Michael Oatman, Playwright


As a young playwright, Michael Oatman finds himself in pretty good company. Currently, he holds the exceptional honor of being only the second Playwright in Residence in Karamu House’s storied, nearly 100-year history. The first was Langston Hughes.

Although he had been writing for many years, it wasn’t until he enrolled in the M.F.A. program at Cleveland State University that he began to pursue playwriting seriously, at the instigation of Michael Geither, one of his professors. “I entered the program as a bad novelist,” Oatmanl quips. “But Mike asked me to submit something to the CSU Playwriting Festival, and that was how I started.”

Working closely with the professor who directed his play, Oatman enjoyed the whole collaborative experience of creating a theatrical production. “I thought it was pretty cool that theater isn’t an artifact,” he says. “It’s not dead once you write it. It’s living and growing and doing different things independent of me.”

Shortly before graduating with his M.F.A. in Playwriting from CSU in 2008, Oatman was asked by Karamu’s artistic director Terrence Spivey to become playwright in residence, and that’s when his playwriting career took its first great leap forward.

In just a few years’ time, the Cleveland-born playwright, actor and director has made his mark in his hometown and across the nation, including productions and readings at the Stella Adler Conservatory in New York City, the African American Playwrights Exchange in Washington, D.C., the Shelterbelt Theatre (Omaha), the ETA Theatre (Chicago), and The Church (Portand).

Oatman’s short play Warpaint was the 2009 Finalist for the Kennedy Center Best Short Play, and his play The Chittlin’ Thief was named Best Comedy of 2008 by The African American Playwrights Exchange.

Local audiences have seen Oatman's poetic yet provocative work at The Cleveland Play House FusionFest, Cleveland Public Theatre, Karamu House, Cleveland State University and the Ingenuity Festival. Profiles of Michael Oatmal and his work—which includes Eclipse: The War Between Pac and Big, My Africa, A Solitary Voice and Drowning the Flame—have been featured in both The New York Times and American Theatre.

Although he writes predominantly about the experiences of and challenges encountered by his generation of black men, who grew up during President Reagan’s administration, Oatman doesn’t like to be pigeonholed as a black playwright. People typically try to compare him to August Wilson or Langston Hughes, for example. “Insert black playwright here,” he sighs. “But that’s not really my aesthetic. My stuff tends to be shorter, rarely beyond two hours, the dialogue is spare, and there tends to be a mix of heightened language and rough, street language.” He adds that two of his biggest playwriting influences are David Mamet and Neil LaBute.

As a journalist in Cleveland Oatman wrote extensively for The Free Times. While a student at CSU, he spent several months in Africa, writing about the AIDS epidemic for The Botswana Gazette. “It was an eye-opening experience,” he says. “I got an outside look at my own country and the effect of American culture on other countries. The trip just confirmed what a good friend of mine says, ‘If you want to understand the picture, you have to step outside the frame.’”

During the past few years, Oatman has also taught at schools across the region, joined the Playwrights Unit at the Cleveland Play House and been named one of Cleveland’s Most Interesting People 2010 by Cleveland Magazine. His play You Got Nerve received premiere in September 2011 at Karamu, where he was also slated to direct August Wilson’s play, Gem of the Ocean, later in the season.

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