Our Brave Soul featured artist for July 2012 is a trailblazer and true "renaissance" man. He has had his hands in music, theatre, and a host of other artistic entrepreneurial ventures for a decade. Craig Stewart is one of America's most talented young playwrights. The first in his immediate family to graduate from college, Stewart attended Hampton University, where he received a degree in liberal arts. Originally a native of Baltimore, Stewart moved to Atlanta over a decade ago with dreams of making it in the music industry. Despite his passion and several opportunities to work with established artists and producers, Stewart eventually realized that his future was not just in music. He turned his attention to writing and, in 2002, his first play, A Day in the Life, opened at Atlanta's 14th Street Playhouse.
The show's original running was cut short by a lack of funding and Stewart's personal battles with depression. In 2004, Stewart founded his own greeting card company, Say It in a Card, LLC. It was through Say It in a Card that he eventually met someone eager to sponsor a second run of A Day in the Life. The new production opened in 2007 to a sale out crowd at the Balzer Theater and was quickly hailed as a powerful artistic statement regarding the emotional and societal pressures experienced by gay African American men. Born out of Stewart's own personal struggles to find love and a sense of self-understanding as a gay man, A Day in the Life touched the hearts and minds of audience members and rapidly won Stewart praise from critics and publications like Southern Voice and DAVID magazine. Riding the momentum of the plays success in Atlanta, Stewart is currently poised to take the show on a national tour in hopes of spreading awareness about the plight of gay African American men and those infected with HIV. He also hopes to empower others while he dispels myths about the homosexual community and educates audiences to help prevent the spread of HIV and AIDS.
In addition to his success as a playwright, Stewart has written for the Atlanta-based theater company, Youth Ensemble of Atlanta (YEA)--an organization supported and funded by Jane Fonda. His greeting card business (Say It in a Card) has been very successful and his talents have won him the prestigious honor of writing personalized cards for such high-profile clients as Darius Miles of the Portland Trailblazers and award- winning recording artist Brandy.
But Craig Stewart's passion and efforts reach beyond his artistic career. He is also an active volunteer, serving his community through numerous projects. Stewart has facilitated workshops designed to educate African American homosexual men regarding sex and the facts about HIV. In addition, he has consistently worked with Project Open Hand, an organization devoted to preparing and delivering meals to terminally ill individuals.
Not content to bask in the glory of his past successes, Stewart is eager to continue impacting others through his writing and creative endeavors. Once A Day in the Life is on tour, Stewart looks forward to beginning production of his second play, Someone Else's Child. Through his dramatic productions, entrepreneurial endeavors, and volunteer efforts, Stewart aims to continue making a difference in the lives of others as he seeks to help and enlighten those he reaches.
I first met Craig back in 2007, during the run of "A Day In The Life" in Atlanta. As a fellow thespian & all around artist, I was fascinated & inspired by how he was able to weave so many pieces of the black, gay experience into such a compelling, truthful, honest tapestry onstage. Armed with an amazing cast of actors and a minimal set, I knew that his work was something special. Given the fact that I'd founded BSC a year earlier, I was honored to connect with him & let him know how much I believed in the work he was presenting. Since that time, we've kept in touch & supported one another in artistic endeavors so when the opportunity came around to showcase his latest work, I called him up & we worked it out to make this feature happen. What you'll read below is my candid interview with a fellow black gay man who bares his heart & soul through his art and who believes in the importance of us supporting one another in any way possible. I'm honored & excited to present to you, Mr. Craig Stewart.... ENJOY!
I love creating work that will challenge people's convictions: a song, book, play, movie. Art should provoke the audience to think differently. The audience should walk away feeling and thinking on a higher level.
For those who may be unfamiliar with your previous work(s), please share a bit about your artistic background.
I never imagined writing a book. I thought my career would begin and end with songwriting. That was the reason I moved to Atlanta after graduating from Hampton University, but it was in Atlanta that I came to terms with being gay. The first guy I loved learned that he was HIV positive and that experience led to writing and producing A Day in the Life--my first play, which included music. After producing the show in Atlanta and feeling stuck, I began writing greeting cards on a whim. A guy I dated suggested we write them together. The idea was to write cards that weren't gender specific because his best friend was going through a break up and he couldn't seem to find a card that wasn't written from the perspective of a woman. He wanted something that would comfort a male friend who had his heart broken by another guy. I began writing. He didn't, thus Say it in a Card was born. The cards focus solely on the emotion, not the gender of the recipient.
Please share a bit about how your memoir "Words Never Spoken" came to be.
