The newest workshop production at Prism Movement Theatre is proof that the smallest interactions have the potential to grow into great works of art. After all, it was in a friend’s pool that Yvonne Johnson came up with the idea for Overbooked. The play was born of a Black cultural experience-turned-joke: the many hours spent in an overbooked hair salon. The show’s protagonist falls asleep under the dryer and wakes up 500 years in the future, where a new disease has emerged, most deadly for people who have pale skin. A concept jam-packed with all the traditional workings of a science-fiction story (time travel, future societies, technological development;) the play presents a fresh perspective in a field dominated by white creators: a 2015 study conducted by sci-fi magazine Fireside Fiction states that just 38 of 2,039 science fiction stories published that year were by Black writers. Themes of racial prejudice and tragedy, while not the main focus of Overbooked’s narrative, are presented early on when the protagonist’s sister is killed by police in a no-knock warrant. The topics & genre together are a powerful dynamic unlike any seen in recent theatre works.
“I myself wrote it because I was tired of seeing plays that depicted people of color, especially black people, always being oppressed. Even though this element has some sadness to it at the beginning with how the protagonist’s sister is slain, that doesn’t really define the whole concept,” writer Johnson says.“I really hope that it’s something that’s different and inspires people to do different and experimental work.” Led by director Kwame David Lilly and starring an all-Black cast, the show is presented through a creative reliance on movement, choreography, and shadow puppetry instead of language. “I never completely had everything choreographed before rehearsal. We would work on big ideas and concepts as a group and then I would allow our explorations to shape the narrative we were hoping to tell,” Lilly says. Weather, as well as strict grant deadlines and a tight budget, challenged the team’s creation but did not limit it. “By the end of the project, we had rehearsed in four different locations. But all of these challenges were definitely a catalyst for growth for me.”
Johnson cites a lack of Black theatrical representation as part of the driving force behind Overbooked. She attributes this lack to the institution’s catering to older, primarily white, upper-class audiences. A 2019 study by The Broadway League places the household income of the average theatergoer at $261,000. Broadway admitted over 14.8 million people that year, but of those, only 3.8 million were non-Caucasian. A 2020 report by the New York Times states that 94% of directorial positions and two-thirds of performance roles were filled by white people. “Although the media has progressed in the portrayal of Black people, there is still more work to be done and more stories to be told that encompasses all aspects of the Black experience,” director Lilly says. “So I say to all young Black creators, if you are black and it is your story, it is your Black experience to create and tell. Create it! We are here for it!”