Acting out: black theater in transition – Cover StoryJuly 11, 2007 |
by Ronald Roach
Theater Schools Cast in Key Role
August Wilson has achieved the success most playwrights only dream
about. His award-winning plays – which include “Fences”, “Joe Turner’s
Come and Gone,” and “The Piano Lesson” – have rendered sensitive and
probing portrayals of African American life. Staged in venues ranging
from regional theaters to Broadway, Wilson’s plays have earned two
Pulitzer Prizes and lavish praise from critics.
So it came as something of a shock to the theatrical world last year
when Wilson chose to castigate the nonprofit theater establishment for
its alleged part in undermining African American theater. The Charge
was made at Princeton University during his keynote address to a
gathering of the Theatre Communications Group, a leading nonprofit
“… Black Theater in America is alive … it is vital … it just
isn’t funded,” Wilson said. “Black theatre doesn’t share in the
economics that would allow it to support its artists and supply them
with meaningful avenues to develop their talent and broadcast and
disseminate ideas crucial to its growth. The economics are reserved as
privilege to the overwhelming abundance of institutions that preserve,
promote, and perpetuate White culture.”
Wilson criticized funding organizations for rewarding majority-White
regional theaters for programming plays about minorities while failing
to support Black theater organizations. He declared that
White-controlled theater companies were attempting to diversify their
programming at the expense of the Black theater establishment.
Wilson’s comments brought new attention to the cause of independent
Black theater in America. A number of Black theater professionals say
he voiced a widely-felt frustration with the nonprofit theater
establishment. But they also point out that continued survival of Black
theater will require considerable innovation to strengthen links to the
communities in which theater companies reside, and to institutions,
such as historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs).
In recent years, the works of contemporary Black playwrights, such
as Wilson, have found a receptive environment at HBCUs. Dr. Mikell
Pinkney, assistant professor of theater at the University of Florida,
undergraduate drama programs at HBCUs have remained highly competitive
in attracting African American students even while better funded
programs at traditionally White institutions (TWIs) have welcomed Black
students. Pinkney is president of the Black Theatre Network, a
nonprofit organization of African American theater faculty and theater
“One of the problems for Black students at majority White
institutions is that they don’t get the acting opportunities,” says Dr.
Darius L. Swann, former professor of drama and religion at George Mason
University in Fairfax, Va. “If they get a chance, it’s usually the role
of a maid or something like that.”
Swann, an African American and an advocate of non-traditional
casting, has always made an effort to give Black students a shot at
Black college drama programs have been considered essential to
African American theater companies because they depend on trained
graduates to staff their companies and to perform in productions. Yet,
Dr. Michael Lomax, founder of the National Black Arts Festival and
president of Dillard University, said there have been too few
contemporary linkages forged between HBCUs and Black theater companies.
“Before desegregation, there were greater links between HBCUs and
their communities in terms of the arts. HBCUs were largely the center
of Black theatrical activity,” Lomax said.
The tradition of independent Black theater has been considered vital
to the development of American theater. As early as the nineteenth
century, independent Black theater companies nurtured and produced the
works of African American playwrights and provided acting and other
opportunities for thousands more.
The Harlem Renaissance period represented the first of three eras
when Black theater had its most significant growth, says Dr. Samuel
Hay, professor of theater arts at North Carolina A & T State
University. The Federal Theatre Project, which began in the 1930s, was
the next milestone, followed in the 1960s by the Black Arts Movement.
This most recent movement represented, by far, the greatest expansion
for African American theater largely because there was considerable
public funding available to the Black theater community, Hay says.
Today, an examination of the national Black theater community, which
includes dozens of theater companies and drama departments at HBCUs,
reveals a dedicated cadre of professionals hard at work, but largely
struggling to keep Black theater alive. African American theater
professionals say they are waging a battle for survival, and are
seeking more support from the Black community as well as from the
theater funding organizations and corporations.
Hay estimates that forty to fifty Black theater companies stage two
or more productions in a given year. He says the total number of Black
companies, many of which rarely mount productions, is between 205 and
210. Hay adds that during the height of Black theater activity, some
200 companies produced three or more plays during a season. He
attributes the decline in activity to the shriveling of state and local
public funds coming from Great Society programs such as Model Cities.
“That money dried up and a lot of companies folded or they became inactive,” Hay said.
In the past decade, the dilemma has been that while Black-oriented
plays and Black actors have gradually succeeded in attracting audiences
to majority-White regional theaters, that success has not boosted
independent African American theater companies.
“Theater companies are all after the same dollars, and one way to
get those dollars is for the bigger theater companies to siphon off the
talent of Black companies to produce one or two Black plays in a
season,” says Al Freeman Jr., chairman and artistic director of the
Howard University Department of Theatre Arts.
Earlier this year George C. Wolfe, producer of the Public Theatre in
New York, told New Yorker magazine that the funding pattern of one
foundation “has created a peculiar dynamic where … there was a
struggling Black theater that had been nurturing a series of artists
and all of a sudden this predominantly White theater next door is
getting a couple of million dollars to invite artists of color into its
According to Hay, the educational, community and professional
theaters in the Black community represent by far the primary venues
where African Americans watch theater. He believes their survival will
ensure that African Americans have their own vibrant theater – and
contribute to American theater.
“While White theater organizations are using the talents of African
Americans in their productions, the Black theater remains at the
forefront of developing the talents of playwrights, actors and other
theater professionals from the Black community,” Hay says.
Meeting at the Crossroads
At the time of Wilson’s incendiary address, Ricardo Khan was
enjoying his tenure as president of the Theater Communications Group.
