Willis, Michael. “REGIONAL ROUNDUP: WASHINGTON D.C.” Back Stage (Archive: 1960-2000) Feb 16 1996: 35-6. ProQuest. Web. 22 Nov. 2017 .
“NATIONAL/REGIONAL.” Back Stage – National Edition 57.17 (2016): 32-9. ProQuest. Web. 22 Nov. 2017.
It is the responsibility of the citizen-artist to be an active part of the community that sustains her. That, to me, means asking questions, presenting thought-provoking material, and engaging audiences in creative dialogue about who we are, where are we going, and what we are going to be when we get there. It is not my responsibility to try to tell people what to think-only to encourage them to think.
Wren, Celia. “DAYS OF OUR LIVES.” American Theatre 21.7 (2004): 20,24,88-90. ProQuest. Web. 22 Nov. 2017.
Nelson, Jennifer L. “News in Brief: In Memoriam: Robert Alexander: 1929-2008.” American Theatre 07 2008: 21. ProQuest. Web. 22 Nov. 2017 .
Former assistant director at Arena Stage in Washington, DC, who discovered and directed early work of Cheryl West, a young playwright. (2016 Fall Term guest at Dartmouth on Intimate Apparel)
Tazewell Thompson has produced and directed more than 60 plays, which include works by classicists like Shakespeare, Moliere, and Euripides, as well as American masters like Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, and Thornton Wilder. Thompson is former Artistic Director of the Westport Country Playhouse, and former artistic associate of Arena Stage and The Acting Company. He also served as the artistic director of Syracuse Stage. Where he designed and edited StageView, a newsletter cited by Wilsonia Cherry of The National Endowment for the Humanities as “the finest theatre newsletter published in America.” Thompson directed the Glimmerglass Opera production of Les Dialogues des Carmelites last season for New York City Opera. His production of Porgy and Bess, also for New York City Opera, was televised for Live from Lincoln Center and received Emmy nominations for Best Classical Production and Best Director. Thompson directed world premiere operas of Stefan, Luyala, Vanqui and As of a Dream. This summer and fall, Mr. Thompson will direct Benjamin Britten’s Death in Venice for Glimmerglass Opera; Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patiencefor New York City Opera, and Les Dialogues des Carmelites for Vancouver Opera. Also a playwright, Thompson has been commissioned to write plays for Lincoln Center Theater, Arena Stage, South Coast Repertory and People’s Light and Theatre Company. Thompson is a board member of Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas, the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers, the Society for New Music and the Thornton Wilder Society.
Since 1988, he’s directed twenty-four productions at Arena Stage as resident director including: Caucasian Chalk Circle, M. Butterfly, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Yellowman, Yerma, The Heidi Chronicles, On The Verge, Fences, Playboy of the Western World, Glass Menagerie and more than seventy-five productions (many world and American premieres) in major theatres across the country. His production of Porgy and Bess was broadcast Live from Lincoln Center and received EMMY nominations for best director and best classical production.
he was at one point in serious contention to head Arena Stage.
Established in 1979, Georgetown University’s Black Theatre Ensemble (BTE) is dedicated to producing dramatic works that celebrate and enrich the Black American cultural heritage and the cultural heritages of all minority communities. We want to expand and challenge the discourse on the Black experience. Through the arts, BTE strives to provoke substantive dialogue, promote cross-cultural exchange, and engage community. In addition to fully staged productions, BTE organizes several “coffeehouses” throughout the year. These provide a forum for students to express self and share perspective through song, dance, and poetry.
Georgetown University Department of Performing Arts
Mosaic Theatre Company – a non-profit theater company in Washington DC that occasionally produces black theater. It was founded by former Theater J artistic director Ari Roth in 2015, it performs at the Atlas Performing Arts Center on H Street NE in Washington D.C.
Deidra LaWan Starnes performed The Gospel of the Lovingkind at the Mosaic Theatre Company
Pressley, Nelson. “DC Theater Friday: Black Lives Matter.” WP Company LLC d/b/a The Washington Post. Apr 13 2017. ProQuest. 20 Nov. 2017 .
DC Black Theatre Festival isn’t just different because it’s a black theatre festival. It’s also unique because we give 100 percent of the ticket sales back to the producing group. So if you write a play and put it in the festival, every penny it earns goes back to you.
Perhaps Glenn Alan is best known as the founder of the DC Black Theatre & Arts Festival, one of the Nation’s most favorite theatre festivals celebrating extraordinary stories by people of African descent. This yearly, 10-day – multidisciplinary arts festival is filled with plays, music, film, dance, workshops and groundbreaking performances by Artists from around the world. It’s no wonder that in a few short years Mr. Alan has become a very sought after producer – having produced nearly 400 plays and building an incredible network of actors, directors, playwrights, industry professionals and creating one of the largest databases of African American Actors.
A few years ago, D.C. playwright Glenn Alan was watching a television program about black theater when he heard a clip from Larry Leon Hamlin, founder of the National Black Theatre Festival, criticizing the quality of shows by Tyler Perry, an impresario of urban theater who had risen to fame by producing urban and gospel stage productions and movies that played to sold-out audiences.
