A playwright, poet, scholar, performer, and speaker, Dr. Shirlene Holmes is truly an artist in every sense of the word. Creating nuanced, innovative works that examine identity and the intersections of race, gender, sexuality, spirituality, and class, Dr. Holmes has always sought to push the boundaries of art and writing by not only starting new conversations but also bringing old ones to new, deeper levels.
Born in the Bronx in 1958 and raised in Queens, Dr. Holmes is a New Yorker through and through. She attended York College of the City University of New York, where she earned her B.A. in English in June of 1980. Just two years later, she premiered her first solo biographical drama, “Ain’t I a Woman!” based on the life of American women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth. Following this, she left New York in pursuit of an MFA in Theatre and Playwriting at Southern Illinois University. In 1989, she wrote and performed another solo biographical drama titled “No Detours Ahead,” based on the life of American jazz singer and songwriter Billie Holiday. This same year, she moved to Atlanta upon accepting a position as faculty in the Communication department at Georgia State. Here, she began teaching Theatre, Speech, Women Studies, and African American Studies courses while maintaining her theatrical enterprises.
1990 saw two new pieces from her: “Current Events,” a collection of five vignettes that explore contemporary women’s responses to social oppression, and “Oh Slavery Days,” a combination of oral narratives, spirituals, and dance that address the history of slavery in America. In 1992, she earned her doctorate in Speech (Performance Studies) from Southern Illinois University.
During her past three decades here at GSU, she has written, directed, and performed solo dramas, plays, and other theatrical forms, which have been staged locally, nationally, and internationally. She has attended and participated in numerous professional conferences and civic engagements, including the Mt. Sequoyah Play Retreat in 1994 and the 4th Annual International Women Playwright Conference in Galway, Ireland in 1997, where she was the only African American playwright.
Friends and colleagues of Dr. Holmes describe her as inspirational, regal, exuberant, knowledgeable, committed, and righteous. As a professor at GSU, she gave students opportunities to work on pieces that tackled important social issues, teaching with a perspective born out of her love of social justice and understanding of the particular needs GSU students have; moreover, she is known to have held a high level of expectations in terms of artistry and discipline. Recognizing that there wasn’t necessarily a next step for playwrights, she put together a student showcase that she produced every year, in which student directors and actors put on short student-written plays.
While she has written and produced countless creative works over the years that have challenged traditional ways of thinking and explored culturally essential topics, perhaps two of her most notable works are “A Lady and A Woman” and “Carnival Madea.” The former was written in 1990, drawn from folk wisdom. In creating “A Lady and A Woman,” Dr. Holmes sought to write about African American women and southern culture, examining issues of both spirituality and sexuality while deconstructing ideas of how women live their lives. Six years later, the play was published in Amazon Allstars: 13 Lesbian Plays. Dr. Holmes sees theater as a temple, a place to be enlightened, inspired, transformed, and challenged, and this philosophy shines through her work. Both a staged reading and full production of “Carnival Madea,” a retelling of Euripides’ Ancient Greek tragedy through the lens of the Carnival of Trinidad, were put on at GSU. Dr. Holmes even took the work to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland, where she brought the only play selected from the state of Georgia.
The numerous awards and recognitions she’s received include the Carbondale Chapter of the NAACP Image Award in the Arts (1989), the Appreciation Award from the Black Togetherness Organization at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale (1991), the Nancy Dean Distinguished Playwright Award from Sisters Onstage (1997), and the Lorraine Hansberry Scriptwriting Award from the Literary Exchange (2000).
by SOPHIA RAGAN on NOVEMBER 13, 2020