Art, all the while playing with various stereotypes of blackness and gender identity. The play was a finalist for the Leslie Scalapino Award for Innovative Women Performance Writers, a semifinalist for the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s 2017 National Playwrights Conference and received its world premiere in the fall of 2017 at Cleveland Public Theatre. 

The 10-minute play “The Bomb,” a dark comedy about two ex-lovers who run into each other at a Black Lives Matter protest, has been published in “Black Lives, Black Words,” an anthology that aims to explore the black diaspora experiences in some of the largest multicultural cities in the world.

These are among the innovative and daring works created by 2018/2019 Nord Family Foundation Playwright Fellow Lisa Langford.

Langford, 53, earned a bachelor’s degree in history from Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. – “most of my writing is inspired by something historical,” she adds – and studied acting at The Juilliard School in New York City. She completed her theater training at the American Repertory Theater Institute for Advanced Theater Training at Harvard. Langford worked with Maya Angelou to develop Angelou’s line of social expressions, “Life Mosaics.” Later, she received her MFA in playwriting from Cleveland State University’s NEOMFA creative-writing program, which provides writers with a platform to hone creative skills, explore the finer details of the craft and expand the scope of their creative energies across four participating universities.

“I had great professors, many of them local playwrights, directors and novelists who opened me up to a whole new way of storytelling,” Langford says. “And I made lifelong friendships with people whose artistic feedback helps me grow as a playwright.”

From left, India Nicole Burton as Samir, Nailah Mathews as Kreesha and Greg White as Grady in Cleveland Public Theatre’s “The Art of Longing.” / Photo by Steve Wagner

Further development came from Dobama Theatre’s Playwrights Gym, a place, she says, “that always makes me smile. It’s reassuring to know you have a place to hear your work come to life. I wrote ‘Rastus and Hattie’ because I needed something to read on the night I signed up for – and that’s a play that’s given me some great opportunities, like the 2019 Joyce Award, which is shared with Cleveland Public Theatre.” 

That award is given by Chicago’s Joyce Foundation for collaborations between talented, socially-engaged artists and equally dedicated cultural organizations in the Great Lakes region. “We believe Lisa is one of the most important voices emerging in American theater,” says Raymond Bobgan, CPT’s executive artistic director.

“Toni Morrison, my favorite writer ever,” says Langford, “became an author because the books she wanted to read hadn’t been written. She inspires me to write roles I’d like to play as an actress, particularly older characters with agency. I want to see that onstage.”

Langford believes Cleveland’s evolving theater scene is ready to take greater chances and produce more original plays by local playwrights. 

“I live in Cleveland Heights, which is ‘Playwrights Central’! I run into Eric Schmeidl, Eric Coble, George Brandt, Christopher Johnston, Amy Schwabauer, Faye Sholiton, Juliette Regnier and others,” she says. “And Dobama, Karamu and Ensemble Theatre are minutes away from where I live. Sounds like a good matching to me.” CV

On stage

Lisa Langford’s play “Rastus and Hattie” will receive its world premiere Oct. 5–26 at Cleveland Public Theatre’s Gordon Square Theatre, 6415 Detroit Ave., Cleveland.

Lead image: Photo by Steve Wagner

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