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Inspiring Conversations with Clovis Kabongo of Black Petal Theatre

Today we’d like to introduce you to Clovis Kabongo. 

Hi Clovis, we’d love for you to start by introducing yourself.
My name is Clovis Kabongo; founder, director, producer, and head playwright of Black Petal Theatre. Black Petal Theatre was established to cultivate change by empowering artists of color and disrupting unflattering, stereotypical, narratives that place us in a box while opening the space for us to occupy stories that we are often denied. Black Petal Theatre started in 2016. I submitted a play to a festival and once it got accepted, I was suddenly thrust into what would soon become one of the greatest experiences of my life. I learned a lot about theatre and directing from my first show 7:00, a show about the seven deadly sins trapped in a mysterious church during the apocalypse. It was a tough show — especially being my first, but such a transformative and fulfilling experience. After the success of the show, my team and I realized working together was something special. I was tentative at first because of past experiences, however, I believed in the vision and what each of us had to offer. I knew this would be something different, something necessary. Even more, this opportunity came at a time in my life where I wasn’t sure that writing was what I wanted to pursue. I’d been writing since I was a kid. Movies, books, and video games were always so transportive for me — a way to mentally escape how ordinary and perfunctory life could be. That escapism helped me cope and get through a lot of tough things growing up, and tethered me to my love of storytelling ultimately. By my senior year of high school, my English teacher told me to keep writing and “pay it forward.” Those words have stayed with me since then. With everything I wrote I would hear those words and I’m thankful for how centered and resilient they’ve kept me. By my 20’s, I was constantly facing a slew of rejections and it admittedly shot my morale. I couldn’t take another defeat — granted I was young and didn’t grasp that I was only just beginning. However, in the moment, it never feels like the start but always an end. Then when you begin comparing yourself to others around you who’ve achieved success at an early age and start questioning if you have what it takes to stay afloat in this highly competitive field, it adds a lot of pressure. One you’d rather let crush you. But by the time 7:00 came around it reaffirmed that I was on the right path, and I realized that I had to bring my own seat to a table that didn’t want to make a lot of space for people like me. At that moment we decided to start Black Petal Theatre. It’s been a long and sometimes impossible journey, but one I’d take every time. I value all of the connections we’ve made, opportunities we’ve created, and people we’ve impacted because I didn’t choose to give up.

Can you talk to us a bit about the challenges and lessons you’ve learned along the way? Looking back would you say it’s been easy or smooth in retrospect?
The road has been anything but smooth, however, that is to be expected. From working a 9 to 5 while taking classes and pursuing your dreams; to seeking out opportunities and other artists who shared our vision, facing rejection after rejection, and dealing with the various, and specific, challenges each production called for, the journey here has been trying. Of course, there are also the universally frustrating monetary challenges that we’ve faced and still occasionally do. However, while some challenges took heavier tolls than others, looking back, we understand the reason behind each failure and rejection, and wear it as armor as we trudge through even tougher terrains. Each of our struggles have taught us lessons, equipped us, and ultimately helped us get to where we are today. When so much is thrown your way and you’re figuring out how to get past it all you sometimes forget what the bigger picture is, what all the sacrifice is for, and allow yourself to get lost in a labyrinth — which is fine as long as you remember how to find your way back. In retrospect, I am thankful for all of it and know many more challenges lie ahead, but I welcome it, as I will welcome the blessings that will come from them.

Alright, so let’s switch gears a bit and talk business. What should we know?
So again, Black Petal Theatre aims to tell stories of people of color/minorities that disrupt unflattering stereotypes and instead place us in elevated narratives. We firmly stand behind all of our past and future POC creatives, collaborators, and audience members to battle racism, and to continue in our mission to create stories where we are not just uneducated; slaves, drug dealers, maids, gang members, or in subservient roles. Instead, we aim to tell stories where we are educated doctors, writers, lawyers, survivors, detectives, powerful magical beings, and poets whose language is as heightened as their respective narrative. Stories where we can truly just be humans.

I write the plays, prepare the productions, and assemble the team of actors and crew members who help bring the story to life. We’re kind of like the Avengers in that sense. Taking the story from my head to paper, and then to the rehearsal room is an experience like no other. I’ve learned so much about directing and my capabilities as a writer through directing and vice versa. Working as both a writer and director has also helped me further explore the depth of a character and structure in the writing room in a way that allows me to transfer it over to rehearsal and my work with the actors. There’s a strange and intense understanding that is only possible when assuming both roles. It is one that challenges me but one that also helps me sharpen my craft.

I’ve been proud of each production and event we’ve had, yet there is something about our show AUSTIN that I’m most proud of. AUSTIN has logistically been our hardest show to date due in part to making sure the cast was perfect, to demanding rehearsals, being impacted by the pandemic, and challenges you wouldn’t even imagine! Though no matter how difficult it got, we persevered and came back even stronger. The way the show has also resonated and touched so many of our audiences is something I’m not only proud of but moved by, as this story is deeply personal to me. AUSTIN has had much success because of its hard, but necessary, story and overall message, and I hope it continues to resonate with audiences when we return again in July 2022 for our Encore Performances.

In the end, Black Petal Theatre was created for people of color, by people of color, to use as a platform to spread their art. We welcome artists from all over and encourage them to submit their work and showcase their talent to receive the exposure they deserve! We have such outstanding plans for the company that can only be fulfilled through collaborating with local artists. They’re the ones who truly make this industry thrive.

The crisis has affected us all in different ways. How has it affected you and any important lessons or epiphanies you can share with us?
Yes, the importance of resilience, resourcefulness, and discovering new creative ways to stay fresh regardless of circumstances. All of us artists were sort of faced with a dilemma during the pandemic. Wait till things return to normal to start creating again or create even harder by doing what we artists do best, and using the climate of the world to fuel our art. I chose the latter. One of my favorite artists is musician Hozier, and one of his most powerful lyrics is “All you have is your fire and the place you need to reach.” This was a constant reminder for me, and what ultimately drove me out of my funk during lockdown and kept me working. This is what I would encourage fellow creatives to do as well. Allow yourself however long you need to stay in your gray, but don’t remain stagnant, push through and return to the light you need to help cast on others. You have no idea how much your story can impact someone even if you don’t realize it.

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Image Credits
Alexsa Tolentino
Darryl Granum

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