Beaufield Berry, Playwright: Her Family and the Larger Black Experience
Jul 07, 2020 11:35AM
By Leo Adam Biga
Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Beaufield Berry long explored worlds other than her own in her fiction. Since becoming a mother, the Omaha playwright has mined the riches of family and the larger black experience.
“I realized I was averse to the advice ‘write what you know’ because I wasn’t appreciating what I knew. When I opened the doors to myself and my family and started peeling back those layers, I found the honeypot. Having kids has made me more inquisitive about who I am, where I’m from, where I’m going,” said Berry, a mother of three.
Her play In the Upper Room draws from her multi-generational black clan’s strong personalities, conflicts, secrets, and abiding love. It was a finalist in the O’Neill Center’s 2018 National Playwrights Conference and earned a spot in the 2019 Colorado New Play Summit, where it was workshopped and read.
Berry earlier proved her chops and range with the comedy Psycho Ex-Girlfriend and the drama The Waiting Line.
Omaha playwright Ellen Struve is an admirer of Berry’s versatility. “Beau is my favorite kind of artist in that she is impossible to define,” Struve said. “She is comedienne, social activist, historian, and pop culture commentator. Playwright, novelist, poet, musician—the list goes on. Her work never fails to engage. She pushes back on any boundary.”
A writer’s life has been fated for Berry since she began reading at 4 and penning poems at 11. She was homeschooled by her artist-writer mother Pamela Jo Berry. She’s been published as a journalist (American Theatre) and a novelist (Childhood Friends). Berry is also an Omaha Performing Arts teaching artist.
“I love all forms of writing. I love language. I love just getting it out.”
She got bit by the theater bug early on in Omaha. After trying to find her fit as a performer, once running a burlesque troupe, she found her niche as a playwright.
“Theater is so alive, reciprocal, and human that, honestly, it’s my church. The writing feels so natural it’s like breathing. It is where I find connection and know there’s something bigger than myself.”
In between O’Neill and Summit, Upper Room made a splash with a staged reading at the Great Plains Theatre Conference, where Berry is a veteran participating artist.
GPTC producing artist director Kevin Lawler has seen her evolution: “Beau’s work and influence on the Omaha theater scene has grown exponentially. She is able to balance the paradoxical qualities of a strong critical eye and a wildness into her work…With Beau you get the sense she is always ready to look and move outside the lines of what is set as ‘proper’ by society.”
Upper Room was to have a full GPTC production this year, but the pandemic forced its cancellation.
The work is part of a seven-play cycle she’s developing. Others include Branch and Bone, Ivory, Mulatto, and Spectrophobe.
Red Summer, a work outside the cycle, stirred the local scene in 2019 with its sold-out Blue Barn Theatre run. Its achingly human portrait of Will Brown, a black man lynched by a mob in downtown Omaha, took the stage in the 100th anniversary year of his killing.
While Berry developed Red Summer over several months, Upper Room poured out of her in three days.
“I can’t say it was a specific choice to begin writing about my family because I did not choose it, it chose me…I was newly pregnant and working on a different play altogether,” she said. “I was in our office very late at night when I was visited by my ancestors, particularly by my great-grandmother, Rose. Her voice was so strong and loud in my ear.”
Berry felt guided the whole way to get things right.
“I remember so vividly I’d feel like a tap on my shoulder, ‘Uh-uh. Nope, rewrite.’ I was never alone in that room while I was writing.”
She ascribes the play’s warm reception to the universality of the family experience it presents.
“This is specifically a black family, unapologetically themselves…but also showing black family life is the same as any other family life.”
Her script was workshopped for two weeks at Summit by an all-black cast and crew.
“They supported and nurtured me and my show…I swear when you get people working towards the same end there is nothing you can’t do.”
A revelation from the process involved the protagonist.
“Rose is a mystery in the play because she’s a mystery to me. She died before I was born,” Berry said. “But I grew up with all these stories of her as this bigger-than-life person. The way she inserted herself in people’s lives, even posthumously, makes her immortal to me. My collaborators wanted me to break all that down. They wanted to know what makes her mysterious. Where I only had questions, they pushed me to find the answers…It helped me make sure everything my audience experiences is truly earned.”
A similar fruitful union happened with Omaha playwright Denise Chapman, who served as dramaturg for Red Summer.
“She knew what I was trying to do and where the thing was falling short. When you’re in the weeds of a play you can’t pull out and see it from an aerial view…She did a great job of looking at the big picture.”
Berry said Chapman checked her on historical accuracy, including language.
“She pointed out I gave characters the language of revolution when there wasn’t any revolution yet. That was such an informed piece of advice and expertise,” Berry said. “I’d been voicing characters in the '70s and '90s, which is the post-civil rights era, but characters in the heart of Jim Crow sound different when there’s no language for revolution yet.”
Berry is conscious of making theater more diverse.
“Theater has so much to give…But not everybody can afford the ticket price or has the right outfit to wear or a car to get there.”
Parenting hasn’t slowed Berry’s productivity. “It helps to have a supportive and trustworthy partner in all of this,” she said of her husband, Rob Fisher.
But COVID-19 has meant a slow-down in her writing. “In this quarantine, it’s all about my kids and family.”
Navigating this surreal time “has definitely shown me that nothing
“Will it end up in my writing? Yes, but not in the expected way. It won’t be anything like ‘the pandemic play.’ But I think there are things I’m learning about myself and specifically about society that will absolutely make their way in some work.”
Her current project is a musical tentatively titled Buffalo Women, about real-life black women cowhands, Pony Express riders, and stagecoach drivers.
“I’m using country music’s black origins to tell the story of this hidden history. The music’s going to be live, only consisting of what the women have: guitar, banjo, fiddle, jugs, saws, boots, harmonies galore. Oh, and I want a giant skirts-and-boots-up dance sequence,” she added. “I hope it finds a home.”
This article first appeared in the July/August 2020 issue of Omaha Magazine. Click here to subscribe to the print edition.