Black Theater and How It Can Heal A Community: An historic town hall meeting in Philadelphia

State-of-black-theatre-sun-aug-28, 2016Given the grave concern about the state of black theater, Philadelphia’s First World Theatre, under founder and executive artistic director Zuhairah McGill, rang the alarm: “The soul of Black folks are on the line.”  She and her colleagues explained, “Black theater speaks to the souls and cells of Black folk, and it is within this space that healing may occur. But Black theater companies are closing at an alarming rate. While on any given Sunday you may find a play by an African American playwright or about the Black experience, for the most part, these plays are not being produced by Black theater entities. Without Black theater companies producing works of its community, the community loses its voice in choosing which stories will be told and how those stories will impact and serve the community.”

As a result, Philadelphia’s First World Theatre Ensemble (FWTE) has invited anyone interested in African American theater to attend a day of celebration, including an historic town hall meeting with some of the most experienced theater people in the area in assessing the situation and making proposals on how to move forward, including Johnnie Hobbs, Jr., Woodie King, Jr., Annette Sanders, Ed Shockley, Damon Williams, and Dr. Kimika Williams-Weatherspoon.

The special series of events takes place at the Community Education Center, Meeting House Theater, 3500 Lancaster Ave, Philadelphia, on Sunday, August 28, 2016, from 5:05 till 6:00 pm. Educational programs, including a workshop and a film, start at 3 pm.

To encourage as many interested people to attend, Phindie asked four prominent black theater people three questions to answer some of the concerns raised by the theater:

1. HISTORICAL OVERVIEW, a personal account: How would you describe black theater in the US when you first encountered it?

2. BLACK THEATER TODAY—Philadelphia and the US: Give an assessment of what you have observed about black theater today—from black theater, by and for the black community, to African American theater in non-black theaters all over Philadelphia and the US.

3. RECLAIMING THE DREAM: Going beyond well-meaning efforts toward a solid future: What are your recommendations for moving the black theater community of Philadelphia from the status-quo into a future that may be community-based and empowers a much wider section of the African American population, ideally leading toward a healing during deeply troubling times in the US?

JOHNNIE HOBBS, JR.

Johnnie Hobbs, Jr. Photo by Paul Sirochman

Johnnie Hobbs, Jr. Photo by Paul Sirochman

BIO: Johnnie Hobbs Jr.—one of Philadelphia’s most admired stage and film actors, with an extensive filmography (from 1980 through 2017), trained at Freedom Theatre under the late John Allen—is known for Twelve Monkeys (1995), Up Close & Personal (1996), Rocky Balboa (2006), and God’s Country, Off Route 9 (2009). He co-wrote, directed, and he appeared in Nostalgia (2012). Hobbs not only performed on many stages in Philadelphia, but is also known as a first-rate acting teacher who retired in 2013 after 30 years on the faculty of the University of the Arts. He was honored by the Philadelphia theater community with a Barrymore Lifetime Achievement Award in 2015. Jennifer Childs, co-founding director of 1812 Productions and former student of Hobbs, described the essence of his philosophy, “So much of our training wasn’t just about being a good actor; it was about being a good person in the world.”  

1. HISTORICAL OVERVIEW, a personal account  

In 1971, I saw a production of Black Terror by Richard Wesley. The play’s revolutionary reaction to the political climate was absolutely thrilling to me. This was also my first contact and introduction to John Allen, founder of Freedom Theatre (founded in 1966). This began my forty-four (44) year journey with the black theater movement.

2. BLACK THEATER TODAY—Philadelphia and the US

The black theater today certainly has a larger audience. In many ways it has become in vogue to take in an August Wilson play. The conversation needs to be centered on the continuing development of black artistic institutions with strong artistic values and competent and competitive financial practices.

3. RECLAIMING THE DREAM: Going beyond well-meaning efforts toward a solid future

The survival and sustaining legacy of black theater lies in the investment of our youth. Programs need to encourage engagement and meaningful participation. Youth need to understand the value of studying the history of black theater, business, culture and general history—coupled with the collaborative sensibilities of respecting all artists and the community on and off the stage.

Contact: johnniehjr@gmail.com, Facebook, and Twitter.

WOODIE KING, JR.

Woodie King, Jr. Photo by Ken Simmons.

Woodie King, Jr. Photo by Ken Simmons.

