Writing drama and changing history with Texan Celeste Bedford Walker


LONE STAR LIT: First and foremost, congratulations on your winning the Lon Tinkle Lifetime Achievement Award from the Texas Institute of Letters. What a great achievement. What’s led up to this moment for you?

CELESTE BEDFORD WALKER: The genesis of this moment, I believe, was when I was contacted in 2013 by Sandra Mayo, who is now a Professor Emeritus of Texas State University Department of Theatre and Dance. She was interested in submissions for an anthology on Black Texas playwrights and wanted to know if I’d consider submitting my military drama Camp Logan. Things took off from there. When the anthology was completed, she had a book signing at the Bullock Museum in Austin and Steve Davis with the Wittliff Collections was there. Afterwards Steve submitted my name for membership to the Texas Institute of Letters and the rest is wonderful history.

You’ve written over forty plays, videos, documentaries, and films. Can you highlight a few to give us a picture of your work?

Yes, I’ve written all kinds of plays in different genres--from comedies to dramas to musicals, historical dramas, children’s plays, full length, one acts, ten-minutes plays.

Just to name a few, some of them include my very first one “Once in a Wife Time,” a comedy about polygamy, written in 1977, which ran in Los Angeles at the Ebony Showcase Theatre for three and a half years to star-studded Hollywood audiences. In 1983, I wrote the comedy/mystery “Reunion in Bartersville,” about a 50th high school class reunion in Texas. Sometime afterward, I became interested in a military story I’d heard all my life about the so-called Camp Logan mutiny of the all-black 24th Infantry Regiment stationed in Houston in 1917. After two years of research, I wrote the all-male drama Camp Logan. During that period, I also wrote a musical called Over Forty about four women over forty dealing with the specter of losing their youth. This musical, written in 1988, was a precursor to Sassy Mamas written thirty years later, I believe.  

With a commission from the Ensemble Theatre I wrote Distant Voices, a theatrical collage about the lives of black denizens buried in the Houston’s Freedman’s Cemetery from 1840 to 1970 and I was also commissioned by Houston’s Alley Theatre to write the youth play I, Barbara Jordan.

I might add that the eclectic nature of my writing is driven by a passion to present American Blacks in a holistic light, as complex, joyful, loving, funny, courageous human beings. I often attempt to accomplish this by weaving history, community, family, and social issues together in meaningful and entertaining stories.

Your production company, Mountaintop Productions, has produced and co-produced your play Camp Logan and others. What is it like to be on both sides of the script: writing and production?

There are very different considerations on both sides. Writing is a solitary, mentally creative process. Producing is about pulling together all of the elements necessary to physically present the play. The writing is essentially done at the producing stage and the play is what it is. You’re now interacting with talented real-life human beings and not characters on paper. And through it all you’re keeping an eye on the bottom line.  

The touring company came about when I realized that I didn’t want the play to be at the mercy of a theatre’s season. I wanted it to go on. I wanted people to see and hear this important Texan story that had been long buried. I decided that I needed to produce and tour this play myself.

With the help of Mike Kaliski of San Antonio, I received a grant from the Carver [Community] Cultural Center to launch a touring company of Camp Logan. Starting in 1990, the play toured for many years, including over 400 military installations, colleges, universities, commercial venues, and the Kennedy Center for its Texas Festival.


In addition to other great organizations, like Dramatists Guild of America and Honor Roll, you are also a council member for TIL. Can you tell us more about TIL and its impact on you?

The Texas Institute of Letters is a nonprofit honor society founded in 1936 to celebrate Texas literature and to recognize distinctive literary achievement. The TIL’s elected membership consists of the state’s most respected writers of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, journalism, and scholarship. The membership includes winners of the Pulitzer Prizes in drama, fiction, and nonfiction, as well as prizes by PEN, fellowships from the MacArthur Foundation and National Endowment for the Arts, and awards from dozens of other regional and national institutions.

For me to be a part of this group of authors is awe inspiring. The impact has been life changing. It has opened doors and opportunities and offered growth to me as a writer that no other group could have done at this stage in life. To receive the organization’s highest honor, the Lon Tinkle Award for Lifetime Achievement still feels like a fairy tale come true.


Your upcoming anthology, Sassy Mamas and Other Plays (Texas A&M University Press and Wittliff Literary Series) is set to publish in spring 2022. How does putting your plays in such close contact with each other affect their reading?

Having the plays available in this concentrated form, I think, will provide an overview of me as a writer, for better or for worse. The reader will be able to follow the through lines of the themes in my body of work—justice, friendship, lost, love, redemption.  

As an English student, I always wondered about playwrights’ opinions on the reading of plays. Is the meaning lost if not read aloud and performed? Or can plays be read just as a book is?

I think some plays lend themselves to reading more than others. For example, if there is a great deal of action in a piece, you might need to emphasize or add even more stage directions, which can’t be enacted in a reading, but are important to the audience’s understanding of the play. Character-centered dialogue, however, may read more like literature. I have two programs that I present to colleges as classroom readings in History, English and Drama classes, called “Plays as Literature and Plays as History,” that lend themselves very well to reading.

You are a born and raised Texan and playwright; where do you think is the most dramatic place in Texas?

It has to be the Alamo. So much action and varied personal stories took place in that structure. So much lore and myth are attached to it. So many ghosts of the past live there. So much history, real and imagined, is wrapped up in the Texas psyche around that place.

Do you have any upcoming projects or plays you can tell us about?

Yes. My musical Over Forty will be playing at the Jubilee Theatre in Fort Worth, March 24-April 24. Another military drama of mine, The Red Blood of War, will be presented at the William Inge New Play Festival in Independence, Kansas, April 21-23. And my play Greenwood: An American Dream Destroyed, about the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, is slated for upcoming festivals in 2022-2023.

And a quick speed round:
Book(s) on your nightstand / eReader:
Alternating TIL best sellers and Bible
Most worn-out text on your bookshelf: Advice from A Failure by Jo Coudert.
Favorite place to perform or watch plays: These days it’s streaming.


Acclaimed playwright Celeste Bedford Walker is the author of over forty plays that have received national awards and productions. The New York Times has praised her plays as “forceful, well-crafted,” “vigorous social satire,” “an uproariously good time,” and “unquestionably good theatre.” Drama-Logue from Los Angeles has described her first play Sister Sister (retitled from Once in a Wife Time) as “practically flawless.” Variety praised Walker’s murder mystery Reunion in Bartersville as a “gourmet dish and” The Houston Chronicle has called her work “appealing and affecting, expressively written.”


Walker’s play Camp Logan has been performed at major venues around the country, including the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., where the Washington Post lauded the military drama as “a textbook example of how to simultaneously entertain and educate an audience.”