How can a Washington, DC theater company have existed for three decades and yet virtually no one has ever heard of them?
It’s a question playwright Alan Sharpe is often asked – one he often asks himself too – so it’s not surprising that he’s collected more than a few answers. Sharpe is the Founding Artistic Director of the African-American Collective Theater (ACT), which 30th anniversary with a return to live public performance on Sunday 29 May 2022.
In the flesh – The Vehicle for That Return – is a theater program for readers featuring short, original LGBTQ+-themed plays written and directed by Sharpe. It is the latest in a series of performances that began in 1992 and were inspired by the previous year’s first DC Black Pride Festival. ACT’s annual DC Black Pride Weekend LGBTQ+ Theater Showcase has since become a springtime tradition for district residents and visitors on the last Sunday of May — on both DC Black Pride weekend and Memorial Day weekend.
These origins probably suggest some of the answers to the question of ACT’s relative obscurity, despite a clear, unwavering identity and mission.
“First of all,” Sharpe speculates, “we’re not a theater company per se. I’m a struggling playwright who just wanted his work to be shown to the audience. There has never been a particular interest in my plays from producers and/or theater companies, but as a recognized theater geek I am blessed to have a large pool of friends who have been actors. The only trait they all shared besides talent was generosity. So whenever I called to see my work, they answered that call and brought my efforts to life.
“ACT has no board of directors, no charter, no consistent venue, no nonprofit status, and often no funding,” Sharpe continues. “But year after year these friends have gathered to rehearse and perform — not just during DC Black Pride weekend, but throughout the year. And while DC has always been ACT’s main base, they’ve also performed in New York, Philly, Baltimore, Louisville and Atlanta.”
All funds come from ticket sales, the occasional playwright grant, and Sharpe’s own well-worn pockets. These minimal resources inevitably resulted in a distinctive barebones style that drew audience attention to the scripts and talented performers. Ironically, these very qualities helped develop the flexibility that allowed ACT to exist and survive for three decades when the COVID-19 pandemic forced ACT, like so many other artists, to focus on virtual presentations.
But it’s in in-person performances in front of a live audience that the magic of theater really occurs. While mainstream theater institutions have remained fundamentally unfazed and indifferent, ACT audiences have always been enthralled and receptive. “Maybe I’m like Tyler Perry when it comes to audience loyalty,” jokes Sharpe. “But without charisma and business acumen.”
Popularity notwithstanding, however, readings traditionally go uncriticized, certainly don’t receive awards, and minimal production values don’t draw much attention given the dazzling productions DC theater is rightly known for. “Honestly, what we’re doing probably wouldn’t be considered very theatrical,” Sharpe admits.
“As a writer, I’m just an old-fashioned storyteller whose style remains rooted in the traditions of the 50’s, 60’s and early 70’s. I’m more interested in human interaction than developing new forms and exploring unique stylistic paths. Obviously the theater has evolved. What’s fresh, exciting and popular on stage right now… isn’t what I do.
“Besides,” Sharpe laughs. “We are a niche of a niche of a niche. Our focus has always been on the lives, loves, challenges, and triumphs revealed through interactions between LGBTQ+ members of the African American community. Especially early on, this often meant that the larger black community and the white gay community alternated in disinterest.
“Nevertheless, 30 years is a lot of time to see how things develop. It certainly hasn’t escaped my notice that the three most recent Pulitzer Prize winners for drama have explored black queer issues [Fat Ham by James Ijames in 2022, The Hot Wing King by Katori Hall in 2021, and A Strange Loop by Michael R. Jackson in 2020]. Here in DC, exciting groups like the Brave Soul Collective, Caged Bird Productions, The Makers Lab, and more are forging new forms and leading the way into the future. It’s incredibly exciting, affirming, and — in every small degree that we’ve nurtured, encouraged, and supported the next generation of Black artists making LGBTQ+ theater — incredibly satisfying.”
In the flesh performs at 5:00 p.m. on Sunday, May 29, 2022 at the First Congregational UCC Church at 945 G Street NW, Washington, DC – conveniently located downtown, a short walking distance from all official DC Black Pride host hotels , and just a few steps from the Metro Center and Gallery Place subway stations. Advance tickets ($15) are on sale on-line.
COVID Safety: Vaccination certificates and mask protocols are mandatory for the implementation.
ABOUT ALAN SHARPE
Alan Sharpe began creating LGBTQ projects in 1970 as a freshman film student at Boston University. An on-campus theater company he helped found there eventually grew into the African-American Collective Theater (ACT) after moving to Washington, DC in 1976.
In the early ’90s, the African-American Collective Theater revised its original mission from black theater in general to focus solely on LGBTQ issues and issues. In 1993, Sharpe wrote the film party — an AIDSFilms production in collaboration with gay men of African descent. He later wrote and directed the serial drama Chump ChangeS – Widely recognized as one of the first African American web series on the internet. Over the next three decades, as an HIV+ artist, he has written and directed over 130 plays and short films – all depicting the living mosaic of LGBTQ+ life and culture in the black community.
In addition to grants in theater and Larry Neal Awards for dramatic writing from the DC Commission of the Arts, Sharpe has been selected to attend the Kennedy Center Playwrights’ Intensive and the Playwrights’ Arena program on the Arena Stage. He has also received awards from the Gay and Lesbian Activists’ Alliance (GLAA), Us Helping Us (UHU) and a Prism Award for his work in support of the African American LGBTQ+ community. In 2012 he received a Legacy Award named after him from the DC Black Theater Festival. He recently became the inaugural recipient of the Alan Sharpe Award, established in 2019 by the Center for Black Equity and DC Black Pride Inc. to annually recognize cultural contributions to the LGBTQ+ community. In December 2021 he received a Community Pioneer Award from the Rainbow History Project for his pioneering artistic work in establishing the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer communities of today’s DMV.
In addition to ACT, Sharpe is proud to be a founding member of the Brave Soul Collective (BSC) – for which he has also written an ongoing series of plays – as well as the African-American Playwrights’ Exchange (APEX), Urban Playwrights United (UPU), the NPX New Play Exchange and the Dramatists’ Guild.