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'Ain’t I A Woman' Playfest Will Be Online & 'Hold Space' For Black Women

Janelle Renee Dunn
Courtesy of the artist
Janelle Renee Dunn

The Ain’t I a Woman Playfest, which features the work of Black female artists and women of color creatives, will mark its third season this weekend with a virtual festival.   

The event, running Friday through Sunday, will include an original 20-minute digital work, titled "Before You Decided". 

Executive director and founder Janelle Renee Dunn said it’s important to present a virtual version this year because a pandemic can’t keep them from sharing these stories. 

“It really is not only telling our stories, but dismantling the white supremacy that's within these structures by being in seats of power and being the gatekeepers of the narratives that we tell and that are told about us,” she said.  

Renee Dunn said, early in the pandemic, she didn’t have any intentions of moving the festival online. 

“I went through a couple of personal tragedies and really felt just depleted,” she said. 

She took some time to “heal and work on my spiritual [and] mental health,” when her creative muscle started to twitch, and she started to think about what kind of stories needed to be explored and told. 

“I've always wanted to grow ‘Ain’t I’ past the 10-minute play festival,” Renee Dunn said. “And so even though this is a really crazy time with the pandemic and the uprising, I'm still breathing and my family is still breathing and people that I love are still breathing, and so what can I do?”

Being a mother of a soon-to-be three-year-old, she said she wanted to talk about “mothering Black kids.”

“Everybody thinks he's cute, but then he could be George [Floyd], he could be Ahmaud [Arbery],” she said. “So how do I not only prepare myself, but prepare him for this world?” 

That was the seed for the Friday afternoon discussion titled “Twice as Hard: Raising Black Kids in a White World,” and really the seed for the entire virtual event, Renee Dunn said. 

“I really want to hold space for the Black women whose lives have been taken that we haven't heard of yet,” she added. “There are hundreds of Black women who have been taken from this earth way too soon due to police brutality or anti-Blackness, so I wanted to hold space for those women.”

That space is in the form of an original virtual piece called “Before You Decided.”  

“This Black woman had children, this Black woman had a job, this Black woman had a story and I wanted to be able to tell the story before you shot her... you know, before you decided to take my life, just know that I was this person,” writer and theater artist Sujotta Pace, who was also the casting director of "Before You Decided," said of the work. “Every time you think about it, you get very emotional because that could be you.” 

Pace said she’s grateful for the opportunity to share this work because she’s nervous to go out and protest during a pandemic. 

“My mother turned 68 July 4th,” she said. “I don’t want to bring anything back to her. So I was fighting myself with: How can I have a voice? What can I do? And this has given me an opportunity to raise my voice.”

It’s heartbreaking to see theaters still shuttered and not being able to gather for shows, Pace said, but she also sees a great opportunity with taking art online. 

“We can broadcast it to the masses,” she said. “I'm all about healing, and I feel like we're able to heal more people than just Louisville, and that goes for everyone's artwork."

Producer, photojournalist and videographer T.A. Yero directed and edited “Before You Decided,” and described it as a “historical piece... an educational piece for non-Black people.”

She said she’s heard a lot of people talking about what’s happening at this moment in history, as if the outrage over the police killings of Black people like Breonna Taylor is somehow new.

“This has been going on for years, we have had to deal with it for years,” she said. “Maybe y'all didn't know, but... their lives were taken because of someone else's choices. So that's why when I take on a project, I try to make sure that not only does it just look pretty, but it also helps you understand the history behind it, the weight of it.”

In the future, Yero and Pace could see “Before You Decided” being developed into a feature film or stage adaptation. But in the immediate, they’re immensely grateful to have the chance to create new work with other Black female artists. 

Yero added that she also wants to ensure that attention on Black stories isn’t fleeting, and that Black artists aren’t pigeonholed into creating only stories about trauma.

“If you look at all these streaming [services] like Hulu, Amazon [Prime], HBO, Netflix, now all of a sudden, they have a Black lives or Black voices or whatever collection added to it,” she said. “That collection is not for us because that collection is triggering... Being me is amazing, Black girl magic, Black boy joy, there's also that part along with saying her name.”

Founder Janelle Renee Dunn shares that sentiment and said that’s why “creating my own table and creating my own space” with Ain’t I a Woman Playfest has been critical. 

“I am creating a legacy that I can pass down to my children,” she said. “I don't know what my son is going to do. He may be an astrophysicist. He may be a linebacker… but the legacy that he gets by seeing his mom create her own table is that he gets the legacy of I can be myself unapologetically.”

In addition to the performance of "Before You Decided", there will be panel discussions, a virtual dance party and a “Self-Care Sunday” yoga session.

It will stream for free on Facebook with a link for people to make donations.