The debate over the artistic merits of the various genres of black theater spurred Alan to create a festival in Washington that would include playwrights from all categories. “We wanted a festival that embraced both sides of the story — both urban and regional theater because of the importance of the story,” Alan said. “It is still our story. Urban theater might be told with humor versus August Wilson, who tells it with pain and seriousness. ”
The D.C. Black Theatre Festival, which began in 2010, has quickly grown. The number of submissions has risen from around 300 to close to 400; productions have increased from 127 to 150; attendance has gone from approximately 14,000 in 2010 to 22,000 in 2011 to an expected 25,000 this year. This year’s festival also has a impressive lineup of actors appearing in plays or moderating or presenting workshops, including Rain Pryor, daughter of Richard Pryor; Taimak of “The Last Dragon”; Petri Hawkins-Byrd of “Judge Judy”; Jessica Holter, who has been seen on HBO; Darrin Henson of “Soul Food”; and Doug E. Doug of “The “Cosby Show.”
The festival, which runs Saturday-July 1, packs 150 performancesof black theater on 15 stages across the Washington region. The more than 125 performances will include full-length plays, one-act play competitions, theater workshops, readings of new works, and a directors’ challenge.
Each play comes from one of three major genres in black theater — traditional, urban and gospel. “We are doing theater from every aspect,” says Alan, who has written more than a dozen plays, including “Don’t Sing No Blues for Me,” which will be performed during the festival. It is a drama about a young man coming to a small North Carolina town for the funeral of the mother he never knew, and his arrival threatens to uproot long-buried secrets. “Whether you enjoy August Wilson, Lorraine Hansberry or Tyler Perry or a good old gospel stage play,” Alan says, “the festival has something for you,”
Urban theater productions, which are also defined as inspirational theater, sell out across the country. The plays are often part gospel concert, part stand-up comedy, part R&B jam sessions, part church. They usually have happy endings in which the good get their rewards and the evil get their due.
The Rainbow Theatre Project was founded in 2011 by H. Lee gable and Michael Kelley. They feature theatrical performances that have to do with Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, & Queer community in D.C.
They showed the world premiere of In the Closet written by Siegmund Fuchs.
Miriam Makeba performs, while Judy Dearing interprets with dance on an episode of Soul! January 5, 1972
Judy Dearing began her career as a dancer, working for the Negro Ensemble Company (& the NE Dance Co.) and Sun Ock Lee Dance Company, and began acting in the NEC. She learned to sew as a child and continued to create her own costumes for her dance performances.
In 1976, Oz Scott hired her to design her first show, Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide; with a budget of $100, she hand-dyed inexpensive cloth in the different colors of the rainbow, clothing all seven performers well within her budget.
Costume dresses from For Colored Girls… on Broadway, 1976-78. Designed by Judy Dearing. Gift of the Black Fashion Museum founded by Lois K. Alexander-Lane, 2007.3.35-.37
From that point on, Dearing primarily focused on costume design, creating costumes for all kinds of theatrical performances throughout the 80s and into the 90s. Her worwinning her an Obie Award in 1985 for her WWII period costumes in A Soldier’s Play by Charles Fuller.
Dearing taught costume design at Howard University, and designed for number of productions in the D.C. area, including Satchmo at the Kennedy Center.
Judy Dearing’s criteria for accepting a design project is based on the name of the play, how many characters and the budget… “I’m selective about projects. I wouldn’t want to do a project that is derogatory to my race or towards women. I am always interested in classic pieces if the history is well researched…
“I love Black theatre,” Dearing continues, “but I am also interested in futuristic and innovative subject matter. I wouldn’t mind doing movies but I really want to do theatre on a larger and broader scale.”
Thomas, Veona: Judy Dearing: Costume Designer Supreme Black Masks 4:3 [31 December 1987] p.4
In 1996, one years after her death, the Black Theatre Network established a design competition to be hosted every two years in her memory in order to encourage and celebrate young black designers.
Costume design by Judy Dearing for Satchmo. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, 2014.128.20
Dearing’s concept sketches for Satchmo and other plays, as well as some of her original costume pieces are currently housed in the exhibition “Taking the Stage” at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture in Washington, D.C.
Allen Lee Hughes – Lighting Designer
In his younger years, Allen Lee Hughes dabbled in many areas of theatre before settling into what would become his lifelong career–lighting design. His career began in 1969, when he was hired to work backstage at Arena Stage while attending Catholic University in D.C. His gained momentum in the 80s and 90s, and he has enjoyed a long and prosperous ever since. Hughes has designed for well over one hundred theatrical productions of all kinds across the country, including many Broadway productions and his home theatre, Arena Stage.
In 1991, Arena Stage established the Allen Lee Hughes Fellowship, which sought to encourage and cultivate the next generation of designers, specifically young people of color interested in design; in 2009, Arena Stage expanded the fellowship to young designers of all backgrounds. In 1997, Hughes was awarded the Merritt Award for Excellence in Design and Collaboration
With 8 nominations and 2 wins for the Helen Hayes Award in D.C., as well as 3 Tony Award nominations, Hughes is a highly skilled and accredited designer whose work is still admired across the theatrical community. As of this October (2017), Hughes officially designed his 70th production at Arena Stage, The Price by Arthur Miller, which he previously designed at Arena Stage in 1994.
Allen Lee Hughes is currently teaching as an associate professor at NYU Tisch School of the Arts, where he received his M.F.A. nearly 40 years ago, and he remains a cherished and celebrated figure in the community of Arena Stage.
