When you're in an esteemed club that has only two members, and the other person is Langston Hughes, that's pretty heady company.
And that's the position Michael Oatman occupies, as only the second playwright-in-residence in the long history of Karamu House. When he began, it seemed a daunting challenge: "The suit felt a couple sizes too big." But he's adjusted and gone on to many successes.
Born in Cleveland and a graduate of Shaw High School, Oatman had his own initial struggles with writing. But he applied himself diligently and graduated with an English degree from Cleveland State. In 2008 he completed his MFA in theater from the Northeast Arts Consortium (Cleveland State, Youngstown State, Akron University and Kent State).
Oatman was a reporter and critic for the now defunct Cleveland Free Times and he travelled to Africa to work as a reporter for The Botswana Gazette. Then Oatman returned to Cleveland and used his facility with words, not to mention a prolific output of new scripts, to land the playwright-in-residence position.
During his eight-year involvement with Karamu, Oatman has had many of his scripts produced, there and at theaters around the country. And his work has been much lauded. In 2010, he won the Cleveland Arts Prize for Best Emerging Artist, and he was also awarded the CPAC Workforce Fellowship. In addition, he won the 2010 Lantern Prize for Best Play.
Oatman's plays have not only been performed at Karamu. His works have also been produced at the Cleveland Play House Fusion Fest, Cleveland Public Theatre, CSU and Ingenuity Fest — in addition to many other locations around the U.S. Many of his plays deal with important and controversial issues, as indicated by some of the titles, such as Hitler and Gandhi, Not a Uterus in Sight and The War Between Pac and B.I.G.
Oatman also is sought after as a director, and he has had many opportunities to exercise his need for taking artistic chances in that role. For instance, he directed an African-American version of Peter Pan that stretched the boundaries for many in the audience. But he still likes to take risks. "I've seen some of my risks go bad, but you still have to take them. That's what keeps theater alive."
Beyond Karamu, Oatman is the facilitator for Ghost Light Collective, a group supporting and promoting local African-American playwrights. And he is a driving force behind the New African Theater at Garden Valley Neighborhood House, part of a housing project on Kinsman.
In whatever time that remains in his busy life, Oatman is an adjunct professor at Kent State, Tri-C, Cleveland State and the University of Nebraska — teaching playwriting and developmental English.
For the involved Oatman, theater is the thing. As he says, "I like the immediacy of a play. You write it and it can be up on the boards in weeks. And it's a living thing — you wrestle with it and it wrestles with you. That's a great feeling."
Life should not be a spectator sport, and neither is good theater. The audience and the playwright must both be actively involved. And Michael Oatman knows that better than most.