If you’re a playwright, or a writer of any kind, your teachers and mentors have probably told you to “write what you know.” Finding inspiration from your own life can really strengthen your story’s impact. That’s certainly true for Isaiah Reaves, a professional playwright on the rise who’s based in Cincinnati, Ohio. His work explores a spectrum of Black and Queer experiences.

“Saying that I ‘write what I know’ seems clichéd, but it’s the truth,” says Reaves. “I write about what I’ve been through. When I was a kid, I was bullied, but writing about being bullied set me free and made me feel better.”

Since childhood, Reaves has considered writing and storytelling a powerful gateway to self-reflection and making personal connections. He adds, “I learned that if I was able to be myself, my writing would have deeper meaning. I want audiences to see my work and be inspired to tell their own stories and to be themselves no matter what.”

Below are deeper insights into Reaves’s playwriting journey.

When Passion for Playwriting Makes You Feel Alive

Reaves grew up with an interest in theatre. He nurtured his talents and developed skills in singing and acting but he felt uniquely drawn to the craft of writing. At age 11, he wrote his first play. It was an adaptation of Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl. The book, he says, changed his life and motivated him to write his own stage version. The experience was significant in more ways than one.

man is blue suitSays Reaves, “One night, I accidentally deleted over 100 pages of writing. I was devastated and cried all night. But the next day, I got up and started writing the entire play all over again. That was when I realized that playwriting was my passion. Of course, as a human being, I naturally had doubts about making a living doing what I loved. But I started producing my own work at 16 and decided to take my future into my own hands.”

Isaiah graduated cum laude from Northern Kentucky University in 2020. He’s finishing his Master of Fine Arts degree at the University of Iowa Playwrights Workshop.

The Creative Process

Reaves says his creative process hasn’t changed much since he was 11-years-old. “I’m a planner. I plan and think about what I want to write for many months before I actually sit down to write anything. By the time I open my laptop to begin a script, I know where the story is going. I know the beginning and the ending. I know the characters and the title.”

When writing a draft, he says music is a must. “I listen to whatever music my characters would listen to. If I am writing a piece about contemporary teenagers or young adults, I listen to hip-hop. If I am writing a play set in the 1930s, I listen to 1930s jazz. I listen to anything that puts me in the time and place in which my characters live. I actually won the Kennedy Center Hip Hop Theatre Creator Award when my horror piece, Saturday the 13th, placed second in the nation. That’s an example of the impact of music on my craft.”

He says he gives himself the grace of letting the first draft be bad. Then, once it’s on the page, he collects input from others. “I seek advice from friends. I hear the script out loud and continue to make changes for many months after.”

Written by Reaves

Reaves has written 14 plays to date, with his 15th currently in the process of being written. Here’s a quick look at his works:

The Blackface Project, 2018: The true story follows Bert Williams, a Black performer during the turn of the 19th century, who’s invited to perform on Broadway. He would be the first Black man to do so. But the caveat is that he can only do it if he agrees to perform in blackface, concealing his true identity to alleviate the racist fears and concerns of white audiences. The production was staged for the Cincinnati Fringe Festival. It received recognition as the critic’s pick by Cincinnati’s CityBeat.
The Black Boy in Pink, 2019: This fictional story centers on the life and relationships of a gay Black man named Wyatt. He engages in various relationships against the backdrop of 1959 Cincinnati, when living one’s life openly and freely as a member of the LGBTQ+ community posed enormous obstacles. Reaves was invited to read portions of The Black Boy in Pink at Lincoln Center Plaza as part of the Classical Theatre of Harlem Playwright’s Playground series.
Richie and Blanche, 2020: Reaves was asked to write a pod play for Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park. The audio play took place at a specific location, and it was recorded and delivered through an audio file. Listeners were encouraged to visit the location of the story, plug in their headphones and press play. Richie and Blanche takes place on a bridge connecting Cincinnati to Northern Kentucky. The two characters, referenced in the title, are an estranged mother and son who have reconnected. Five years prior, Richie had come out to Blanche, which set off five years of separation.
I Shall Not Be Moved, 2022: Produced by Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati, this biographical, onstage memoir tells the story of Reaves’s grandmother, Betty Daniels Rosemond. She’s a groundbreaking, nationally recognized Civil Rights activist who was one of the first Freedom Riders of the 1960s.

Pearls of Wisdom

young man in dark suit sitting on steps

Playwright Isaiah Reaves.

Here’s what Reaves recommends to emerging theatre artists and playwrights:

● You will hear the word “no” many times. But it only takes one “yes” to change your life. It will be difficult but wait for that “yes.”
● If you work hard enough and really love your craft, anything can happen. Don’t give up.
● Make things happen for yourself when it seems like no one is listening.
● Learn everything about theatre so you appreciate every job.
● Listen to your instructors.

Reaves’s works have been commissioned and staged by The Classical Theatre of Harlem at Lincoln Center, Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati, Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, and many others. He is also a semi-finalist for the Ucross and The Blank Theatre Future of Playwriting Prize, a 2020 finalist of the Jackie Demaline Regional Collegiate Playwriting Competition, and an Iowa Arts Fellow. His next play, The Living Dead, is a contemporary version of the classic, 1968 horror film Night of the Living Dead. It’ll be staged at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company in the fall, just in time for Halloween.  ♦ 

Natalie Clare is a Cincinnati-based writer who composes original content for brands, organizations, and publications. As a storyteller, she writes fiction and nonfiction, and she directs and produces works of film. Visit her at nataliecwrites.com.

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