Dramatist Puts Spotlight on the African-American South

For playwright Sheri Bailey, C’79, art and activism are often intertwined. Take her Summers in Suffolk, which focuses on the lives of six generations of African-American families in the southeastern Virginia town after slavery was abolished. The play will be performed at the Juneteenth Festival at Hampton Roads, Virginia, this year. The celebration marks June 19, 1865, when Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas, announcing the end of the Civil War and slavery. Bailey’s mission is to get the date declared a holiday in her home state of Virginia. She figures if the former capital of the Confederacy recognizes Juneteenth Day, it will be well on its way to becoming a federal holiday. “It’s not about blame or shame, but about looking at American history from an African-American perspective,” she explains.
   Returning from Los Angeles, where she had been living since her graduation from Penn, to the more conservative Norfolk, Va., to teach play-writing at Old Dominion University, has forced Bailey to become “very political in terms of my role as a writer, to be a social activist” — a charge she seems to relish. Bailey’s plays, in addition to drawing from her southern and African-American heritage, tend to focus on “people who are without voice, disenfranchised — the poor, women, children … ” Two of her works comment on the disproportionate number of incarcerated African Americans. “But I don’t start off with a theme in that sense. I start off with a character, a woman who has been in prison for five years and needs to reestablish a relationship with her daughter.” That play, All Kinds of Blue, was performed at L.A.’s Terminal Island Prison. 
   Though she’s glad to be back near her hometown of Portsmouth, where her family still lives, Bailey admits that “I couldn’t wait to leave when I was 18. It was really a small town in terms of flavor and growing up,” and segregation was still the practice, if not the law. “My social world was primarily all black.” For Bailey, however, that was “a blessing in disguise,” because she was “educated in a very real way about the positive success stories in the African-American community.” 
   Her play writing began as a childhood pastime. “I used to write stories when I was upset with my parents, and with my siblings would act out plays in the backyard about how we had lost our real parents and were taken over by these aliens. My father found one and corrected all the grammatical mistakes.” To his credit, Bailey says, “he never made any comment on the content of it.” 
   Her high school teachers also encouraged her writing, and at Penn, where she went by the name Sherri Hurdle, she was influenced by English professors like Philip Roth and Daniel Hoffman. After Penn, she entered the theater program at UCLA, where she earned a master’s degree and rediscovered play-writing. Since then she has written 14 plays, winning a National Endowment for the Arts Theater Artist Award in 1993 and earning three nominations for the NAACP Theater Image Awards as Best Playwright. Jasmine Guy and Halle Berry have optioned her screenplays, but Bailey is realistic about the chances of such projects coming to fruition. 
   Back in Virginia, ODU has commissioned a play, which she plans to begin work on this spring. Bailey hopes to use the narratives of people from the nearby Great Dismal Swamp, a mosquito-ridden, forested wetland where runaway slaves used to flee, knowing that no one would follow them there. Today it’s teeming with folklore and other ideal material for a Bailey play. Says Bailey, “I’m interested in telling the stories of people who don’t often get their stories told.”

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