Consistently engaged in the development of Tony winners like the musical Fun Home and Pulitzer finalists such as Other Desert Cities, Robert Egan’s Ojai Playwrights Conference has earned a reputation as the best such program in the west, perhaps the world. Past participants rave about the “fiercely creative environment” at the conference’s Besant Hill School campus in Ojai, and about the way in which the program “chooses work that is provocative and risky.”
Because of COVID, that in-person experience has not been possible since 2019, but thanks to Zoom, the work goes on, with playwrights, directors, and actors from all over the country gathering in small groups online to give the new plays their first outings. This year’s slate, which will be presented online to an equally far-flung audience, includes works by Ramiz Monsef, Yilong Liu, A. Zell Williams, Elizabeth Irwin, Will Arbery, Mike Lew, Julia Izumi, and Zora Howard.
United in their commitment to addressing contemporary life boldly and directly, these writers introduce subjects and situations that elicit thoughtful dialogue. From a not-quite-couple coping with the consequences of an unplanned pregnancy to the conscience-stricken observations of an ex-policeman, and from a support group for victims of domestic violence to three scared people hiding from a class-based revolution, the stories they are working on have one thing in common: struggle. The ancient Greeks had a word for the kind of struggle that happens in the theater — agon — and it’s the root of our common English word “agony.” It’s a concept that lives on not only in theater, but in virtually every aspect of public life, from the formal agon of a courtroom trial to the hidden agons that govern the tough choices we make every day.
Playwright A. Zell Williams confronts one of the most highly charged agons in contemporary America with Diversity, a play in which college faculty, administrators, and staff gather to decide the fate of two worthy young people … in a mixed martial arts octagon. When I spoke with Williams by phone last week about his concept, he insisted that, despite the implications of relocating a serious academic committee meeting to the site of a bloody mixed-martial-arts fight, his intent is not necessarily satirical. As one of the most contested terms in American society, “diversity” is fractured because, Williams said, “there’s one goal for the marginalized groups it affects, and another for the institutions that attempt to implement it.”
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Looking at the current docket for the Supreme Court of the United States, Williams could not be more on point. As SCOTUS moves toward their upcoming discussion of Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard, the latest case to test the constitutionality of affirmative action, it has become clear that, of all the various different arguments for continuing to strive for the integration of higher education in America, diversity appears to be the last one standing, and that’s largely because it straddles the two divergent understandings that Williams describes. The ambiguity of the concept, in constitutional law at least, is strategic. It’s a compromise, and we know from historical experience how compromise fares in America’s seemingly endless conflict over race.
Working in entertainment for more than 15 years, Williams, who is Black, has served as both a mentor of so-called diversity hires and as an arbiter of the various claims this term makes on people and institutions. Through this play, he brings the battle for scarce resources that typically happens behind closed doors into the public arena of the theatrical agon, where we all can see and hear what’s at the root of these decisions.
To view the Ojai Playwrights Conference New Works Festival, visit ojaiplays.org to subscribe.