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The We Will Dream Festival opens with “Drapetomania: A Negro Carol” at the Andre Cailloux Center

Even though it’s the height of the pandemic, he has a baby suffering from severe intestinal problems, and the mysterious visitor LD says he’s been in prison, Wayne lets him into his apartment in Drapetomania: A Negro Carol.

LD is the first of several spirited visitors who fill Wayne in on what he’s been doing with his life. A ghostly figure, KMS, explains that “Drapetomania” is part of the problem.

Drapetomania was a fake medical diagnosis of enslaved blacks fleeing antebellum plantations. In the 1850s, Samuel Cartwright, a white doctor, published his argument that enslaved people trying to escape must be mentally ill.

Playwright MD Schaffer discovered Cartwright and his quack psychology online. During the pandemic, the concept found traction while observing reactions to the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement. The inspired Drapetomania: A Negro Carol.

“Being in Texas during the pandemic was amazing,” says Schaffer, who left his home in New York during the pandemic to be with family in Houston. “It lit the fuse for me to start writing. ‘Drapetomania’ grew out of the question, ‘What does it mean to me to be black in America?’”

“Drapetomania” premieres at the We Will Dream Festival, which features productions of three plays by emerging black playwrights, a scenic reading of another drama, talkback sessions, workshops, speakers and more at the Andre Cailloux Center for Performing Arts and Cultural Justice. “Drapetomania” is directed by David Kote, a graduate of Dillard University who lives in Atlanta. It opens on March 25th and runs through April 30th on select dates. The festival runs until June 19th.

Schaffer is a fan of works with ghosts, from the works of Shakespeare to Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”. “Drapetomania” borrows the scheme of visiting ghosts, and its ghosts are a diverse group of historical figures. LD was one of the leaders of the 1971 Attica prison riot. John Brown, the abolitionist who led the Harpers Ferry heist, is a cheerful but tenacious leader. KMS, the orchestrating spirit, still wrestles with the story itself, and has done so for far longer than Wayne.

“I wanted to do a piece about Black Lives Matter and Covid,” says Schaffer. “It was really earth-shattering to experience all these emotions at once. I tapped into this piece that looks at American history in comparison to America today. I credit ‘Hamilton’ with their catchphrase ‘America then meets America now’. I like this overlapping of ideas.”

The festival looked for plays by black playwrights with some connection to the South, says founder and producing artistic director Lauren Turner.

“We asked for works that might challenge the concept of cultural heritage,” says Turner. “All the plays are about this idea of ​​what we inherit from previous generations. We asked for pieces that were radically imaginative. They take us to a different place – something that enthralls the audience. They also feature black narratives and stories from black communities prominently.”

The festival selected four of 40 submitted pieces from across the country. Upcoming works include “Where the Suga Still Sweet” by Louisiana playwright Brian Egland. Turner will direct the drama about a boy’s first love experiences and how they are shaped by his community and church. It runs from April 8th to May 21st.

Philana Imade Omorotionmwan’s The Defiance of Dandelions is about black women and girls and how they are labeled and how they reclaim their identity. Nicole Brewer, founder of the anti-racist theater movement, will come to New Orleans to direct the play. It’s a movement-heavy work presented as a ritual performance in the Cailloux Center’s atrium, says Turner. It runs from April 28th to June 17th.

There will also be a staged reading of Cris Eli Blak’s Sons of Liberty about a pair of brothers, one of whom is a veteran fighter after returning from the Iraq War.

Festival speakers include Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright James Ijames (whose drama White recently screened at NOMA). Erika Dickerson-Despenza, who lives in New Orleans, will also speak. She founded the Ntozake Shange Social Justice Playwriting Residency at New York’s The Public Theater, which is currently producing her Hurricane Katrina work Shadow/Land.

Theater company No Dream Deferred presents the festival in lieu of a more conventional season. The festival takes place every two years, and in the off-years the theater will present a production or two. There are plans to produce a new work by local playwright and radio host Hal Clark in November.

The company’s and festival’s mission is to support Black theater artists, including playwrights, directors, actors, designers and more. Turner notes that this festival supports 50 black theater workers, including paying Actors Equity wages to all actors, regardless of union membership. Tickets are available in advance, but free tickets are available at the box office before the shows.

Turner grew up in North Carolina but had family in New Orleans before Katrina and visited them many times. She moved here in 2014 to teach at Dillard. She sees the work of No Dream Deferred as building on the city’s legacy of black theater.

“The bigger the festival gets, the more it’s a resource for local artists, designers and production people, the more it becomes a reality, the more it becomes part of the cultural fabric,” says Turner. “Black theater is already a big part of the cultural fabric of this place. This is the birthplace of the Free Southern Theater, the Ethiopian Theater. These are black theaters that existed during the civil rights movement. Storytelling, making black theater – that’s what this place is built on. We try to encourage the memory of it and to promote this vision.”

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