Glenda Dickerson – Actor, Director, & Educator
Actor, director, playwright, author, womanist, folklorist, choreographer, professor–Glenda Dickerson filled each of these roles with inspiring gusto. From the Arena Stage and the Kennedy Center in D.C., to the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre in San Francisco, Dickerson directed in theatres across the country and was the second African American woman to direct on Broadway. Dickerson’s work also included creating and adapting source material for stage performances, including non-theatrical works.
Dickerson also created and performed in several one-woman shows that drew upon folklore and classical mythology, including: Saffron Persephone Brown: The Flower-storm of a Brown Woman, Spreading Lies, and The Trojan Women: A Tale of Devastation for Two Voices.
Glenda Dickerson, born in 1945 in Texas, moved to Washington, D.C. to attend Howard University, where she received her B.F.A. in Theater. Afterwards she attended Adelphi University for her M.A., and following her graduation, her incredible work quickly gained her notoriety and popularity. Her career continued to grow rapidly through the 70s and 80s, and she continued to teach, direct, and write until her death in 2012.
In D.C. alone, Dickerson Directed for The DC Black Rep, Ford’s Theatre, and Back Alley Theater, even the National Park Service, and more.
She later became an educator, first taking the position of head of the Department of Drama and Dance at Spelman College while also teaching at Rutgers University. Dickerson also worked as the assistant professor of Directing in the Department of Theater at Howard University, and also as the chair of the Theater Department at The Duke Ellington School of the Arts. In 1997, she became a professor at the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre, & Dance; her other positions at UM include working as head of the African American minor in Theatre Studies, as associate dean of the Rackham School of Graduates Studies, and as director of the Center for World Performance Studies.
Dickerson received Howard University’s Fine Arts Faculty Award in 1988 in recognition of not only her own achievements in a breadth of fields in theatrical arts, but also for her support for promotion of women of color in the arts; she later received the Shirley Verrett Award from the University of Michigan in 2011 to honor her for her continued dedication to the promotion of women of color and to her students and peers in the arts.
Glenda Dickerson, actor, director, playwright & more (Photo by William Ramos)
Her most famous play, written alongside actor, director, and playwright Breena Clarke, was Re/Membering Aunt Jemima: A Menstrual Show. Dickerson and Clarke drew their material from the death of Eleanor Bumpurs, a mentally ill, arthritic and elderly African American woman, who was shot to death by policeman Stephen Sullivan in 1984, as well as the stereotypical iconography of “Aunt Jemima” and minstrelsy, in order to frame the disrespect and disregard for black women and black bodies. Dickerson reflects on their process of creating the piece in her book African American Theater: A Cultural Companion. An excerpt from the Introduction:
Rather than providing a history of African American theater, which has already been done splendidly, I have tried to capture a story told by people in their own words from slavery days to the first decade of the 21st century and to explore how their realities influenced the theater of their times. Elderly people who still remember slavery speak of the days of bondage. Race men and women who came to prominence in the era of Reconstruction provide admonitions to the newly freed. The “exodusters” of the Great Migration explain why they traveled north. Zora Neale Hurston bridges the gap between the elitist “New Negroes” of the Harlem Renaissance and the rowdy Harlem rent parties. Black soldiers recount their war stories from the Civil War to Vietnam. The “ordinary people” who moved the Black Freedom struggle forward tell their extraordinary tales. The cultural workers of the Black Arts Movement conjure the magic of that moment.
Glenn Alan – Director, Playwright, & Actor
Glenn Allen via his website, Glennallen.com
Glenn Alan began to pursue his interest in writing while attending Howard University in 1986. Since then, he has continued to write and produce a number of works in both the theatrical and creative arts, which include 14 plays, 7 books of poetry, and a blues album in collaboration with bassist BT Richardson. Alan has toured his plays across the country, including both national and international festivals.
After moving to D.C. in 2007, Alan became the Executive Director of the DC Drama Department (DCDD). The DCDD is a not-for-profit, educational theatre company dedicated to the creation and promotion of theatrical productions with depth and diversity, originally founded in 1986. An excerpt from their mission statement:
Founded for the purpose of educational and performing arts theatre programs, the DC Drama Department (DCDD) prides itself on building excellence community and educational programs that teach, entrain and enlighten. Committed to producing both new and classic works, that gives full voice to a wide range of artists and visions. DCDD’s mission; to create a diverse group of outstanding theater artists whose distinctive visions will give an artistic identity of uncommon richness and variety to all performances, for all people.
The most recent project the DCDD has created is theDC Black Theatre and Arts Festival, spearheaded by Alan. It has been held annually since its creation in 2010, and has enjoyed success in drawing both a national and international audience.
Alan was inspired to create the festival while watching a program about black theatre on television. In the program, Larry Leon Hamlin, who is the founder of the National Black Theatre Festival (NBTF) criticized the quality of the work of Tyler Perry and artists like him. Other prominent individuals in the regional black theatre scene have been similarly critical of Perry’s work, and one was even quoting saying that he might not even invite Perry to the festival.
Alan reflected on his reaction to these comments in a conversation with DeNeen Brown for a Washington Post article on the DCBTAF:
I think traditional black theater is suffering because of comments like that one. What makes the people who go to your shows better than people who go to mine? . . . It’s insulting on so many levels, not just to me but to the millions of black hardworking folks who want to go out and have a good time. . . . If he is waiting for me in particular to raise the level of theater before I’m invited, I probably won’t get an invitation . . . What a shame, because Tyler Perry has a story.
