“Ironically, I wasn’t a writer, but I was a storyteller,” said ShaWanna Renee Rivon, who is an award-winning and nationally renowned playwright and producer.
Growing up, Rivon’s family always wanted her to tell a story, or reenact something that happened in the family because she had a way to make it funnier. Although she wasn’t a writer growing up, her story telling is a part of who she is today.
As a product of the Aldine Independent School District, Rivon attended Eisenhower High School, where she was a cheerleader and a part of the drama club. She graduated from Eisenhower High School in 1996 and attended Sam Houston State University (SHSU) where she tried to be involved with the theater program there and “struggled” because “it was not a diverse program.” She attended SHSU for two years and then moved to Atlanta, Georgia where she could learn more about the profession she loved. It was her father who encouraged her to go after her dreams, even when others thought it was crazy. “He always thought you can do anything,” she said.
In Atlanta, she worked for a theater doing grassroot marketing, and then she expanded her knowledge so she could learn more about the industry. She did short films, local soap operas, and even got her feet wet in shooting film. Even though she was learning a lot, she knew she needed to move to Los Angeles (LA), California. When she moved to LA, she found more of a home base, quickly made friends, and took a day job doing cartoon shows, and even started working with an acting coach, where she grew as an artist. LA taught her so much stating, “You’re going to swim or sink in LA. It’s going to weed you out even if you’re talented because of the different predicaments you can get yourself into, and the different scams and people who are looking to prey on newcomers.”
In LA, Rivon started getting more involved in film work, got an agent and even started taking business classes. Her agent had her auditioning for young roles for Disney and Nickelodeon even though she was in her thirties. This worked against her. “Even though you look young, there’s a certain wisdom you walk into the room with. I could only play closer to my age in theater but not so much in film, so I started writing.”
Rivon started writing things she wanted to write. She first started writing sketches, short films, and then ventured off to writing plays. After that, her writing took off. “When I sat down to write, it was like a God given talent because that was the one place I hadn’t trained for.” Rivon started to enjoy creating characters for other people and her success was right around the corner as the first two of her shows were picked up by a production company in Houston, which both toured nationally for a year. These urban plays included Cheaper to Keep Her and Marriage Material, which starred Vivica Fox, Brian McKnight, and Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins (of TLC). This success happened while she was still living in LA, but this was now a chance for her to go back to Houston because “you can write from anywhere,” she said.
Rivon used to write comedies and romantic comedies due to her growing up watching Richard Pryor, Redd Foxx and Eddie Murphy. “I used to write for an audience, but it has evolved to the stories I think are important and I think the world should know about. What I enjoy most is telling a story that has somehow affected Black people in the past and how we’re still dealing with them in the present, and giving honor to our ancestors, giving them their flowers, and allowing other people to learn their names and what they did.”
Growing up, Rivon would rarely see Black women stories on TV, and because of this, she knew there had to be a lot of stories to tell. So, she said, “I’ll do it. I want to do it. I want to give a voice to the Black women that didn’t have a voice and share to the world that not all of our stories are just trauma. We laugh, we fall in love, we want to travel, we want to be executives and we have been, you just don’t know about it.”
Rivon loves to combine history and bring all these stories together, and now, she is getting to tell stories about Houston. She has begun the development of her 7-play cycle, the first is Old Black & White Hollywood, which is about a Black woman comic who wants to be the first Black female movie star set in the 1950s. The second installment is Power to Queendom, which is about a group of female Black Panthers set in 1970s Houston, and the third installment is You’re Cordially Invited to Sit In, which told the story of the 1960s sit-in demonstration that occurred in Houston. With research and her talents combined, Rivon is telling stories about history that people should know about.
Recently, Rivon was commissioned by the Alley Theatre to write a play based on jazz musician Arnett Cobb. She also received a grant from the mayor’s office where she will be creating a two-day event called Black Power Arts Celebration. “I will bring in high profile members of the Black Panther party including the Houston and community members and arts activist to discuss solutions to the issues in our community, and everything happening around art and theater.” This event will take place the weekend of September 30th.
Rivon is also very active in the community. Last year she launched 3rd Ward Historic Virtual Tours where she features artists, her church, organizations, and historical sites in Third Ward. “It started with the idea to bring my plays and research to life. Since then, groups will reach out to me for a live tour, and I will meet them and tour third ward.”
For those young Black women who want to be in her shoes one day, her advice is to write every day, and get a network of other writers so you can send your work to someone else and get feedback. Her other advice is to “don’t give up because you’re going to be told no and told that your script is not good. You have to know that because you wrote the story, believe that someone else wants to hear it.” She also noted that you should take classes, always train, join art organizations, start submitting for festivals, fellowships, residencies, and most importantly, “keep going until you hear something.”
Rivon has had much success thus far, and she is just getting started. For more information regarding 3rd Ward Historic Virtual Tours, you can visit https://www.virtual3wardtour.com. For more information about the Black Panther Celebration and Rivon, visit https://www.shawannareneerivon.com/.