When thinking back to the dazzling age of 1950s cinema, many marvel at the memory of Grace Kelly in Rear Window or Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot. There were countless Hollywood starlets who audiences adored, and it seemed there was no room for corruption inside the gleaming gates of old Hollywood.
Fast forward to 2021, and Hollywood’s precious facade has long been shattered due to the Me Too and #OscarsSoWhite movements, along with recent exposés on the culture of bullying that has long-pervaded the industry. But other evils that slyly lurked in the film industry have been left largely undiscussed.
Well, that was until ShaWanna Renee Rivon, 43, decided to do something about it. The result of those efforts is Old Black & White Hollywood, which the Alley Theatre is featuring as part of its digital season starting April 16.
Growing up in Houston, Rivon always felt being a performer was in her future. From the time she was a child watching soap operas with her aunt and being fascinated by the possibility of acting on screen, Rivon knew following her passion was a must. After receiving acting training at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta following her graduation from Eisenhower High School, Rivon moved to Los Angeles, spending the majority of her 20s auditioning for film and television.
Though she had success as an actress, starring on the cartoon shows Strawberry Shortcake, The Bratz, and The Care Bears, she soon realized she wasn’t being given opportunities to achieve her full potential.
“My manager kept sending me to auditions for Disney and Nickelodeon when I was 30, and I would audition in a room with kids whose parents had to drive them,” says Rivon. “I was finally like ‘I cannot go in at 30 and pretend to be a 12- or 13-year-old anymore.”
In response, Rivon took her roles into her own hands, writing stories with characters that accurately represented her. What started as a spontaneous way to get out her frustration soon became life-changing.
“I started writing parts I wanted to play and started writing about my own life experiences, and then it felt so good, I just started writing for all types of people,” says Rivon.
Now, Rivon has made a name for herself as an NAACP-nominated producer and playwright, with two of her plays having been chosen to tour nationally. And, starting this weekend, the Alley will air a virtual reading of Hollywood.
Rivon fascination with old Hollywood runs deep. After developing a love and adoration for iconic performer Dorothy Dandridge (the first Black woman to be nominated for Best Actress at the Oscars) in high school, Rivon began reading books by African American film historian Donald Bogle, who specialized in classic Hollywood biographies and film criticism. Shortly thereafter, she became hooked on the history of 1950s Hollywood.
When she began writing, she knew this passion had to be put to the page. Though she originally sought to create a play about Diahann Carroll and Sidney Poitier’s famous love affair, her writing process took a turn when she had the idea for fictional characters Eva Rose and Doris Jean—a white actress and black actress who strike up quite a unique relationship in 1954 Hollywood. Between the various trials the two actresses face, the reality of how strenuous life was for women and people of color working in the industry during the Jim Crow era becomes painstakingly evident.
Unlike most plays that discuss race and gender-related issues, however, Rivon’s play is a comedy. When asked why she wanted to combine comedy with such heavy topics, Rivon recalls a memory from when the play was performed in 2019 at the University of Houston, where Rivon earned her BFA in playwriting and is currently earning her master’s degree.
“During one of the sketches, the topic was a sensitive matter, and I remember seeing an audience member, a white man, laughing really hard,” says Rivon. “When he finished, he let out a sigh, and then, in a second, he started grappling with what this Black woman was dealing with. That’s the goal.”
Apr 16–May 16; live viewing party is scheduled for April 20. Free. Online. More info and registration at alleytheatre.org.