Invited to Learn: Bishop Arts Theatre Center ends its 30th season with groundbreaking plays about history-making women

The Bishop Arts neighborhood of Dallas has enjoyed a surge in popularity these past few years, but many of its diners, drinkers, and shoppers probably aren’t aware that just a mile away sits the area’s namesake theater company. And that’s a shame, because for the past two-plus decades Bishop Arts Theatre Center has been showcasing emerging artists, producing thought-provoking plays and festivals, and engaging its community through diverse and multigenerational programming.

Officially founded as a dinner theater in Atlanta in 1993, BATC (then called TeCo Theatrical Productions) moved with its artistic director Teresa Coleman Wash to Dallas in 2000. The company eventually landed at its now-permanent home at Tyler Street and Jefferson Boulevard in Oak Cliff, south of Dallas, in 2005. There, an intimate 165-seat proscenium theater is complemented by dressing rooms, an art gallery, executive offices, a learning lab, two skyboxes, and an arts business incubator center.

Albert Wash II, BATC’s associate artistic producer and Wash’s son, recently discussed the two upcoming plays that close out the company’s 30th anniversary season.

Fannie: The Music and Life of Fannie Lou Hamer by Cheryl West is a co-production with Dallas Theater Center that’s making its regional premiere May 1-19, 2024. Directed by Akin Babatunde, the one-woman play stars Brierley Resident Acting Company member Liz Mikel, who recently led the Broadway revival of 1776. In this play with music, 1960s civil rights activist Hamer recounts her humble beginnings as the daughter of a Mississippi sharecropper, before rising to co-found the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and demand voting rights and economic equality for Black citizens on a national stage.

“While this is a historical piece—Fannie’s ‘Mr. Chairman’ speech at the 1964 Democratic National Convention is legendary—Akin is determined to not let this feel like a history lesson,” says Wash. “He wants to go abstract rather than simply recount the facts. He’ll be adding a theatrical layer to really interest audience members in this brave woman’s story.”

Another history-making woman is at the center of the season’s final play, Jet Fuel by Amy Evans. The fictional tale is inspired by the real story of Olympic gold medal-winning runner Caster Semenya, whose mere existence caused controversy in 2009 because of her intersex condition. The South African sprinter went on to endure years of legal battles to retain not only her medals, but her right to continue running at a competitive level.

Evans’ play casts a spotlight on the intricate intersections of gender, race, and the quest for fairness in the realm of elite athletics, and Wash says it serves as a catalyst for conversations that matter.

“The script explores a lot about not only race identity but also sisterhood,” he says. “It’s a very modern play that has its dark moments, yes, but also a lot of humor. After all, at the end of the day, tragedy is comedy and comedy is tragedy.”

This world premiere, which Wash promises will feature an all-female-identifying cast, runs Aug. 8-25, 2024.

When asked for a hint about next season, Wash is emphatic that BATC’s acclaimed staging of Langston Hughes’ Black Nativity is on the bill, and that its banned books festival will return for its fourth year.

The 2024 one-act festival, which performed in February and March, was inspired by Heather McGhee’s best-selling book The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together. The previous year used The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story by Nikole Hannah-Jones as its springboard, with Dr. Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be An Antiracist supplying ideas for the inaugural year before that.

For the festival, a handful of local playwrights are commissioned to write a short one-act play, typically no longer than 10 minutes, themed around the issues and ideas presented in that season’s chosen publication. The topics and settings are as diverse as the playwrights’ own experiences; this year went everywhere from a sorority to a cotton plantation. Nightly talkbacks foster meaningful conversations about racism and its far-reaching costs, as well as help build a path toward community healing. McGhee herself appeared in Dallas to take part in the talkbacks and do book signings for the audience.

“Out of the box thinking is something we always want to aim for,” Wash says. “We don’t just want applause. We want to change the hearts and minds of theater audiences.”