BIO: WOODIE KING, Jr. is a nationally known producer and director. His New Federal Theatre in New York City is 44 years old and has produced over 300 plays—more than any other African American theater in history. He is the founder of the 37 year old National Black Touring Circuit. King was inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame, and has received numerous awards, including 5 Honorary Doctorates, 3 Obie Awards, the NAACP Image Award, the TCG Practitioners Award, 15 Audelco Awards, The Edwin Booth Award, and an NTC Award.

1. HISTORICAL OVERVIEW

When I began a career in 1958/59, we had no specific examples, except from literature of the period. In Detroit, we only had the library, specifically the E. Azalia Hackley Collection of African Americans in the Performing Arts. African American theater was not a part of the university teachings in Detroit. However, what was happening was a rumbling of the Civil Rights Movement. We were beginning to feel the contributions of our music through Motown Records. It was a start-up company by an ambitious businessman, Berry Gordy.

Articles in the Hackley Collection reminded us of the contributions of The American Negro Theater, as did The Federal Theatre Unit of the WPA. This all gave us the courage to start our own little theaters. In the 1959-60 season we built a 75-seat theater in a converted bar and called it, Concept East Theatre Club.
[In Black Masks, Cliff Frazier describes this historic theater event: “The energetic and dynamic Woodie King, Jr. had a specific vision: Why not build a theater that would represent an opportunity for aspiring Black actors, writers, directors, costume or scenic designers to work in a professional theatrical environment tailored to their experience? To achieve this, King surrounded himself with equally committed people who were also eager to have their own theater. David Rambeau, who co-founded Drama Associates with Kent Martin, was also committed to creating a working environment that fostered the development of Black theater. King and I, who had both studied acting at Will-o-Way Apprentice Theatre program, often discussed the need for such a theater. King also reached out to others [. . .] Concept East was incorporated in January 1963. The name of the theater came about because it was a new “concept” and was located on the “east side” of Detroit. [. . .] In its first season, Concept East produced nine plays.”]

2. THE BLACK THEATER TODAY in Philly and the US.

Black theater by black playwrights for the black community is really difficult because the US is so racist—South Philly really is not a black community anymore. However, the Hedgerow Theatre—although whites operated the theater—introduced African American actors to Philly. [Founded by Jasper Deeter in 1923, it was “for many years the only true U. S. professional repertory theater.” Deeter “not only portrayed Smithers in the original production of The Emperor Jones at the Provincetown Playhouse in Greenwich Village, but was responsible for convincing O’Neill to cast a black actor in the title role, rather than a white actor in blackface, which had been his original intention and the custom of the era. The result was a breakthrough work in American theater on a multitude of levels that transcended the theater.”]

In this new century, white theaters get funding that are used to present one (1) African American play per season. No substantial funding to New Freedom Theatre or Bushfire Theatre. That is what African American theater companies are facing in the US. Being a non-profit theater does not afford Black theater companies equal access to funding. Our boards are not millionaire defenders of our culture. Our millionaires want to be a part of established institutions, i.e, The Philadelphia Museum, The Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, The Wilma, etc.

3. RECLAIMING THE DREAM

My specific recommendations would be to induce wealthy African Americans to make substantial contributions to African American Theatre in Philly. I would suggest Federal, City, and State funding be line-itemed in the budget as we’ve been able to do in New York. Finally, The Corporate Foundation Directory list over 65,000 corporations in Pennsylvania with almost no support for African American theater—that must change.

Contact:newfederal@aol.com, 212-353-1176 (office), 212-353-1088 (fax).

ED SHOCKLEY

Ed Shockley

Ed Shockley

BIO: Ed Shockley studied at Columbia University, followed by his MFA studies as a Future Faculty Fellow at Temple University. He is the author of more than 70 stage plays, radio plays, and films which have enjoyed both commercial and critical success. He is best known for the record-setting musicals Bessie Smith: Empress of the Blues and Bobos (co-authored with James McBride). Other notable works include The Liars’ Contest (winner of the HBO New Writers Competition) and the stage adaptation of Mildred D. Taylor’s Newbery Award-winning novel Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry. He is the recipient of the Stephen Sondheim Award for Outstanding Contributions to American Musical Theatre, the $25,000 Richard Rodgers Award (presented by the American Academy of Arts and Letters), the New Professional Theatre Writers Festival prize, the American Minority Playwrights contest prize, two Pennsylvania State Arts Council fellowships, the Lila Wallace/Reader’s Digest Production Fellowship, and numerous other awards.

