This Glorious Urban Circus: Michael Oatman / Cleveland
Cleveland’s FRONT triennial is primarily a visual arts event. But its choice of playwright Michael Oatman as one of its initial six Cleveland artists through the Cleveland Foundation’s Creative Fusion program signals a broader agenda. The selection of Oatman also indicates an attempt to reach out to parts of the urban area often overlooked for trendier and more affluent environs.
Many Clevelanders first became aware of Oatman when he penned his column “This Glorious Urban Circus” for Cleveland alternative newsweekly The Free Times in the mid ’00s, sharing his observations of being a black man living in the inner city.
Oatman first aspired to be a novelist but discovered a talent for playwriting instead. He earned his MFA in playwriting at Cleveland State in 2008, and accolades quickly accumulated. He was named only the second playwright in residence at the celebrated Karamu House theater in its 100-year history, joining Langston Hughes.
His plays have been widely produced, not just at Karamu but at other Cleveland theaters such as the Cleveland Play House (where he was part of their Playwrights Unit) and Cleveland Public Theatre and in New York City, Chicago, Portland, Omaha and Washington D.C. He’s also directed at theaters all over the region.
Oatman earned the Cleveland Arts Prize for an emerging artist in 2011 and won a Community Partnership for the Arts and Culture / Cuyahoga Arts and Culture Creative Workforce Fellowship that same year. He started Phoenix Theatre at the Garden Valley housing developments, one of Cleveland’s poorest and most crime-ridden neighborhoods. He created a stir in 2016 when he had a white actor portray Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., getting national press.
Somehow, as result of all that theatrical activity, the FRONT curators came across him. “They found me,” says Oatman. “Maybe they saw me doing my [Creative Workforce Fellowship] stuff. I did a series of events and there were a lot of people there.”
With the development of the FRONT collaborations still in the early stages, Oatman admits he’s not sure yet quite how it’s going to work, although as a theater artist, he’s already well versed in the art of collaborative exploration.
“I don’t think they have it figured it out,” he says. “I think they wanted a playwright to come and maybe do some kind of ekphrastic thing. Instead of putting down a template, I think they want artists to get artists in the same room to sit and talk about things and develop things. But we’ve literally just started.”
And while his role is just now developing, Oatman says, “I take my cue from Charles Winchester from MASH. He used to say I try to do one thing really well, focus on that and then move on to the next thing. I want to do a really good job and leave the rest to take care of itself. I’ve been thinking about different ways I can bring value to the project. I just want to make sure I pull make weight and make them glad they chose me.”