As the organization’s first African American president, Khan said he
felt considerable pride in presenting Wilson to last year’s gathering
While he did not agree with everything in Wilson’s talk, Khan says
the speech represented a great moment of recognition for African
Americans and Black theater within the nonprofit theater establishment.
“[The speech] was spoken in a voice that was not altered by fear. It
was spoken by a man that was not jaded by his experiences. It was
exciting to me, and it was shocking to us that he pulled it off,” Khan
For nearly two decades, Khan has been making his own way in the
American theater community by leading Crossroads Theatre in New
Brunswick, New Jersey to lofty heights. Crossroads is considered one of
the leading and most recognized Black theater companies in America.
Khan is the company’s artistic director and cofounder.
Crossroads reached a new plateau this past spring by premiering
August Wilson’s “Jitney” as the final production of its 1996-97 season
The successful month-long run marked the first time one of Wilson’s
plays had a pre-Broadway run at a Black theater company.
“It puts us in the loop of major regional companies,” Khan says.
A Tradition of Excellence Among HBCUs
As director of Prairie View A&M University’s acting program, Dr.
C. Lee Turner has proven that drama education at an HBCU can foster the
excellence found among leading American colleges and universities when
it brings together dedicated faculty members and talented students.
Each year, Turner enters the Charles Gilpin Players, the
undergraduate theater company at Prairie View, in local, state and
regional competitions where students hone their talents under high
pressure conditions. He believes that entering competitions helps
students better understand the pressures of the professional theater
“I’ve made a commitment to expose students to the larger world where competition will confront them daily,” says Turner.
Turner is among the dedicated theater professionals whose teaching
at HBCUs is preparing students to attend graduate school and to compete
for professional jobs in theater, film and television.
This past spring, the Gilpin Players brought national acclaim to
Prairie View for the second time in fifteen years. The award-winning
student theater company finished among the top five schools in the
American College Theater Festival (ACTF) competition. Placing in the
finals of the ACTF is considered one of the highest honors for
undergraduate drama companies.
Other HBCUs that have produced finalists in the ACTF competitions
include Hampton University, Howard University, North Carolina A&T,
North Carolina Central University and Grambling State University,
according to the Black Theatre Network.
Last April, dozens of Prairie View alumni turned out to see the
Gilpin Players perform Wilson’s “Fences” at the Kennedy Center of
Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. “Fences” is the story of an
embittered former Negro League baseball player.
While Turner’s record at Prairie View shows the promise of drama
education at HBCUs, he believes that many institutions neglect the
arts, especially the performing arts.
While at Prairie View since the late 1970s, Turner said he has
struggled to get the necessary support and adequate funding from the
school. He attributed part of the difficulty to the administration
changes that have resulted in several different school presidents at
Prairie View since the early 1980s.
North Carolina’s Hay says that successful theater arts programs need
the full backing from a school’s administration. He adds that
administrators also need to understand that drama programs can boost a
school’s profile and image among its local community as well as among
the students it recruits.
Frank M. Mundy, executive director of theater at South Carolina
State University, says HBCUs occupy an unique place in the theater
education community because none of them offer graduate degree programs
in theater. Students seeking graduate degrees in theater must attend
A number of university and professional theater officials want to
strengthen the linkages between Black theater companies and HBCUs.
Howard University’s Freeman advocates that schools and theater
companies collaborate in ways that can allow each institution to take
advantage of the other’s resources. One of the innovations of
Crossroads Theatre is that it has brought students from HBCUs to New
Brunswick for internships. Howard, Hampton, and South Carolina State
University are among the schools that participate in the internship
“I’ve long held the view that since it’s so costly [for community
theater companies] to mount new productions, an HBCU could be the place
to do that,” Freeman says.
Schools can also provide opportunities for playwrights and other
theater professionals in the form of fellowships, adjunct
professorships and residential appointments to allow them to develop
their craft and interact with students. Mundy believes HBCU theater
programs are well-positioned to foster excellence because of their
position to take advantage of the rich tradition of Black theater and
its talent. “We have tremendous potential because of our uniqueness,”
Festival Facilitates Collaborations
Like his counterparts at Crossroads and other companies, Larry Leon
Hamlin sees the collective strength and experience of Black theater
companies as an asset that has to be tapped and shared. That is why he
expects the 1997 National Black Theatre Festival in Winston-Salem, N.C.
to draw 40,000 people, the largest gathering ever of theater
professionals, students and theater patrons in the biennial festival’s
The week-long festival will feature some eighty performances by
twenty leading Black theater companies this year, including August
Wilson’s “Jitney.” Readings of twenty unproduced plays will occur
during the week. Theater workshops and seminars for professionals are
scheduled. Hamlin said he expects numerous celebrities, including many
prominent Black theater veterans, to attend the festival gala and other
The festival is the brainchild of Hamlin, who is also the founder
and artistic director of the North Carolina Black Repertory Company. A
veteran who has seen the ups and downs of Black theater, Hamlin
organized the festival to enable professionals to share their knowledge
and resources. He believes theater companies can help each other
artistically while sharing cost-saving ideas and programs.
Another benefit of the festival is that it garners national
publicity for participants and performances. It draws hundreds of Black
students and Black theater educators from colleges and universities. He
says students often attend the festival to network and seek employment
opportunities. The festivals typically schedules workshops and a big
event geared to young people.
Hamlin’s interest in tapping the collective strength of the Black
theater community has resulted in the festival becoming an ideal venue
for HBCUs to connect with Black theater companies.
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