On the popularity of the DCBTAF, Alan commented:
It speaks to a larger need. We need to be able to house works about African Americans. This festival is a testimony to the work that is out there. And works by African Americans are often overlooked not because of the color of the creator’s skin, but because of how competitive it can be to find places to put up your work”
Alan also stated that the festival accepts plays from playwrights who are not black, so long as the work emphasizes the experiences of black Americans or includes black characters in roles central to the story:
We don’t want to do a festival that is only black work. That doesn’t feel true to America, or to this festival. But at the same time, we’re concentrating on the African American experience.
Caleen Sinnette Jennings –
Actor, Playwright, and Educator Celeste Jennings
Jennings received her bachelor’s degree in Drama from Bennington College and her MFA in Acting from NYU Tisch School of the Arts.
The time was 1976. Caleen Sinnette Jennings had just completed an arduous three-year master’s degree program in theater at NYU and was doing the things aspiring actors do. She polished up her audition pieces, checked casting calls and turned up anywhere, anytime in search of a break.
“I auditioned and auditioned and auditioned,” the Queens native says. “I’d had the best voice teachers, the best acting coaches. I wanted to be a working actor. I just didn’t fit into any of their pictures.”
Casting directors didn’t think Jennings was “black enough.” Bennington-educated and well-traveled, she had studied at predominantly white schools. And the plays being written by emerging black authors and performed at places like the Negro Ensemble Company and the Public Theater didn’t reflect her experience.
“It was a fertile but angry period, an important time,” she says. “We were struggling with what the new possibilities were for African Americans, and those militant, political voices really needed to be heard. But there seemed to be a monolithic view of what being black was: You were poor, ill-educated, you spoke a certain way. While that was true for many people, throughout history there have been well-educated black people who weren’t that way. Nobody seemed to be writing about us.”
Instead of moping, Jennings responded with a highly practical course of action. She took a day job and, encouraged by her new husband, spent her spare time writing the kind of plays in which she did fit into the picture. Full-length plays, one-acts, children’s theater — plays that reflected an African American, urban, female, highly educated point of view.
She missed performing, but she stayed in touch by coaching other actors, and she kept on writing. She’d been raised to believe she could do what she set her mind to. “At first it was really hard,” she says. “I didn’t know how I was going to make it without acting.”
Then a chance meeting with a college friend walking down Madison Avenue led to a staged reading of one of her works and a connection with the Black Theatre Alliance. And soon her plays began to be noticed.
Caleen Sinnette Jennings has been a professor of theater at American University in Washington, D.C. since 1989. Jennings has taught acting, voice and speech, acting in Shakespeare, and playwriting, among other academic courses in theatre and in the general education program. She has also directed for the main stage shows in AU’s theatre department.
She has also been a faculty member of the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Teaching Shakespeare Institute since 1994. She moderates panels, does workshops and presentations for cultural institutions such as the Smithsonian, Kennedy Center, Arena Stage, Ford’s Theatre, the Folger Shakespeare Library and the Shakespeare Theatre.
In 2003, she received American University’s 2003 Scholar/Teacher of the Year Award, as well as the award for Outstanding Teaching of Playwriting from the Play Writing Forum of the Association of Theatre in Higher Education.
She has received playwriting awards from the Kennedy Center, as well as two nominations for outstanding new play from the Helen Hayes Awards. Her plays have been produced at the Kennedy Center, Imagination Stage, The Folger and Source Theatres since the 90s.
In 1999 she received a $10,000 grant from the Kennedy Center’s Fund for New American Plays for her play Inns & Outs. She is a two-time Helen Hayes nominee for Outstanding New Play.
In 2000, her children’s play Free Like Br’er Rabbit was produced for the Kennedy Center’s New Visions/New Voices festival.
Her two short plays Pecos Bill and The People Could Fly are featured in Walking the Winds, which premiered at the Kennedy Center and toured nationally with Kennedy Center’s Programs for Children and Youth.
Jennings is a founding member of The Welders Playwrights’ Collective in D.C. The group seeks to involve playwrights more directly in the creative process, and gives playwrights full artistic control by naming them the Artistic Director.
In 2012, Ms. Jennings’ play Hair, Nails & Dress, was produced by the D.C. Black Theatre Festival.
On the type of theatre that most excites her:
Theatre that surprises me and makes me FEEL. I worry that we as Westerners have become so afraid to feel that we break up and fall in love via text, e-mail and the internet. We protect our feelings and our hearts because we are so afraid of getting hurt. That makes us all the more vulnerable. I love theatre that makes me FEEL deeply. Whether it’s anger, fear, confusion – I don’t care. Rattle my cage, shake my tree. I love theatre created by a playwright who respects the audience and is brave enough to tell a difficult story – a playwright who takes a risk – a playwright who makes us like people we’re not supposed to like and hate people we’re supposed to love. That will wake you up!
What female playwrights have influenced your writing and how?
Lorraine Hansberry. My acting teacher gave me a copy of A Raisin in the Sun in my freshman year of college. I had a role model. I knew I could write about black life in a way that was compelling, complex and exciting. She was the first woman playwright I had ever read. Her play blew my mind! Other important female playwrights in my life: Susan Glaspell, Suzan Lori Parks, Marsha Norman, Caryl Churchill. I’m a huge Lynn Nottage fan. She tells unusual stories – characters we’ve never seen. She makes us ache with compassion. She’s also amazingly funny.
What’s missing from theatre today?
