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Founded as a platform for Black actors, Different Strokes founder wants to go further

The cast of "Blood at the Root," opening the new season for the Different Strokes Performing Arts Collective.
Carol Spags
The cast of "Blood at the Root," opening the new season for the Different Strokes Performing Arts Collective.

In the reckoning that came with the Black Lives Matter movement, Stephanie Hickling Beckman noticed theater companies everywhere promising to do better by Black playwrights and performers.

"We got a lot of people saying ‘We recognize our complicity in racism and we won’t do it again, and we’re gonna focus more on our Black artists,’ and stuff like that,” she said. “The world opened back up and that’s not happening, so that falls to me.”

Hickling Beckman founded the Different Strokes Performing Arts Collective a dozen years ago to provide roles for this region’s Black actors. In a conversation last week, she said she needs to do more with her platform and lead this community by example. She crafted her company’s next season to provide more opportunities for emerging Black playwrights.

Different Strokes opens the season August 25 with “Blood at the Root” by Dominique Morisseau. The play examines racial double-standards and the miscarriage of justice, and is based on true events in Jena, La. Next spring, in a new collaboration with the American Myth Center, Different Strokes presents short works and monologues by emerging Black playwrights.

"It’s always been important to me to cast actors of color, particular Black artists, in roles that were not stereotypical, that were nontraditional and were just unexpected,” Hickling Beckman said. “But to me, to the people who were playing those parts, those parts were never authentic to their lives or to their backgrounds, nor to mine, so I felt like I was still being unrepresented. I think that’s the whole thing for me this season: Representation matters and authenticity.”

Matt Peiken, BPR’s first full-time arts journalist, has spent his entire career covering arts and culture.