One on One with Black Queer Storyteller Alan Sharpe

Photo by Don E. Harris

Alan Sharpe is a writer/director of the LGBTQ+ stage and film. In the 90s, he started a theater company that would eventually become the African-American Collective (ACT). Sharpe has written and directed over 150 plays, short films, and two web series showcasing the mosaic of African American LGBTQ+ culture and experiences. This year ACT celebrates its 30th Anniversary season. On Oct 28th and 29th, ACT and the Brave Soul Collective will present “Theater After Dark: Adults Only!” The five readings of short LGBTQ-themed mature subject pieces will take place before a live audience at The Anacostia Playhouse. 

In an email interview with PrideIndex, the 2022-23 Artist’s Fellowship in Theater Recipient discusses the origins of the “Adults Only!” project, the primary obstacles he faced, and whether or not Mary Antoinette Perry will offer kudos to this project. 

PrideIndex (PI): Briefly tell us about your background in the theater and your journey from St. Louis to Wash, DC.  

Alan Sharpe (AS): As a child in St. Louis, I grew up in the heyday of 50’s Disney animation and wanted to be an animator. There was no visible pathway to that occupation for an inner-city Black kid like me. (Although, as an adult, I learned about pioneering Black Disney animator Floyd Norman, who began working there during my early childhood.) My fallback compromise was puppetry/marionettes. I started writing little plays for them, leading to the theater and then filmmaking, which is how I spent my high school years.  

At Boston University, I majored in film and television, but this was pre-video and personal computers, so the precious film equipment and stock were reserved for seniors and graduate students. Out of frustration, I did a lot of theater, co-founding The Black Drama Collective with my partner, who then moved on to graduate school in Ohio, while I returned home to St. Louis to work and do more theater – writing, directing, and acting.  

We later reunited in Washington, DC, in 1976, and the Black Drama Collective eventually morphed into African American Collective Theater (ACT) and a focus on the classic Black theater canon — until my experience at the very first DC Black Gay Pride Festival in 1991 inspired me to write “Heart Beats” a play that focused on DC’s Black LGBTQ+ community. The overwhelming response to that play launched an entirely new focus for (ACT). Over the following three decades, I’ve written and directed over 150 plays, short films, and two web series – ALL focused solely on life in the Black LGBTQ+ community. This year, we’ve been blessed to celebrate ACT’s 30th Anniversary with a year-long series of special theatrical events, both virtual and live in-person. 

Photo Courtesy of African-American Collective Theater

PI: Talk about the African American Theater Collective and how the “Adults Only! “project came about.  

AS: The Anacostia Playhouse is seeking to expand its audience base and attract more younger theatergoers. One of their initiatives towards this end is “Theater After Dark,” an occasional after-hours weekend event that starts a couple of hours later in the evening than usual to fill that after-dinner/before-clubbing space for audiences on Friday and Saturday nights. While performances are informal and the concept broad enough to include music, comedy, spoken word, etc., the theater was always the intended focus.   

Brave Soul Collective (BSC) and African-American Collective Theater (ACT) collaborated on the first such event last spring. They were invited to return and keep the momentum going this fall, with staged readings of five short LGBTQ+ themed plays under the umbrella title, “Adults Only!” As that title suggests, these events were designed not as family entertainment — but to showcase fare targeted at mature audiences. 

Photo Courtesy of African-American Collective Theater

PI: What do you want audiences to retain from the play s-EX?  

AS: This particular piece explores the question of whether sex MUST end when the relationship does. While it’s breezy on the surface, underneath, there’s a more serious undertone addressing self-esteem, loneliness, sexual attraction, and co-dependency. I’ll be satisfied if folks walk away from it, considering how situations are frequently more complicated than they seem…and wondering what THEY would do in the same circumstances.    

PI: Discuss some obstacles you faced to bring this project to life and what you did to overcome those obstacles?  

AS: Primary obstacles presented by this project were the short turnaround time, the logistics of communication and rehearsals for the relatively large cast, and striking the right balance for a staged reading between “staged” and “reading.” 

The short turnaround time meant we had to keep things simple. We cast actors with whom we had already worked and knew were talented, reliable, and strong “readers” – a different set of performance muscles than regular acting. The logistics presented an unavoidable challenge: limited rehearsal time and space, directing five separate plays and casts while coordinating the various schedules and maintaining communication among ten different actors with disparate work/school schedules and access needs – which inevitably meant a barrage of phone calls, texts, emails, and social media interaction.   

The one advantage we enjoyed was that we had significant experience with the format and could resist the pitfalls of trying too much with limited resources. Keeping things simpler meant focusing on the text and performances while minimizing superfluous production values. 

PI: The terms “Adults Only” and “s -EX” are suggestive; how do you, as a writer and director, bring a more sexy, steamy, entertaining project and less pornographic or vulgar to life?  

AS: I want to think that our work has always been sex-positive. By this, I mean that historically, the sexual component of LGBTQ+ life has been treated with a great deal of stigma, censorship, and homophobia. While I enjoy wordplay and don’t mind titillating audiences and addressing the erotic, I don’t think there’s ever been anything salacious about what we do – although that is, of course, always dependent on the eye of the beholder. If one goes seeking smut, one will usually find it. We prefer a free examination of the notion that those in our community are just as deserving of active, varied, expressive, fulfilling sex lives as everyone else — and we’ve tried to maintain that philosophy in our work. Finally, these are staged “readings” of plays. LOL. Everyone will keep their clothes on…unless someone in the audience gets inspired to disrobe.  

Photo Courtesy of African-American Collective Theater

PI: Describe the casting process and what audiences will experience when they see this play?  

AS: As previously stated, there was no time for an extensive casting process. We’ve worked with a large pool of local actors over the past three decades, so matching actors to play/role was less of a challenge than identifying and coordinating availability. 

The mandate from Anacostia playhouse was that the evening serves as a bridge, not only to new, younger audiences but also between the dinner crowd and the club-hopping nightlife folks. First and foremost, I sense there was a desire for entertainment, so I hope that is one reaction to our artistic efforts.  

But there are definitely ways for entertainment to be thought-provoking; therefore, my personal goal is two-fold. The intended target audience allows us to deal with language and subject matter that might not be considered appropriate for family consumption, certainly not with children and younger teens. The plays are fairly accessible – there’s nothing cutting-edge about them, except possibly the subversive ways we use familiar forms to explore more progressive ideas. 

PI: Is there a chance this play will make it to Broadway and beyond?  

AS: This is not the type of project to go to Broadway, as it is a collection of five short, two-character pieces rather than full-length plays. Although I have written 12 full-length dramas, better suited to those venues. 

PI: What else would you like to share?  

AS: Just that within the standard format of five “two-handers,” we’ve introduced a lot of diversity and intersectionality. There’s certainly something for everyone — hopefully, much to amuse, entertain and ponder. 

Theater After Dark Adults Only takes place Fri Oct 28, 2022 – Sat Oct 29, 2022 click here for tickets.