A multiplicity of voices and a range of contrasting opinions. I’m interested in the hip hop playwrights – they are expanding the form, combining music, dance, mixed media in ways that are exciting. What’s missing is patient audiences and patient producers who allow playwrights to develop. Not every play is going to be a box office success. But plays that fail financially are often the plays that are difficult but necessary for us to see as human beings. I’d love to see more work from playwrights of color. There are so many stories still untold.
Kelsey E. Collie – Director, Playwright, and Educator
Kelsey E. Collie, Howard University 1975
Kelsey E. Collie wrote his first play when he was 9 years old, which seems fitting, as he made a name for himself as both a national and international pioneer for children’s theatre.
He began his work in children’s theatre in the 60s with two groups of children from his neighborhood in northwest Washington. The first was a local troop of Girls Scouts, and the second was the Creative Language Arts Project, which Collie created to assist students in developing skills in language arts. He began with ten students, helping them to develop their skills through reading, reciting, and writing poetry.
Collie received his A.B in English, Speech, and Drama at the Hampton Institute in 1967, and then pursued his M.F.A. in Dramatic Arts at George Washington University in D.C. After receiving his M.F.A., he taught English and drama in several local colleges in D.C. In 1973 Collie attended Howard University, where he pursued Doctoral Studies in Communication Arts and joined the Department of Drama as an assistant professor and director of the Children’s Theatre program.
Throughout this time, Collie wrote, produced, and directed a number of children’s theatre pieces. He did not shy away from including topical issues in his work, including political and religious material, as well as drawing from past and present struggles of people of color. His works range from morality dramas to comedy musicals, often incorporating Afro-American history and folklore, biblical stories and values, and the trials and tribulations of growing up.
Though many of his pieces were written in the 60s and 70s, they gained significant traction once he began teaching at Howard, which led to their success through the 70s and 80s. Following his appointment Howard University, Collie founded the Howard University Children’s Theatre, which attracted students from across the country. The program led year-round workshops for young people of all ages and even incorporated a touring troupe.
In conjunction with this program, Collie developed a major area of concentration in Children’s Theatre and creative new courses for the concentration. This major concentration program was one of only two accredited programs of its kind at an African American university at that time, though the program has since been discontinued.
Over the course of his career, he wrote over 100 plays for both children and adults, as well as articles for various publications, including Black Mask Magazine and the textbook “Theater for Young Audiences” by Dr. Nellie McCaslin.
He directed productions at many theatres in the D.C. area, including Howard University’s Ira Aldridge Theater and the Kennedy Center, as well as in New York City at the Lincoln Center and the Empire State Theater (NY). Collie has also directed productions at several colleges and universities across the U.S., as well as several theatres internationally. He has also acted as both an agent and manager to young actors and performers, and he himself has continued to perform both on stage and on screen and in churches in the D.C. area.
After 18 years, the children’s program at Howard University was renamed the Kelsey E. Collie Children’s Theatre Experience (KECCTE), and was moved to Pennsylvania Avenue Baptist Church. Collie has taught many modern performers, both on stage and on screen, including Taraji P. Henson, who is included in this archive. As of 2007, the KECCTE program no longer exists, but has inspired many individuals who went through his program to create their own local children’s theatre group.
Most recently, Kelsey E. Collie was Professor Emeritus of Theatre of Arts at Howard University, and led “My Little World–A Day in Pre-School” (A Natii Arts Program) as the Artistic Director and lead educator, and helped to develop the “My Little World” LIVE Theatre Production.
Seret Scott(-Williams) – Actor, Playwright, & Director
Born in Washington, D.C. in 1949, Seret Scott first pursued theatre as an actor on both the stage and the screen, and soon after began to direct and write plays.
The Free Southern Theater was one of the most important activist theatres in the United States, bringing politically- and socially-engaged theatre to poor African American communities in the South throughout the 1960s and 1970s. One of the performers who joined the Theater was Seret Scott, who went on to play key roles on Broadway in My Sister, My Sister and for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf. Her memories of engaging with the Free Southern Theater’s audiences offer new suggestions for how theatre activists can engage with the economically-disadvantaged and politically-marginalized.
mel gussow review:
IN plays such as Ray Aranha’s ”My Sister, My Sister,” Seret Scott has repeatedly demonstrated her sensitivity as an actress. Lately, she has been testing her skills as a playwright and director. Unfortunately, the point of her new play, ”Pardon/Permission” (at the Family Repertory Company) remains the author’s secret. This wispy one-act gives the impression of being an actors’ improvisation – one scene after another, without a feeling of dramatic pace. Under Ms. Scott’s direction, ”Pardon/Permission” drifts dangerously close to aimlessness.
Ms. Scott is well known as a director and actress; she won a Drama Desk Award for her performance in “My Sister, My Sister” by Ray Aranha in 1974 and has directed regional theater from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to the Arena Stage in Washington.
Ms. Scott has written short plays in the past, but this is her first production of a full-length work. Though she has always written for herself — keeping journals while directing and writing pieces in dramatic form “when I need time to clear my head,” she said — her writing has usually gone straight into the file cabinet, she said.
When she began writing “Second Line” in 1997, she envisioned it as a piece that could be read onstage by two actors.
Ms. Scott, who is married and has a grown son, lives in Teaneck. As a child growing up in Washington, she went on car trips with her family where they could use the restrooms only at Stuckey’s restaurants, she said.
