Local Indian playwright Nicole Burton debuting new play ‘Panther Women’ at Cleveland Public Theater (Q&A)

CLEVELAND, Ohio – The stories of some of the most prominent female members of the Black Panther Party will be shared in “Panther Women,” a play set to debut at Cleveland Public Theater on Friday, Feb. 4.

Tickets are available for the show on a pay-what-you-can basis, on CPT’s website. The performance will run Thursdays through Sundays, until Feb. 26 at the Gordon Square Theatre, 6415 Detroit Ave.

Written by Cleveland playwright and Indian actress Nicole Burton, “Panther Women” delves into the stories of various party members, including Elaine Brown, Assata Shakur and Angela Davis, and shares their upbringings and political actions. Told in a nonlinear format using dance, poetry and music, the play was developed over several years during Burton’s residency with the National New Play Network.

We caught up with Burton to hear more about the inspirations behind “Panther Women,” her writing process and the power of collaboration.

What’s it like to finally be premiering “Panther Women?”

It’s just great to finally have a final product, to be able to share it with, the people who have been seen it in all its iterations and also have some of the women be able to come back and to see what they started.

I’d love to hear more about the play’s workshopping process, how the play began.

It started for me, just wanting to explore a little bit about myself as a woman and to also explore a little bit about the women who were in the Black Panther Party and to also exemplify all the great things that they did. When you hear about the Black Panther Party, you so often hear about the men and not the women, so I really wanted to get their stories out there, to exemplify how big of giants they were, how monumental they were to the Black liberation movement . That was my first thought.

Then I went to Raymond Bobgan, the executive artistic director of CPT, and I saw Entry Point, which is one of our development programs here. I went around and I was like, “Hey, if I do this, would you be interested in it?” Of course, a lot of them were interested.

Raymond came to me one day and he was like, “We’re going to submit you for this national fellowship, the National New Play Network producer residency” – and I never thought I would get it only because all the names there, all the theaters. And I got it, so I had to do something. We decided that we’d do “Panther Women” and that it was part of one of my projects.

I was a fellow for two years and they gave me the money and the time to work on the project and the last cycle that we did workshop was last summer. We were the first live theater back for CPT. That was great. Now we’re at the premiere.

There had to be a ton of research involved in writing “Panther Women.” What did that side of things look like? What were some of your sources?

I read all of the women’s biographies – I read Elaine Brown’s “A Taste of Power.” I read Angela Davis’ memoirs, I also read Assata Shakur’s. I read a lot of essays, I even read some of the other people’s memoirs who were a part of the movement and I read “Soul on Ice” by Eldridge Cleaver. There’s just so much stuff.

There was so much stuff that I read and so much knowledge that I had, that it was really hard to figure out what to put in the play.

(Photo by Jennifer Hearn)

Tell me about the form of the play. It’s a choreopoem, right? What does that look like, and why did you choose that direction?

For people who know theater, for a lack of a better comparison – because I would never want to compare myself to Ntozake Shange, who is a writer and a poet — she wrote “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf.”

When I went into writing it, we went into the room – I had seven women with me and I had no idea what it was going to be. We just started working. I started bringing in materials. Then it became a movement piece, and then I combined monologue, music, songs. It’s not a traditional play in the structure. It’s not linear at all. It goes in and out of different theater techniques and styles. We’re doing metatheatre, and then we’re doing poetry. A lot of different methods are going on within the play.

It sounds really collaborative, bringing different artists together. Could you tell me more about those initial meetups, what it was like being in that room, coming up with these ideas with other people?

It was amazing. When I first came into the room I knew that I had to have something, because nobody knew what it was going to be. I had to bring some sort of material. So I brought in a couple of poems that I wrote when I read the memoirs and autobiographies – and then I went in with pictures with the ladies and the choreographer and co-creator Lexy Lattimore told them to come up with a phrase of movement. That’s how it became a movement piece. She came in and had the women create different phases, from these pictures. They created phrases and then I brought in dialogue and we would sit and talk.

I also added some of the things that the women said in those talks into the play, what they said collectively, what they said independently. The script developed because of listening to the women and also taking the women’s stories. Elaine Brown, Assata Shakur, Angela Davis — taking the stories of their childhoods and making the beginning of the piece. Then, we sort of intertwine some of the things that happened later on in their lives.

actors onstage

(Photo by Jennifer Hearn)

What’s it like to write “Panther Women” and also direct it at CPT? It’s also debuting at other theaters right?

We got a rolling world premiere, which is something that is a program through the National New Play Network. It’s a membership organization, which is encouraging theaters to present new work. It’s going to Prop Thtr in Chicago, and it’s going to Phoenix Theater in Indianapolis. And, of course, CPT.

Directing it is interesting because I’m very ready to see other people’s takes on it. It’s been a great journey. It’s been a long road, but directing it is very fulfilling. I’ve gotten to work with over 55 wonderful women of color, predominantly African American women, and just to see their growth throughout the process, to also learn from them throughout the process, watching them and the words they say and how they approach different things. It helped me write the play. It’s been hard but it’s been a pleasure and a learning experience.

Stepping back, I’d love to hear more about your background in theater.

Me and my brother, when we were younger, we used to always do theatrical things together. I believe that everybody starts off as an artist; they just grow up and get acclimated to the world and sort of lose their imagination. I think artists are just people who continue on with their imagination.

I went to the University of Akron. That’s where I got my degree in theater, with an emphasis on acting. After that, I started my own company with my brother. It’s called Ma’Sue Productions, it’s still around. My brother is the artistic director. It was a theater that was developed because we just looked around the city in Akron when I was living in Akron — that’s where I’m from – and we saw that there wasn’t a lot of African-American theater going on. Not only that, but we also wanted to make use of all of the stuff that we had learned in college and develop our own technique of working with specifically African American people and focusing on African American stories.

We were co-artistic directors and then I stepped down in 2015 and moved to Cleveland. When I came to Cleveland, I was an actress first. I was getting all these gigs and acting and then I got a job through Terrence Spivey, the former artistic director for Karamu House. He got me a job at the Cleveland School of the Arts teaching and I was a drama teacher. Because we didn’t have any money, I started out writing and directing and producing everything.

I brought my kids to Station Hope every year at CPT. Raymond saw one of my pieces, and then we just started talking. Raymond was also trained by the same person I was trained by, so that was another connection we had.

My former training was in acting, and after that, I just fell into writing and directing because I had to.

Performers on a stage

(Photo by Jennifer Hearn)

Going back to “Panther Women,” more generally speaking – what’s one thing you hope people will take away or learn from the play?

The Black Panthers were not the group that the media displayed them as. They weren’t this terrible group that went around carrying guns and scaring people. They were more complicated than that. They started free breakfast programs and did a lot for communities.

I wrote the play specifically so that women of color, particularly Black women, can see themselves portrayed onstage, and it’s real and authentic and they can relate to it, they can feel heard and seen. But for other people who come to see it, the one thing I would love for them to take away from it is that Black women are vulnerable. Our vulnerabilities are humanity. Also, our joy. The fact that we’re not monolithic. African American culture has gone through a lot here in America, we still find a way to have joy and celebrate.

Find more information about “Panther Women” at cptonline.org.

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