Choosing the path of creativity over a conventional career generally entails acceptance of the constant questioning of one’s raison d’être. The notion that education should only be sought for the purpose of filling job demands in a booming industry is widely accepted as practicality. Dreaming and impracticality means choosing to indulge in learning for that purpose alone, or even worse in order to embark on the precarious “career” path of being a writer or an actor. Ayvaunn Penn, a playwright, poet, blogger, and actor sheds light on why pursuit of art as a living should not be dismissed as an afterthought and never an impracticality. In fact, the existence of artists like Ayvaunn is imperative in casting a wider net in the type of stories that are told, who is represented in those stories and who listens to those stories.
Who Listens to Stories
In terms of who listens to stories, Ayvaunn’s love for stories told through theater and her passion to ensure that everyone hears them regardless of their background and race inspired her to create Black and Making It (Bam-It), a website whose goal is to “stir theatrical passion in the belly of black folk by spotlighting black excellence in theatre and other performing arts”. Bam-It is an amalgamation of Ayvaunn’s two loves, writing and theater; it’s through pursuing these two loves that she discovered the necessity of a platform that features African American theater professionals.
An English major at Austin College, Ayvaunn’s interest in storytelling was well established before her discovery of drama as a pursuable career choice. She admits that as an English major her career options were not at first clear until the college career office adviser mentioned professional blogging as an option. Though at first skeptical about the probability of becoming a professional blogger, Ayvaunn later launched a blog which features everything poetry. Her interest in theater was sparked by her participation in a play and her choice to follow it as a profession was the result of a conversation with a professor who confirmed that theater can in fact be a vocation. In order to be a theater professional she completed her Theater Master’s degree at Louisiana Tech University; she’s now pursuing her Master of Fine Arts (MFA) at Columbia University.
It was at the beginning of her MFA studies at Columbia University that Ayvaunn fully learned about the low turnout rate of African American audiences in theater. She considers this to be an issue of concern because absence from theater prevents African Americans from hearing valuable and inspirational stories. From skills acquired through blogging, and Ayvaunn’s theater education, Bam-It was born. By promoting and interviewing African American playwrights and performing artists on Bam-It, Ayvaunn hopes that she can spark interest of theater within the African American community.
While her tactic is to entice African Americans to theater through showcasing African American artists, she does not claim to completely know the cause of the low African American theater attendance. I found this to be surprising and refreshing. Often we are too quick to name a cause and elixir to a problem. I assumed that Bam-It was created with the assumption that underrepresentation on stage led to underrepresentation in the audience. However, Ayvaunn made it clear that simply because an artist on stage does not look like us does not mean the stories they tell will not resonate with us. Which makes sense given that minorities make up a significant portion of movie goers despite their underrepresentation on screen.
Who Is Represented in Stories & Who Tells Stories
Of course then our conversation digressed into the issue of race in performing arts; something that’s difficult to ignore given the #oscarssowhite and other outcries of the lack of diversity in performing arts. While Ayvaunn staunchly believes that we should not cast aside stories just because they are told by or through people who don’t look like her, she has experienced and understands the limitations society places on artists of color because of their race. As an actor she has ran into directors whose default vision for a character is white. As a playwright she knows the risks of being “pigeonholed” into telling certain types of stories; stories that society thinks about a person who looks her.
Despite all the additional obstacles of being a black artist, Ayvaunn strives to see past the barriers and write on her terms. She explains that she initially felt the pressure to represent certain images of African American culture in her work but she no longer feels that burden. Instead she draws inspiration from all aspects of her universe. Like her recent poetic drama, King David inspired by her Christian background. By pursuing her craft her own way, she reinforces the reality that we are all individuals and no group is monolithic. For that, she’s a Wear What to Have inspirational person.