Words Never Spoken happened organically. After 13 years of living, loving and experiencing life in Atlanta I began feeling unfulfilled. Although the play had sold out multiple times in Atlanta, it had also flopped a few times too. Even though the greeting cards found their way in seven stores and online the business folded when the economy crashed. I stopped writing all together, and I was beginning to think I was on the wrong career path when I felt a tugging in my spirit. Something told me to leave Atlanta for LA. My car had been repossessed, I couldn't find a job and my last relationship had failed so there was no reason for me to remain in Atlanta although I tried to convince myself there was. I sold everything and left within six months of getting the feeling. Three months after I moved to LA I started writing Words Never Spoken. I know now that I was called to LA to purge. To give birth to my life story. It wasn't possible in Atlanta because there was too much noise. I had too many friends and too many distractions that would have prevented it. LA offered the isolation I needed to tell my story. Once I was close to finishing the book I knew it was time to leave LA.
In your book you speak in depth about "a two year bout with depression that led to an internet sex addiction". As you were writing, how difficult was it for you to revisit that particular period in your life?
It wasn't difficult telling any of the stories, but it was emotional seeing the words in black and white because I could never again pretend it hadn't happened. Nevertheless, it was healing. There were a few teary moments recounting love I lost because relationships end because they run their course, and others end because of death. Moreover, I was grateful for the gift to tell a story interesting enough that people would want to read it. I was glad to have survived some of the most painful times of my life as an artist, as a man coming to terms with his truth and sexuality. Some of my tears were for the millions who would also be renewed from my story. I knew some would reach further and perhaps stand taller because I was so open. I say millions because I know it has the power to reach millions. This isn't a gay story. This book is for anyone gasping for air to be free, survive being an artist, entrepreneur.
Being that this is your first literary work, what challenges (if any) did you encounter in getting the book published?
I self-published to avoid those obstacles. I didn't wait for an agent to find me or to be rejected by them or the publishing companies. I considered going that route and there was quite a bit of trepidation about releasing a book without a publishing house to back me, but this process truly was spiritual for me. I knew if I was diligent in doing the work the rest would come together and it did. I moved to LA without a tangible reason other than a gut feeling. I answered the call. But remember, I had produced projects before. Never a book, but there were people who knew my work, mostly in Atlanta, but I figured I could tap into that segment of people once I released the book. It worked.
What kind of feedback have you received from readers about the book thus far?
There's not a day that goes by since the book dropped that I haven't received messages from people reading the book or those who finished it. It's all been positive. I sometimes log onto Twitter or Facebook and there are people that I don't know who have tweeted or Instagrammed pictures of themselves with the book or quoting lines from the book. It's humbling. The first message that really made me realize the impact of the book was a message I received from a bartender who had a customer come into the bar with Words Never Spoken. He said the guy told him he was going to commit suicide that day, but a friend happened to give him the book the same day so he started reading. He went on to say he found reasons to live. That made me smile. I cried a bit first. That was God. And to think I almost didn't release the book because of fear. Despite it all I'm bracing myself for the critics because everyone won't like it. So far so good. No, so far so amazing.
Who are some of your artistic influences and why are their works important to you?
My artistic influences are mostly in music. I love a great lyricist. Anita Baker, Lizz Wright and Frank Ocean are among my favorites. I listened to them quite a bit when I was writing the book.
As an openly black gay man who has survived some significant challenges, how much responsibility do you feel to "reach back" and provide guidance & support for other young black gay men in general and specifically those who are also artists?
I feel a huge sense of responsibility. It's part of the reason I was nervous to release the book. Not because I opened up totally about my life, rather I knew I could be catapulted to the front of the line as the voice for all gay people, and no one can be. I'm one voice and I will use it to speak on what concerns me, but I understand the need for visibility and I'm ok with that--now. Speaking of giving back, I've created an organization that donates the book to gay youth organizations across the country. My friend Scott called it Project Reach Back and the name stuck. I tried to impart everything I've learned about being gay in Words Never Spoken so we believe it will shine some light for generations to come.
Is there any particular area of being an artist that you enjoy most?
I love the process of creating work that will challenge people's convictions: a song, book, play, movie. Art should provoke the audience to think differently. The audience should walk away feeling and thinking on a higher level.
How important is the element of visibility to you in terms of what you choose to address in your artistic offerings?
I never really chose completely the work I've created. I think I'm guided. I believe fate meets destiny at the confluence of choice. Words Never Spoken called me. I simply responded to the call.
What are your thoughts about all of the recent media coverage surrounding certain celebrities & their choice to "come out" or be open about their sexuality?
I used to think celebs had a sense of responsibility for those who continue to struggle, but it's a personal choice and we can't force anyone to be ready before they are. It took me 22 years to get to the path of being free. I can't dictate when and if someone else comes out. I simply celebrate those who do.
Are there any additional artistic projects that you're working on or would like to complete in the future?
Yes, I have a few tricks up my sleeve. LOL