“I feel like who I am today was really shaped by my experience in the 60’s,” she said. Despite the inequities that she encountered growing up, “my values were shaped then in a way that I still look at the world optimistically,” she said.
“There’s always the possibility of change,” she added.
Having worked as a director, Ms. Scott finds herself in a new role as the playwright — one that gives her control over the words that are said onstage but that must allow for the interpretations of others, the director Regge Life and the actors Billy Eugene Jones and April Yvette Thompson.
Since 1991, she’s been exclusively writing and directing.
The purpose of the Free Southern Theater at that time, was to articulate and acknowledge the experiences of southern African Americans who- from this point on I’ll say Black Americans, because that’s what we were calling ourselves at the time. It was to make them aware of what was actually going on in the government and with policy, with laws, with anything that had to do with education, anything that had to do with. That they were being left out of that kind of system and systematically left out of that. The Free Southern Theater was a tool, a creative tool, to teach the people that we performed for about what it is or what it is that they are expected to have as American citizens and were denied in some way. So, sometimes we did scripted plays, sometimes we did improvisations. Actually, more actually we did improvisations based on whatever the politics of that particular community happened to be.
And we worked not so much in theatres, as a matter of fact, I don’t remember actually playing a theatre even a small grass roots theatre. We worked mostly in churches, backyards, parking lots, cotton fields on the edge of dirt roads. We’d just set up our equipment and do an improvisation about something going on in that community. And our audiences were mostly sharecroppers and tenant farmers, migrants and all when we were in those rural communities, but every now and then we’d do something right in New Orleans where the theatre was actually based. And we had a little small space there and sometimes we could do something on a university campus in one of their small theatres.
For me, to put it in perspective, Dr. King was assassinated in April 1968 as everybody knows and I was at NYU at that time and it was pretty difficult for me after his assassination. Now, one of the things that happened just serendipitous was that Gilbert Moses, who was one of the original founders of the Free Southern Theater happened to be at NYU in the School of Arts with me at that time. He was a grad student, I was a freshman undergrad or something. And he had already established the Free Southern Theater, it had some political difficulties right within itself. Meaning, not everyone was on board about how the Free Southern should have operated at that time. So, it dissolved for a brief period and that was the period when he, Gilbert, came to NYU to come to school and I met him and when Dr. King was killed he said he was going back to reestablish the Free Southern. And I said I absolutely wanted to go down to do that with him and the rest of the organizations that had come together in a bit of a way of trying to figure out what to do next.
So, I did, I went down in January of 1969. I was a young, young person and just out of school, like I said the university. And I didn’t know much about anything, meaning I understood that there were things happening in the south. It was on the news, that was one of the incredible things about the sixties, seventies, that everything that was happening in the Civil Rights Movement pretty much you saw on the news that night. Everything that was happening in Vietnam you saw on the news as well, so there was no real blackout. You kind of knew what was happening and when I got there. When you’re young it’s all gonna be all right. You have no fear of anything, so that was kind of what was going on with me. But, I quickly began to understand how much I did not know. Meaning, I met nine year olds who grew up in Mississippi or Louisiana, which are the two states we mostly concentrated on. And they understood things that I just never had to understand. I mean, they knew how to move through their society in a way that did not put them at risk. I could go further on that; just moving from one place to another without being hurt or … it was always that possibility down there at the time.
I have to say that because I had left a college, a university, to go south did not necessarily mean that I was accepted by the people that we were working with.
“You left a college to come down here and be with us to do this? I would do anything to be able to go to school.” And she was about eleven, she was maybe between eleven and thirteen and she had maybe a second grade education, because she was working in the cotton fields or the any kind of crop fields or even tobacco fields almost all the time. She was the daughter of probably a sharecropper. And it just sort of struck home that whatever I thought I was doing that is exactly what they wanted to be doing and that is to go to school.
I always found my way back to theatre that I thought was political, that was activist, that made you have to think or put something else in your thought process. That gave you a different way of looking at whatever was going on and a different way of dealing with it. So, it wasn’t always just one on one or some sort of conversation that creatively there was some other way of working on anything that you wanted to say to express.
And, especially after the Free Southern Theater when I got back, one of the things that happened was one of the plays we did down there- Slave Ship, which was written by then Leroi Jones
I got involved with a lot of things like, anti Vietnam protest theatre, prison theatre going in to Sing Sing and Standford Hill and Rikers doing plays that gape inmates in different way of looking at what was going on in their lives.
I was involved with marches and that was just part of what it was that I felt most comfortable with. But, at the same time, because I had been at a university and all, I did do straight professional Off- Broadway plays. And My Sister, My Sister, which is what I mentioned earlier, was a play that started at Hartford Stage and then moved in and eventually was on Broadway. It was the story of a young child, young girl who was mentally and sexually abused. And it was the first time mental health issues had been dealt with in theatre when it came to black children. So, it was a huge, for me, it gave me a lot of exposure. Which meant that I was able to work on all kinds of other projects, professional projects after that, because I was the young girl in My Sister, My Sister. And I think I did For Colored Girls on Broadway shortly after that. And since then I did act for a long period of time, maybe twenty years, I don’t know. Then there’s directing, sort of happened kind of out of the blue, and I became very much involved with in and that’s what I’ve been doing exclusively for about twenty five, twenty six years now.
