Three years ago when Loy A. Webb crafted The Light, the burgeoning playwright had no idea where the world would be when her play had its New York premiere last month.
The Logan Vaughn-directed drama is set in today’s Chicago and turns the idyllic concept of millennial black love on its head as a couple, masterfully portrayed by Mandi Masden and McKinley Belcher III, confronts deep-seated sentiments around past sexual abuse allegations on the eve of what should otherwise lead to their matrimonial bliss.
A celebrated hip-hop idol with strong ties to the black community—and individual connections to both the woman and the man—is at the center of the conflict.
Sounds a little familiar, eh?
It could be considered too familiar to some as Grammy Award-winning, multiplatinum-selling R&B icon R. Kelly finds himself in the zeitgeist (once again!) with his recent arrest in the aftermath of the much-buzzed-about Lifetime six-part documentary Surviving R. Kelly, which set out to chronicle his sexual abuse of numerous women and girls through the years.
With The Light, theatergoers are figurative flies on the walls (in a black box theater designed as a Pottery Barn-styled living room) and bearing witness to one of the most visceral explorations of the delicate but much-needed conversation about the purported persecution of successful black men and their alleged abuse of women.
While the timing of this production could be considered perfect for audiences thirsting for “snatched from the headlines” type of storytelling, the play’s author says it’s just a coincidence.
“The funny thing is that when people talk about this play, they say I had R. Kelly in mind but it was really Nate Parker who inspired it,” Webb told The Root. “It’s more than just R. Kelly. It’s a common problem throughout the nation.”
Webb said she wrote The Light (the title derived from Common’s 2000 Grammy-nominated song, crafted as a love letter for black women—and his then partner Erykah Badu) after getting downloaded on everything surrounding the 1999 rape accusations of Parker as his critically acclaimed Nat Turner biopic Birth of a Nation was released amid a career-derailing controversy in 2016.
“Basically what happened was I was a big fan of Nate Parker,” she explained. “One of the things that I loved about Nate was he was willing to not take a role if he felt like it put African American people in a bad light. I just remember thinking, ‘Wow. Here’s a man with so much integrity that he’s willing to not work if it means being in a role that puts African American people in a bad light.’
“I remember he was working on this passion project, Birth of a Nation. I was so excited to see him win at Sundance and all of this stuff because I’m like, ‘Yes. Good people do win,’ she added.
“But when it came time for a national theatrical release, allegations that came out that while he was in college, he was accused of sexually assaulting a young lady,” Webb continued. “I remember thinking, ‘I would really hear what the young lady has to say,’ because not that he couldn’t do something like this, but I just would love to hear her side of the story to see if this is true. Her brother ended up coming out, doing an interview and saying that the young lady had taken her life five years earlier because she was still dealing with the effects of that traumatic assault. I remember at the time, there was a big social media debate going on about whether or not people should go support this film.”
The budding playwright, who grew up as the eldest of three girls whose father was the pastor of Chicago’s Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church, revealed that the debate within the black community regarding the support of Parker, who produced, directed and starred in the film, is what struck a chord for her.
“People were going hard,” she said. “There were people who were saying, ‘You should support this film. If black women especially don’t support this film, there will never be another black film about our historical past.’ Then there were other people who were saying, ‘No, we shouldn’t support this film, especially if he’s been accused of sexually assaulting this young woman.’
“I remember trying to figure out on what side of the line I stood,” she confessed. “I remember I was in the theater, watching the Barack and Michelle [Obama] love story. I had bought a ticket for that film. A trailer for Birth of a Nation came on and I literally sat in the theater crying. I cried for the young lady who had taken her life. I cried about my confusion in regards to Nate. I cried and said, ‘I can’t support that movie.’ I was like, ‘But what I can do is I can write about all of these feelings that I’m feeling about the situation.’”
Suffice it to say; Birth of a Nation gave birth to The Light.
Webb, whose day job is as an attorney with the Chicago Police Department, has done exceptionally well as a first-time playwright. The New York Times noted how the “tear-struck thesis play…brings us to the intersection of #MeToo and Black Lives Matter.” Vulture heralded: “Webb’s got a truthful sense of character, a charming handle on smilingly snippy lovers’ banter, and a solid feeling for the way argument ebbs and flows and ultimately spills forth like magma, laying waste to everything in its path.”
She revealed the late, great playwright icon August Wilson influenced her heavily after she saw a Chicago production of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom 10 years ago. She ultimately became immersed in all of his storied works, most notably his Century Cycle series that includes Two Trains Running, Fences and Jitney.
Another literary idol of Webb’s is Pearl Cleage, whose searing 1990 book Mad At Miles: A Blackwoman’s Guide to Truth, she said, informed The Light.
“That essay was really one of the biggest pieces that I used as a basis for research for this play,” she shared. “She talks about how Miles Davis ... Yes, he was one of the greatest jazz musicians that we had of our time, but he also had a history of violence against black women specifically, one being Cicely Tyson. The question that Pearl asks in that, she says, “How do you celebrate the genius in the face of a monster?” That’s a question that has always sat with me. How do we continue to celebrate the genius in the face of these monsters? How do we always say, ‘Well, he might have done this, but he’s a genius.’”
Webb added: “For me, I don’t particularly have those problems, but I know that people do. I would just ask them the same question that she posted. How do you celebrate the genius in the face of a monster?”
Bringing it back to the present: Celebrity attorney Michael Avenatti, who has joined the crusade to bring justice to R. Kelly victims, recently declared, “If these girls weren’t black and poor, for the most part, this would have ended a long time ago.”
The Stormy Daniels lawyer is a white man with a whole lot of wattage and who shares the same sentiment many have about the I Believe I Can Fly crooner, especially Loy A. Webb (her initials purposely spell out LAW), who underscores this in The Light.
“I just feel like we all need to learn to value black women, girls, on all fronts,” she maintained. “I feel like white people don’t do it, but I also feel like we don’t value ourselves. The most disappointing thing for me in the midst of these R. Kelly debates and these Bill Cosby debates is there are black people, men and women, who go hard for these predators.”
But does she think it’s how black people have been conditioned?
“I think that when we have people who are considered to be geniuses in the black community, people feel a need to protect them,” she replied. “You know what I mean? I don’t feel like they feel like, ‘I can call you out and say that what you have contributed to the world is great.’ I feel like they feel like they have to make a choice. You can say, ‘No.’ You can be both. You can be a genius musician, but you can also be a predator. You are both those things. That might be a part of historical significance in regards to our community and the condition of it. Positioning us in that way. Yeah. I just feel like people are afraid to say both.”
“I feel like when it comes to especially black men, people are willing to protect them, even if it’s at the cost of black women,” Webb continued. “That’s a historical thing. There’s always bigger fish to fry than black women. That was actually the original title of the play, Bigger Fish to Fry, because my point was that historically, there’s always been bigger fish to fry ... Even during the Civil Rights Movement, Black Power Movement and things like that.”
The Light is the very first production in the new Susan & Ronald Frankel Theater at The Robert W. Wilson MCC Theater Space in New York City. It is scheduled to play through March 17.