Shockley has taught at many universities and schools, including New York University, Nassau Community College, St. Paul’s School, and Temple University, and has coached thousands of young authors through the Philadelphia Young Playwrights Festival and Young Writers Day lecture tours. He worked as a senior lecturer at both the University of the Arts and Rutgers University (Camden Campus). A founding member of the Philadelphia Dramatists Center (PDC), he served as artistic director for ten seasons while teaching at Temple University and the University of the Arts. He served as the artistic director for Mosaic Theatre Productions and has toured in Slaves Narratives Revisited. Shockley wrote an award winning documentary, The Art Of Peace. Together with Jon Dorf, he founded YouthPLAYS, representing more than 200 plays for young actors. His autobiographical book, Notes From A Practicing Writer, shares observations from 30 years of writing. Recent works include The Oracle and his film directing debut, Turning Left To Go Right, a feature length documentary about youth in the nation’s only school run by the Department of Social Services.

Recently, a fund was set up in support of Ed Shockley who shares James Baldwin’s philosophy—“My only obligation is to survive and write.” Shockley added, “Those are the words that I live by in hopes of somehow helping us discover our humanity.”

1. HISTORICAL OVERVIEW

The Frank Silvera Writers’ Workshop [“created in 1973 in honor of Frank Silvera (1914-1970) and his efforts to support African-American actors and playwrights. The organization sponsors promising African-American playwrights”—Wikipedia] is one of the best collections of all American plays. White men made it hard for others to work (or live), so Africans needed to do completely new plays, for example:
Alice Childress [(1916-1994), “the only African-American woman to have written, produced, and published plays for four decades." She described her writing as trying to portray the have-nots in a have society, saying: "My writing attempts to interpret the 'ordinary' because they are not ordinary”] could not do New York plays, so Lorraine [Hansberry] rewrote Raisins. [A Raisin in the Sun, a play that debuted on Broadway in 1959. The title comes from the poem “Harlem” (also known as “A Dream Deferred”) by Langston Hughes”].

For Colored Girls [for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf, Ntozake Shange’s first work . . . consists of a series of poetic monologues to be accompanied by dance movements and music, a choreopoem [which] tells the stories of seven women who have suffered oppression in a racist and sexist society”—Wikipedia; “First performed at the Bacchanal, a woman’s bar, outside of Berkeley, California . . . In 1975, for colored girls was professionally produced in New York City at Studio Rivbea”—Wikipedia];

Bobos, an urban opera [by Ed Shockley] with music by James McBride (“about the brutal choices facing inner-city teen-agers . . .The combination of relevance and contemporary rhythm seems intended to draw a younger audience than most musicals do, while reminding the regular theatergoing crowd that there are people struggling just a neighborhood or two away”—NY Times, 1993).

2. THE BLACK THEATER TODAY in Philly and the US.

Let’s see. It is almost impossible to do a film unless Black men pretend they are women while people laugh at them. Even if a black woman is in a play there are more men in it. There are large white theaters with longer years running. Black sons and daughters go to plays like medicine, but after 240 years, the US president is African-American—so it is better than ever.   

3. RECLAIMING THE DREAM

The world is already different. There were only radios in the early 1900s, then film and then television continued for many years (until, finally, black people [were featured] in them). Suddenly everything is starting to change, [almost] every few weeks! Computers will read [scripts of new] plays for television and film soon—if not already.

Contact: Notes from a practicing writer

KIMMIKA WILLIAMS-WITHERSPOON, Ph.D.

Kammika Williams-Witherspoon

Kammika Williams-Witherspoon

BIO: An associate professor of Urban Theater and Community Engagement at Temple University, she earned a Ph.D. in Cultural Anthropology, an MA in Anthropology, an MFA in Theater, a Graduate Certificate in Women’s Studies, and a BA in Journalism. The winner of a number of grants, she authored Through Smiles and Tears: The History of African American Theater: From Kemet to the Americas (2011) and The Secret Messages in African American Theater: Hidden Meaning Embedded in Public Discourse (2006). In addition to her 13 stage credits, over 23 of her plays were produced. Her poems can be found in 26 poetry anthologies. She was the winner of the DaimlerChrysler “Spirit of the Word” National Poetry Competition in 1999 and was the winner of the PEW Charitable Trust fellowship in scriptwriting in 2000.