I find that activism now sometimes has been polished. And has been given a stamp of approval and I don’t know that it allows the people that are doing the work, and the people watching, it allows them to understand how far something can go to make some changes. So, street theatre back then what we would call happenings and what now you call them flash mobs and all when things just start to happen. But, the flash mobs I’m finding, and perhaps it’s not always that way, but they’re always about something social if someone’s like, “Let everybody get together, because I’m gonna ask my girlfriend to marry me.” And you have this flash mob thing happen and all.
Whereas, I remember doing much street theatre where we would actually get out there and set up something right there on the street corner and really attack a problem or attack something that was in the mail, in the news. And, I don’t find that happening anymore partly because I think there’s more of a crackdown on that sort of thing. You get too many people, a public assembly, I guess is what I’m saying, and you get too many people and the police move you along. Also, it’s much more dangerous now- it’s interesting, it’s more dangerous now that people may decide they don’t like what they’re hearing and people will shoot you. Where that wasn’t necessarily happening in the sixties and seventies when we were on the street doing this sort of thing.
And I think there’s so much disagreement about what people actually believe in or want to support. The country pretty much rallied around the anti-war protest of Vietnam for a whole lot of reasons. You had the people who were going to war and who were drafted and all, but then you had this tremendous amount of people against the war. And also, it was a draft war, which made it even worse, because young people had no choice. Young men had no choice about things. We were kind of able to find our audience.
Now, I almost…I didn’t do it, but I almost went down to Occupy Wall Street, because that’s kind of my thing. But, the thing that happened with Occupy Wall Street, for me, was I never knew what message to take away from that. From what they were doing. There were too many messages. And, at least, again, from my point of view, there were too many messages. And, I think that’s why they weren’t able to sustain themselves that well.
Activists Theatre nowadays has to be driven by people who almost have no other agenda. And the reason why is because it is so involved. Not that we weren’t having those same things at that time, but now will all kinds of social media things get to be so far to one side or the other. So, you have Black Lives Matter and I can read about what they’re doing on the one hand and then I can read why other people say this is a terrible group or terrible organization. And you didn’t quite have that much knowledge, back and forth knowledge, back in the day as they say. So, you find things that are not- you made up your mind and you were able to go on and act on that. And nowadays, it just leaves people in the middle. I think that Black Lives Matter has great potential. I don’t know that just active protest in the streets of just marching and or, I don’t know that is actually moving the effort and the ideas as far as they need to go.
I do think some sort of creative influence, which I’m finding is happening more and more, would be very helpful for getting the attention they need from more than people who just see it as a single protest or this is what these people are yelling and screaming about. And I think that theatre and art and music and all can do that. It seems like that’s moving more in that direction.
As I travel to regional theatres around the country I find a less welcoming atmosphere in more and more places, from both the artistic and admin staffs. In one theatre I’d never worked in before I wondered why they even called me, everyone from the top down was openly hostile. I believe these attitudes are a sign of the times more so than a particular theatre’s environment. The World is a politically and artistically hostile place toward everyone these days. It used to be that being in The Arts buffered some of the lack of vision, or lack of compassion that is so apparent these days, but artists don’t like to think of themselves as enlightened or compassionate anymore. They seem to be business people who happen to be in the Arts.
I am a big supporter of regional ethnically-specific theatres for several reasons: there are about five black playwrights who are being produced over and over. Their work is quite good and almost always a box office success for the theatre; however, it will be the single black show of the season and perhaps the single black show for several years. Black actors, designers, playwrights won’t work again for awhile. With an ethnically-specific space for these artists there may be a chance of five more plays being produced in a year, giving artists a chance to work with many people, in many styles. Since federal funding now goes to the local large ‘flagship’ theatre of any area if they are ‘inclusive’, there is no incentive to do more than the minimum choice of ‘inclusive’ work to meet government standards. In fact, as one General Manager said to me at my directing interview after I inquired about what I was being considered for in their upcoming season, “Oh, we don’t have to hire you as a director for us to qualify for federal funding, we only have to interview you. This is your interview.” Hispanics, Asians and blacks now compete for the one ethnic spot at many theatres. Not so much because they need that validation, but because at white theatres the funding sources are in place and the productions are likely to be more fully realized than at smaller, less financially-able spaces. But everybody’s hurting financially these days so I expect to see a steep drop-off in anything that isn’t mainstream work or revivals.
As a black actress, I’m aware that I’d be unemployed 95% of the time if all I did was theatre, but film and TV are just as difficult in terms of roles available and the work is for a shorter span of time. As a black playwright, I write with a political awareness that is decidedly unpopular and uncommercial. As a black director, I’m open to it all.
“I was part of the ’60s generation, which was always protesting something,” reminisces Seret Scott-Williams, a Liberal Arts student in the Bachelor’s Program for Adults and Transfer Students at The New School. Equal parts activist and actor, Seret started college in 1965 and spent three years exploring her interest in theater and expressing her political views. During this time, she joined the New York Free Theater, a troupe that presented street performances designed to raise public awareness about social issues.
Seret left college to tour with the Free Southern Theater, a group of actors that used drama to educate people about voter registration, integration, and workers’ rights. In the early 1970s, she landed her first leading role, in Ray Aranha’s My Sister, My Sister, a show that eventually made it to Broadway.
