It was during the uprising in Ferguson when I got frustrated. I was seeing real pain, real anger, and a legacy of struggle manifesting in front of me and I knew that people didn’t see us for who we are. So I was frustrated and I wanted to do something. So I called Keith.
“How you feeling brotha?” I’m sure he could hear the intensity in my voice. “Keith, we gotta do something. The artists have to respond. It’s not enough to just post on Facebook. We need to use our art to take action. What are we gonna do?”
Keith hesitated. After all, he’d already done Facing Our Truth, taking on Trayvon and issues of racial profiling. New Black Fest wasn’t created to be the go-to spot every time an incident of racial violence happens. But like I said, I was frustrated, and Keith was the only person I knew to call. “Keith, you have New Black Fest. You care about us. I only called you. We have to do something.” “Alright, let me think about it and get back to you.”
A day or two later, I get a message from him. “I think I got something. Will hit you back soon.”
And he did have something. He had a commission.
I soon found myself writing a monologue for what would become Hands Up: 7 Plays, 7 Testimonials. What started as a thought would move to be produced and heard throughout the country and soon around the world. Keith had something. He had something alright. He had a gem of genius.
I have had the honor of seeing and experiencing Facing Our Truth, Hands Up, and most recently Un-Tamed, through New Black Fest. They have been at the Lark, Joe’s Pub, and theaters throughout the country. New Black Fest and Keith certainly deserve this honor for seizing the moment to speak Truth to the events in our society and bring to light voices that so often don’t get a chance to be heard.
But let me back up and speak on something that really shows why Keith and his work must be honored…o, why his work is essential. Keith doesn’t wait. New Black Fest doesn’t wait. If you only knew how often I hear artists say “I’d love to create a piece surrounding…” and it’s something happening in the Now that should be addressed. And theaters would rather wait and tackle something years after the fact, missing the opportunity to capture the human need to express and grapple with and live in the present. New Black Fest builds on the motion of the moment, using the passions of the people as fuel for invigorating work that somehow blasts from the Now into the Future. And the work lives. The work’s relevance is clear. Clear in the fact that people rush to produce it or do readings of it. Clear in that artists hustle to get Keith a new idea or new topic. Clear in that people recognize Keith as someone who functions as an artist with integrity, clarity, and care for the voices he helps to be heard.
I sit here, now in 2016, some time after that first phone call, reading headlines on the news. I see stories of more fear and pain and legacies of struggle. I hear voices crying to be heard. And I remember my own voice, and what Keith did. And I think about theatre and its capacity to speak to the Now. And I hear Keith’s voice say “I got something.” Yes you do, Sir. And everyone better recognize.
Congrats to you, Keith and to New Black Fest. The Now is the fruit of great art, and you are harvesting.
This article was part of our 2016 Samuel French Awards Series, honoring Sarah Ruhl, Keith Josef Adkins of The New Black Fest, and Michael Kooman & Christopher Dimond.