In the past, she also worked as an arts producer for public radio, WXPN-88.5; a reporter and columnist with the Philadelphia Tribune; and a television editor for Maceba Affairs Media Review Magazine. As a journalist and poet, Williams’ articles, essays, and poems have appeared in a wide range of newspapers, magazines, and journals. Check out this link for excerpts of her work as a writer and university teacher. Click the links below for her blog with excerpts of her poetry and other documents.

1. HISTORICAL OVERVIEW, a personal account  

I went to Howard University for undergraduate school in the 70’s so the theater department there was always presenting classic examples of the African American theater canon and new works that pushed the boundaries; but my first big WOW! moment with Black Theater was probably Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf on Broadway—Black women performing poetry, songs, and dance on the Great White /way. Now, that. Was something special.

In 1980, I moved to Houston, Texas and out of necessity, got a job directing and performing at the Kuumba House in Third Ward. I was writing theater and television reviews for Maceba Affairs, and I was thoroughly bitten by the theater bug. That same year, I auditioned for the Ensemble Theatre Company in Houston and got accepted, but soon after, I had to come back to Philadelphia.

Philly has always been a vibrant community for African American Theater. Back then there was the Bushfire Theater of Performing Arts, of which I was a member of the Writers’ Workshop; Freedom Theatre with the inexhaustible John Allen and Bob Leslie, the annual Black Theater Festival, and so much more. Somehow, Black writers were able to get their work up far more then than now. I blame the “multicultural dollars” going to traditional white theaters in the 80’s and 90’s (to today) who only produce a particular genre and particular voice.

2. BLACK THEATER TODAY—Philadelphia and the US

I wrote my dissertation on the demise of Black Theater. The data suggests that there are a lot of reasons for the shift away from storefront Black boxes that once produced good theater in communities that needed to see it. When corporate sponsors and arts funding began to shift their support away from new, contemporary, urban, edgy theater (like the work that came out of the Black Arts Movement [BAM]), it came at the same time that many Black theater companies had been trying to expand and compete with other traditional downtown theaters. Once they moved out of their 50-seat Black Boxes and stopped doing work that spoke to their community, so many companies found that they could no longer pay their bills. Today, the few remaining African American theater companies are struggling and are in need of our support.

3. RECLAIMING THE DREAM: Going beyond well-meaning efforts toward a solid future

I don’t have all the answers but if we look at the models of The Negro Ensemble Company, Kuumba House, and others, a group of artist came together and did the nuts and bolts of what you had to do to make good theater. The houses didn’t have to be fancy but the message had to speak truth. They trained artists and writers and directors by allowing them to experiment and do the work—they were part of a company.

Today, entrepreneurism is the buzz work but in Black Theater, the concept is far from new. But too often, folks are willing to work for other people for little or no money ([just for] exposure) but not for their own. Something has to change. Now I am not suggesting that we always have to struggle and not pay our bills but maybe we have day jobs so we can fully support our missions!

Socially-engaged theater is still very important—whether it caters to African Americans, People of European descent (PED’s), the Latino population, the Pan-Asian community, or Native Peoples. Art allows individuals to confront their biases in non-confrontational ways and sharing the tragedy and triumph of the human experience played out in front of you as an audience member in a darkened room does more to build community than ten rallies. Now that doesn’t mean that I don’t think rallies and protests have a place in our public discourse because I know it does. But by the same token, theater has always been a tool (when used correctly) that can educate the populace about the world in which they live and the possibilities of the future they could fight to bring into being.

Contact: kimmika.williams-witherspoon@temple.edu

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About the author

Henrik Eger

HENRIK EGER, editor of Drama Around the Globe. Bilingual playwright, author of Metronome Ticking. Born and raised in Germany. Ph.D. in English, University of Illinois, Chicago. German translator of Martin Luther King, Jr’s Nobel Peace Prize mail. Producer-director: Multilingual Shakespeare, London. Retired professor of English and Communication who taught in six countries on three continents, including four universities and one college in the U.S. Author of four college text books. Longtime Philadelphia theatre correspondent for AAJT, the world’s largest Jewish theatre website. Articles published in Classical Voice, Los Angeles; Kayhan International, Tehran, Iran; Indian Express, Mumbai, India; The Jewish Forward, New York; Philadelphia Jewish Voice, Phindie, and Broad Street Review, Philadelphia; The Mennonite, Tucson; and New Jersey Stage. Contact: HenrikEger@gmail.com