Most professional theatres require playwrights to have an agent to submit their work for consideration. So I doubt many 13-year-olds wake up one morning, put on their suit, and have their mother drive them to the Playhouse in the Park to hand-deliver a play he wrote.
But Isaiah Reaves did just that.
Working as a performer from a very early age, he toured the country as a child singer, performing in talent competitions, singing the National Anthem, and even getting a call back for Disney’s The Lion King.
He appeared locally in a well-regarded production of “Caroline, Or Change.” He’s continued to have performance opportunities, including during a recent play-reading event at Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati. (He also wrote a 10-minute play that was selected for the event.)
While Isaiah enjoys performing on stage, his passion is writing for it. Playwriting became formative and foundational in helping him grow. “I was bullied as a child. I was figuring out that I was gay. When I was writing, I could be me. And no one could control it but me.”
Isaiah was born in Cincinnati to a single mother, whom he says sacrificed much to give him opportunities. A hairdresser by trade, she drove him to every rehearsal, every choir meeting, and took him to auditions from New York to Dallas. “And she introduced me to the music that formed me.”
His grandmother, Betty Daniels Rosemond, was a southern freedom rider in the 1960s, and he grew up listening to her stories of fighting for civil rights. Rosemond is a poet and Isaiah remembers hearing her give countless speeches.
But he says it was their daily living room talks he remembers most fondly. “I would tell her stories and she would write them down for me.”
She would take him to Media Play and Circuit City, where he would ask her about classic VHS cassettes in the movie section. He would purchase them on her recommendation and grew up embracing films from the Golden Age of Hollywood. In his quest to know more, he devoured books and documentaries about the making of his favorite film, “The Wizard of Oz,” which starred Judy Garland. That research led him to movies like “Gone With the Wind,” starring Vivien Leigh. Leigh also starred as Blanche Dubois in “A Streetcar Named Desire.”
He then became enthralled with Tennesse Williams.
While “the elasticity and lyricism of language” was one attraction, Isaiah says the strong female characters Williams wrote resonated soundly. “They reminded me of my family, many of whom are from New Orleans. The way they spoke, the beats, it made sense.”
The influence of Williams on Reaves’ writing is apparent; he has the same kind of sensibility with both language and character. There’s something “classic” about Isaiah’s plays, but they have a contemporary sensibility. And just like with Tennessee Williams, Reaves’s work has progressive and powerful social implications.
Reaves’s first play was a “horrible” (by his own admission) adaptation of the Ann Frank story. “Her diary was on the bookshelf in the right corner of my sixth-grade classroom. The picture on the cover was of a girl my age, and it always caught my attention. It’s how I learned about the Holocaust.”
Isaiah has an entire section of his closet dedicated to Frank. He cried hysterically when he saw “The Diary of Ann Frank” at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company in 2016. “My eyes were swollen. I sat in the theatre when it was over and then told the cast how much it meant to me.”
It was that same semester when Isaiah first met Daryl Harris. Harris, Professor of Performance at Northern Kentucky University. Harris was directing a performance of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” and as soon as Reaves read this August Wilson classic, he was determined to be in it. He remembers the rehearsal process as a spiritual experience. “It was holy. Sacred.”
Harris introduced him to not only August Wilson, but also the works of influential black writers like Amiri Baraka and Adrienne Kennedy. “He introduced me to black historical writers that I would maybe have never been exposed to. He’s my spiritual father.”
His first public production was the memorable “Wyatt’s Bed,” which was produced at the Clifton Performance Theatre. In my review, I said, “I was pleasantly surprised at the depth of the piece and the maturity of the dialogue. . . I could easily see this show being staged elsewhere . . . knocking the socks off of some folks. Reaves definitely has a career ahead of him if he wants it.”
I’m glad to see I was right.
Reaves has since retooled that play, rewriting it as “The Black Boy in Pink.” “I changed the white female prostitute into a gay black man,” he said. This play is his most personal. “It was the hardest to write.” Reaves credits Ken Jones and Brian Robertson, who selected the play as part of the Y.E.S Festival at NKU, for encouraging him to be vulnerable on the page.
Reaves will graduate from NKU in the spring of 2020, having several successful productions of his work under his belt. “The Color of the Leaves” was workshopped as part of Cincinnati LAB Theatre’s New Works Festival. “Blackface Project” debuted at the Cincinnati Fringe Festival to positive reviews — and was an audience hit, earning an encore performance on the last day of the festival.
He’s had wins outside of Cincinnati, too. Classical Theatre of Harlem hosted a reading of “The Black Boy in Pink” at Lincoln Center in October of 2019. During his trip to New York City, Reaves spoke with Robert O’Hara, a black playwright from Cincinnati, and he saw Jeremy O. Harris’s “Slave Play.” Inspiration continues to pour into him.
And he’ll need it because this fall, Isaiah will begin work on a Masters in Fine Arts in Playwrighting at the University of Iowa’s Playwrights Workshop. It’s one of the top five playwriting programs in the United States. Reaves applied to all five; “I didn’t think I was going to get into any of them.”
As someone who’s known his work since 2014, though, I’m not surprised. And Iowa seems like the obvious choice, given one of its famous alumni is none other than Tennessee Williams.
“It’s like we’re chasing each other,” Reaves said.
In my mind, Reaves is not just “Generation-Z’s Tennessee Williams.” He has a unique perspective, boundless talent, and the work ethic that will propel him into success.
I’m here for it.