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If you don't know her yet, meet a Seattle theater star

caption: Playwright Cheryl West stands for a portrait on stage at Seattle Repertory Theatre's Bagley Wright Theatre on Thursday, October 10, 2019,  in Seattle.
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Playwright Cheryl West stands for a portrait on stage at Seattle Repertory Theatre's Bagley Wright Theatre on Thursday, October 10, 2019, in Seattle.
KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

Cheryl L. West is someone you’d want to chat with in the grocery store checkout line.

She’s got a huge smile and a big, velvety laugh. And she’s completely down-to-earth.

West is one of Seattle’s most esteemed playwrights, with work produced internationally.

Her warmth and focus on whoever she’s talking with make her seem more like the caring social worker she trained to be 30 years ago … instead of the most-produced living playwright at Seattle Repertory Theatre.

It’s an identity she never envisioned when she was a little girl in Chicago.

“That was the question I asked my mother one time,” West says. “I said, ‘My brother can sing; he plays the guitar. What do I have?”

Her mother answered, “You’re good with people.”

That wasn’t what West wanted to hear, but looking back, she realizes the truth of it.

“People were always talking to me about their problems, their issues, their concerns.”

West grew up listening to stories. Her grandparents moved to Chicago from Mississippi, part of the great migration of African Americans from south to north in the mid-20th century, and she credits both her great-grandfather and her grandmother with fine story-telling chops.

As a child, West wrote often in a little diary. She wrote to make sense of childhood confusions, or the sometimes contradictory things family members said. “I would weave a story until I could live with what it was,” she says.

A lifetime later, details from her childhood memories embellish the worlds she creates in her theater, television and film scripts. West writes about African American life in all its complexities, whether that means a story rooted in history, like her 2012 musical “Pullman Porter Blues,” about the men who worked for the railroad; or the relationship between a drug-addicted single mother and the transgender neighbor who befriends her and her daughter, in “Holiday Heart,” which she later adapted for a film that starred Alfre Woodard and Ving Rhames.

This is a clip from the film “Holiday Heart,” adapted by Cheryl L.West from her stage play of the same name. Alfre Woodard and Ving Rhames star.

One of West’s first—and most controversial--dramas, is called “Before it Hits Home,” about AIDS in black America. “I took a lot of heat because it was the first play [about AIDS] from an African American point of view.”

“Before it Hits Home” had its first professional production in 1990, but the script brought West to Seattle before then, when it was honored by the now-defunct Group Theatre’s Multi-Cultural Playwright’s Festival. That was her first taste of the Pacific Northwest. “All that water, and the topography!” West says. “It was stunning, just stunning.”

In 1999, West moved to Seattle to work as an artistic associate at Seattle Repertory Theatre, at the invitation of former artistic director Sharon Ott. She’d found an artistic home, but also a good place to raise her two daughters on her own.

Sharon Nyree Williams, now head of the Central District Forum for Arts and Ideas, was an intern at the Rep at the time. She remembers West bringing her girls into the theater while she sat in a rehearsal or a production meeting.

“You know, she loves her daughters to the moon and back,” Williams says. “They take priority over everything she’s doing.”

West worked around their school schedules, rising early in the morning to write for an hour or two before the girls woke up. At the end of the day, after they finished homework and got to bed, West would return to whatever script she was working on.

She even wrote parts of “Pullman Porter Blues” sitting on the bleachers in the school gym, watching her daughter play basketball. West’s dedication to motherhood extended to her volunteer service in the classroom: She wrote, directed, and produced the school plays at St. Therese’s in Seattle’s Madrona neighborhood.

“I would write a play that could use 20 kids, then I would go in and direct for three weeks, get costumes from Goodwill,” she says laughing. “When they would see me come in with the laundry basket, that’s when they got excited. I had a whole thing of costumes in the basement.”

Actors still use monologues from West's play "Before it Hits Home" as audition material

West doesn’t regret a minute of those years with her daughters, but she acknowledges that parenting did impact her career.

“It affected me the most in TV and film,” West says. “You can’t just take off to Hollywood to take a meeting.”

It also stifled West’s national profile, according to Christine Sumption, West’s long-time dramaturg.

“Her agent over the years begged her to move to New York,” Sumption says. “Cheryl was committed to the idea that her daughters needed a parent. Motherhood was number one.”

But even if West had lived in New York or Los Angeles, there’s no guarantee that theaters would have paid more attention to her work.

Sumption, who worked as Seattle Repertory Theatre’s literary manager for many years, says theater companies around the country traditionally did not view work by black artists as having appeal for a wide audience.

Cheryl L. West’s Webby-award winning web series “Diary of a Single Mom,” directed by Robert Townsend:

“They’re going to have one black play in the season, one play by a woman,” she says. “Cheryl’s really had to push to make her work recognized and respected.”

Valerie Curtis-Newton, a drama professor at the University of Washington, says that while more black writers are being produced in regional theaters like Seattle Rep, the gatekeepers are mostly white and male. It can be hard for some of those gatekeepers to overcome their innate bias about whose work speaks to a universal audience.

“The doors have to be wider,” Curtis-Newton says. “We need more writers of color claiming the power to tell their own stories and demanding that institutions actually put them on stage.”

Curtis-Newton also believes it’s up to white arts leaders and audiences to make the change happen permanently, and she says that requires black artists to make white people fall “a little bit in love with us.”

Curtis-Newton points to the 20th century playwright Alice Childress, whose work Curtis-Newton has been staging in Seattle recently.

“She wanted to write about the people that came in second,” Curtis-Newton says. “I feel like Cheryl is a direct descendant of that kind of philosophy, of exalting and lifting up the ordinary people and showing the ways they are extraordinary.”

West has a “tremendously optimistic outlook that shows in her work,” Curtis-Newton says. “The capacity for joy is the first casualty of oppression. She’s writing us back into health.”

For West, writing is akin to breathing, as necessary to her now as it was when she was a girl scribbling stories in her pink plastic diary. And she’s committed to telling the stories of people like her working-class grandparents, to honoring the inherent poetry of their lives and their language.

West’s currently juggling three theater projects: a musical based on the life of mid-20th century musician Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who some people have called the godmother of rock and roll; a one-woman play about civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer; and a musical about the first all-female interracial big band, the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, commissioned by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Although West’s work has been produced everywhere from a Seattle school cafeteria to Broadway, she still gets a thrill on opening night.

“The first time I presented something and it got dark and the lights went out, and that first response was so magical,” West recalls. “I still get that same feeling, the palpitations, expectations, hope and fear, all mixed up together!”

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