Playwright and screenwriter Keith Josef Adkins returns to his Cincinnati roots this month with the world premiere of his latest play, The West End, at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park. Adkins, who is based in Los Angeles and serves as artistic director of the New Black Fest, grew up primarily in Woodlawn, but the West End was his father’s home neighborhood and a frequent topic of discussion in the family.
The West End was scheduled to debut last year at the Playhouse, which canceled its entire 2020–2021 season due to the pandemic. Adkins’s story about the intersection of life between the West End’s German and Black residents at the precipice of World War II will now open the Playhouse’s 2021–2022 season and run October 9 through November 7. You can also stream the production November 8–21 here.
Why was the West End the inspiration for your new play?
As a kid, the West End would show up in conversation at least once a week. I wrote a play called Safe House [the Playhouse staged it in 2014] that’s loosely inspired by my mother’s family history as being free people of color who came to the Cincinnati area in the 1780s. I also wanted to honor my father’s family, who came from Georgia in the 1930s and ’40s to the West End.
You call this your Great Migration play. What does that mean in the context of the West End?
I’m not tagging myself as the West End expert, but I did want to create these characters who are all in transition. The early ’40s were a very transformative time for many people, but particularly the Black community. I wanted to look at what that meant for them to be in a new place and having to make it home. And it’s not just any old city—it’s a city steeped in German history and culture. What does that mean for these Black people who live there, and how do they commune or not commune with that?
It was also important to me that the German aspect was in the play, because I’m from Cincinnati. When I left Cincinnati and met white people whose last names were not German, I was like, “What’s your last name?” Because that’s all I knew.
You’ve written, produced, and directed television shows and films. Has your experience with the screen influenced your work for the stage?
I think working in television has informed my playwriting, as far as structure. It’s informed what I know about how a story should move, how long to stay in a scene, and how long you have the audience’s attention. What I love about live theater is I can be explosive and much more playful and louder with storytelling. With film and television, it’s much quieter and intimate. Most people are looking at content on a laptop now, so you have to kind of lean in—but in theater you don’t have that kind of microscope, and I love that. It allows me to have a different experience, to let the characters just scream if they want and let the ideas be large.
What is the play’s central story?
It’s about this woman named Grace who comes to Cincinnati from Georgia with a big secret, and she’s clearly haunted by something. She doesn’t want to commit to relationships or political movements. As the play goes along, we meet a stranger who shows up at her back door, a recent arrival from Georgia himself who’s 20 years her junior. He triggers something in her where she starts opening up to him. I’ve also created a fictitious situation about a Black leader in Cincinnati who does a local event to honor A. Phillip Randolph’s march against Jim Crow in the U.S. military. The other characters are trying to get Grace involved in that event, but she’s hesitant. I don’t want to tell you much more than that.
The West End has been in the spotlight locally with completion of the new TQL Stadium. What do you hope the audience will take away from your story’s perspective?
I definitely want people to walk away with a sense of nostalgia. Even though it’s not an autobiography or a documentary, there are a lot of things in the play that were true to Cincinnati at that time: Hudepohl, Mecklenburg Gardens, the Cotton Club, and Union Baptist are all mentioned. Part of it is to watch the show thinking, These characters are actively participating in places we’ve heard about. But, more importantly, you’ll have a chance to sit with people from that time and understand in a much more meaningful way what they were navigating personally, politically, and socially, and how we’re an extension of them today.
West End residents can receive up to 50% off tickets Tuesday–Friday and 15% off Saturday–Sunday by calling (513) 421-3888.