The Great Migration was a seminal moment for generations of Black
people moving from the South to the North in the early 20th century.
Playwright Keith Josef Adkins, a Cincinnati native, has brought this critical
period of American history to the compelling forefront of his engaging,
timely drama The West End.
Set in a row house in 1941 in Cincinnati’s historic West End, the world
premiere play centers on Grace — a headstrong, hard-working, Georgiaborn
migrant — and the people and events that impact her life and
community. She struggles with a changing landscape, particularly the
reluctance many share toward anyone arriving from the South claiming to
be a relative. At the same time, German residents face growing hostility as
the U.S. teeters on the brink of World War II. Grace finds her world shaken
by a mysterious stranger, proving that not all which is left behind can be
“Grace was created because I wanted a Black woman to guide me
through this story,” says Adkins, a Princeton High School and Wright
State University graduate who served as staff writer for television shows
The Good Fight and Girlfriends, and story editor of For the People. “It’s no
secret that the stories of men dominate many narratives (including mine).
However, I’ve heard incredible stories from the women in my family whose
testimonies about life inspire and haunt me.”
He adds, “With that said, I also wanted to create a character who (like
so many during the Great Migration), fled the South for personal reasons
and was haunted by those reasons (but never spoke of them). I wanted to
give voice to someone who, in fact, has been paralyzed by their southern
past but is doing their very best to thrive far away from their turbulent
origins. In a way, Grace is like so many of us who don’t know how to break
free or forgive themselves for challenging choices, who need the extra
time to reconcile with the life the world has thrust upon them.”
Playwright Keith Josef Adkins.
The West End is a deeply personal continuation of the playwright’s interest in his ancestry. His previous drama Safe House, which had its world premiere at the Playhouse in 2014, was inspired by his matriarchal forebearers — a free Black family of shoemakers in Cynthiana, Kentucky, before the Civil War. This time, he set out to honor his patriarchal roots.
“My mother’s family has been in the Cincinnati area since the late 1700s,” Adkins says. “They were considered free people of color, and I honored them and their lives with my play Safe House. My father’s family moved to Cincinnati’s West End from Georgia during the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s. They were part of the Great Migration, and I wanted to honor their experience with The West End.”
The Great Migration’s influence could be felt primarily in the
workforce. Due to few rights and a lack of opportunities in the South,
the appeal of job openings in northern industries could not be denied,
especially at the beginning of World War I as many businesses increased
production to meet wartime needs. It is estimated that as many as
500,000 Black people moved from the South to the North during the
1910s and the early 1920s in particular. The Great Migration provided a
population boom to major cities in Ohio such as Cleveland, Toledo and
Associate Artist and Director Nicole A. Watson.