As an actor, John Dayo-Aliya was not seeing scripts in front of him that reflected his lived experience. So, he did the next best thing: he began to write the scripts himself.
“There just weren’t plays that dealt with the Black human experience in the epic way that so many white plays always do, so I began to write out of necessity,” says Dayo-Aliya.
That necessity drove the 36-year-old Akron native to be the very definition of prolific, producing eight plays in the last nine years. His journey began at the University of Akron, where he studied theater arts with his sister, India Nicole Burton, before studying Pan-African studies at Kent State University. Though he enjoyed the work he was reading, the siblings were always on the hunt for material with which they could identify.
“We found some old Black plays that we weren’t really studying in theater class, but they felt so dated and didn’t have characters who spoke like us,” recalls Dayo-Aliya.
To create and produce content that felt more accessible and relevant, he co-founded Ma’Sue Productions in 2011 and developed Daybreak’s Children. Written by Dayo-Aliya and directed by Burton, it chronicles a family that survived crack addiction only to find itself fighting opioid addiction decades later. Other produced works penned by Dayo-Aliya include …Or Does It Explode about Black manhood and A Happening on Imperial about the victims of Cleveland serial killer Anthony Sowell.
“I found this voice in myself that drives me to keep writing stories about Black lives that have meat, like what it means to be Black and alive, to have a family, or to have mental illness,” says Dayo-Aliya.
In January, Dayo-Aliya was named the 2020/2021 Nord Family Foundation Playwright Fellow at Cleveland Public Theatre, a program for playwrights and creators from Northeast Ohio that offers opportunities to develop work through staged readings and workshop productions. Through this fellowship, Dayo-Aliya will develop Our Lady of Common Sorrows, a play about a Black family whose faith is tested when they discover that their youngest member, a 14-year-old virgin, has become pregnant. The goal is to showcase the play in Zoom readings this month.
“What I’m working towards is asking the questions: What does faith mean? What is the cost? And what do we sacrifice in the name of faith?” says Dayo-Aliya. “Working with CPT will give me the opportunity to engage in my process.”
As a playwright fellow, Dayo-Aliya sees a great opportunity to bring Black voices and urban stories to the stages of CPT and create opportunities for other Black artists, who often face challenges to get their art seen.
“Black artists are often put in more marginal stories or we’ve had to be part of productions we maybe didn’t identify with because we wanted to be on stage,” he says.
Ultimately, Dayo-Aliya is excited to tell more stories that leave audiences talking.
“I just want to create compelling work to inspire audiences to have a conversation that they otherwise might not have had by hearing stories they have never heard,” he says.
Three Notable Playwrights
Here are three of Dayo-Aliya’s favorite playwrights and how they’ve inspired his own work.
“He chooses each word so intentionally to create experiences that are electric with empathy and understanding. Very few writers transport me so completely.”
“Waiting for Godot was one of the first things I read in my first college theater class. I was overwhelmed with this sense of wonder at what this playwright could do with words.”
“Astronaut Mae Jemison told me For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When The Rainbow Is Enuf allowed her to believe she could go to space as a Black girl.”