Ma'Sue Productions, an Akron theater company rooted in telling African American stories, has eight years of growth and new works to celebrate at its second annual fundraiser, the Big Blue Legacy Ball, Friday at the Akron Civic Theatre.
The company, which continues to raise money heading into its tour of its original work "...Or Does it Explode?," has seen its capabilities in bringing its theatrical message to wider audiences explode since receiving a $25,000 Knight Arts matching grant in 2017. That enabled the small company to purchase its own sound and lighting equipment for touring.
"It's a huge difference,'' said Artistic Director John Dayo-Aliya, 33. "It's very important to me to be able to do our work for diverse audiences."
In its infancy, the company mounted shows mainly at its home base at Balch Street Theatre in Akron, as well as at the University of Akron and Kent State University. Their productions depended on whatever equipment they found in the theaters they visited.
As the company grows in its reach, its wish list includes developing an operating budget, building staff to include a dramaturg and intern, purchasing more equipment and training its actors on a regular basis.
"We just want to take our company to the next level professionally,'' said Dayo-Aliya, the creative force who has written six original shows for Ma'Sue.
Dayo-Aliya, who studied theater at the University of Akron, switched to majoring in Pan-African Studies at Kent State University. There, he was first exposed to a lot of black literature, including works by Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright and Beah Richards.
Previously, much of his college theater work was based in European lives. But Dayo-Aliya knew he wanted to see his own life and his own experiences portrayed on stage.
Ma'Sue Productions grew from a conversation in 2010 among Dayo-Aliya; his sister, theater artist India Burton; Heads Up Productions (now Wandering Aesthetics) and theater artist Thurayya Umbayemake, who's now based in New York.
"We had these theater degrees and theater ambitions, however we weren't doing any theater," he said of himself and Umbayemake, who worked together at a call center and decided to start their own theater company.
First play reading in 2011
Dayo-Aliya's first play, "Daybreak's Children," was performed by Ma'Sue in a 2011 staged reading at Balch Street Theatre, in partnership with Heads Up productions. That show, about a family that survived crack addiction but finds itself fighting opioid addiction decades later, received a full production last year at Balch Street.
"... Or Does It Explode?," which Ma'Sue first mounted in 2014, examines black manhood through vignettes utilizing dance, poetry, rap and traditional theater forms. Dayo-Aliya revised it with six new dramatic vignettes for a 2017 remounting at Balch.
Ma'Sue, named after Dayo-Aliya's grandmother Sue, whom he called Mama, will launch its first official season in late summer with the tour of "... Or Does it Explode?." It will span 15 performances: five shows featuring a shorter version of the work and 10 full productions. Venues will include the Front Porch of South Street Ministries on Grant Street; the Exchange House in North Hill, a cultural center that serves the Nepali community; Joy Park Community Center; the W.O.M.B. social/cultural Center on East Market Street and Lock 4 at the Akron Civic Theatre.
The company also plans to book educational venues and offer pop-up performances around town. Artistic Director Dayo-Aliya is committed to doing shows in nontraditional spaces, such as a community center or church, to draw in people who wouldn't normally go to a theater.
At Saturday's benefit, Ma'Sue will continue its fundraising efforts to build its operating budget and offer more consistent programming. The company will announce the other titles in its first full season at a later date.
The benefit at the Civic, which will feature emcee Ace Epps, live bands, food and a silent auction, will also include the premiere of the film "Milkweed," created by Dayo-Aliya and Ma'Sue Managing Director Vince Tyree in partnership with Amazing Suspense Productions. The film, set in West Akron, is inspired by the women in their lives, including the aunt who raised Dayo-Aliya. She's the basis for the caregiver title character in the film.
Serial killer play in 2013
Other plays Dayo-Aliya has written for Ma'Sue include "A Happening on Imperial" in 2013, about Cleveland serial killer Anthony Sowell's victims — black drug addicts and prostitutes — who were forgotten women on the edge of society. His goal was to humanize these victims who lived in the Mount Pleasant Community.
"It's really about bringing dignity to people's lives who had been left out of the system, left out of the conversation for whatever reason," Dayo-Aliya said.
His other works are "O Patria Mia" of 2013, a family drama about a homosexual black man who decides to stop taking his AZT in the '90s; a reading of "God and Earth" in 2017 and "Blue, Miss Billie," an original play with music about jazz star Billie Holiday that premiered in 2015 at Balch Street and was produced in September at the Akron Civic Theatre.
The Billie Holiday show was, in fact, an inspiration for the title of Friday's fundraiser: Big Blue Legacy Ball. In "Blue, Miss Billie," one character tells another that the term "the blues" originated from the tradition of Africans painting their faces blue from the indigo plant.
"That blue was the color from which suffering could be released,'' Dayo-Aliya said.
He says that just as important as Ma'Sue's work on stage are the talkbacks that the plays spark. "... Or Does It Explode?" has stimulated many conversations about race, identity and Akron.
"Ultimately, the point is to bring into sharp focus the fact we are all human beings. Our experiences actually aren't that different,'' Dayo-Aliya said. "We're all dealing with the facts of our mortality."
The playwright wants to see black audiences grow in Akron along with works that illuminate the black experience. He points to the traditionally black Karamu House in Cleveland as well as a focus by Cleveland Public Theatre on presenting works for people of color.
"I think that there is a need to create an audience of African-American theatergoers in Akron," Dayo-Aliya said. "There really is not a great collective arts culture for black arts here."
Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her at @KerryClawsonABJ or www.facebook.com/kclawsonabj.