The transition from actor to director came unexpectedly for Seret. Her friend Nancy Fales Garrett had written a play, Some Sweet Day, which was to be performed in Connecticut and for which a director was needed. Garrett recommended Seret to the theater’s artistic director, and she got the job. A positive review in the New York Times gave Seret the recognition she needed to find work directing plays in regional theaters around the country. More recently, she has demonstrated her skill as a playwright with works such as Safe House and Second Line.
Seret now wants to teach at the college level, and she needs a bachelor’s degree to accomplish this goal. The New School’s wide-ranging curriculum and welcoming atmosphere appealed to Seret, and the fact that she could transfer credits confirmed her decision to enroll in the Bachelor’s Program. “I have worked as a professional director and actor for years, on and off Broadway and in regional theater. At The New School, I choose courses that interest me, and my advisor helps me fit them into the degree I’m structuring.” Seret also received 12 prior learning credits for papers she wrote about her experiences as an actor and director.
Seret Scott directs new plays, classics, and experimental / developmental work in Off-Broadway and regional theatres around the country. As an author, her play Second Line relates her experiences in activist theater during the Civil Rights Movement, and was produced by NJ’s Passage Theatre and DC’s Atlas Theatre. Seret is the creator of Insight / Second Sight, a project that introduces diverse communities to the events, narratives, back stories and life-changing moments of individuals whose lives have been widely acclaimed, or perhaps, quietly extraordinary.
Directors selected for the 2017 Sundance Institute | LUMA Foundation Theatre Directors Retreat are:
Jennifer L. Nelson- Actor, Director
As Jennifer L. Nelson, Director of Special Projects at Ford’s Theatre and former Artistic Director of the African Continuum Theater Company, said, “There are some places that generate new work or that do new work that confer a kind of credibility on the play that then allows the playwright to move on – or helps the playwright in their process. But a small black theater? Not necessarily the case.”
“the global irony and the injustice in this is that our culture, African American culture, has become one of the predominant forces in global culture now. What happens in the Black community becomes the hippest thing. Now you go into a department store and they’re like ‘what’s up.’ It’s our dress, it’s our language, it’s our music – every new thing that comes through, even though it may be initially condemned by the main stream, two years later it’s in the main stream. But we’re not – we’re still assumed to be on the sidelines. And I just find that incredibly, kind of appalling, but also shocking to me. How long? How long does this have to go on?”
“I’m fascinated by the fact that where we are now in the 21st century… we cannot tell American stories as just American stories.”
Playwrights also felt that for their work to be “permissible,” their characters must live in stereotype2 . One example was the portrayal of African-American women. Jennifer L. Nelson asked, “Where are our women’s stories? The people-that-I-know’s stories. Who didn’t grow up in abusive households, who didn’t have parents who were alcoholics or drug addicts, who had rich and interesting stories? For some reason I feel like our women’s stories are not considered stage-worthy. That kind of women’s story. And that’s something I’m struggling with right now – because I find that I’m writing stories – the more I write out of my own experience, the less violent the stories are, the more they’re about some internal kind of dialogue and a character who’s dealing with just trying to know who she is and try to keep who she is consistent, and she lives her life in the face of challenges and the challenges are not somebody hitting her, or things like that. Like, a challenge of conscience for example. Those are the stories I would like to see more of. Because that’s what resonates with me. We’re not always a people in conflict from external sources. And neither are we all women who ‘talk like this.’ There’s a character who would be considered stage-worthy. But an AfricanAmerican woman with a Ph.D., struggling with whether or not she can go on a camping trip with her husband – it’s like ‘whoa, a Ph.D…. a camping trip??'”
Strengthening the black theater ecology itself is seen as an avenue toward promoting less dependence on the current power balance, which some feel boxes out opportunities for black playwrights. Jennifer L. Nelson offered a baseball history analogy. “We couldn’t get in the major leagues, so we started our own league. The players were so good that they were eventually incorporated in the national leagues – but it was another 30, 40 years before there was a manager, an owner, a coach, a pitcher, a quarterback of color. Is that what we’re going through in theater as well? That before we have any muscular impact on this field, as insiders, that we have to go through yet another wave of … what?”
Jennifer L. Nelson – create a festival of short plays tied to the Haiti earthquake – the potent cause of the moment publicize that the series will travel, can be locally cast, making the plays available. Market it nationally: “See the Haiti plays in your town.” in the vein of the James Hatch anthology, encourage someone like TCG to do 2 new volumes: 2nd half of 20th century, one that’s moving into the 21st century tap the African-American museums (like the Smithsonian) to realize that theater is art as well: create partnerships, have them do readings, suggest work that they can do create local initiatives: have Arena Stage do a month long festival of readings of local playwrights.
Jennifer Nelson, Director of Special Programming, Ford’s Theatre; Adjunct Professor, Theater and Performance Studies, Georgetown University 2012
*Ceynowa, Andrzej. “Black Theaters and Theater Organizations in America, 1961-1982: A Research List.” Black American Literature Forum, vol. 17, no. 2, 1983, pp. 84–93. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2904586.
Analyses of the decline of Black Theatre companies in the USA:
Austin, Addell. “The Present State of Black Theatre.” TDR (1988-), vol. 32, no. 3, 1988, pp. 85–100. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1145907.
Fletcher, Winona L. “A Slender Thread of Hope: The Kennedy Center Black Theatre Project.” Black American Literature Forum, vol. 17, no. 2, 1983, pp. 65–68. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2904581.
Hatch, James V. “Sittin’ at the Banquet, Talkin’ with Ourselves (An Open Letter to Theatre Scholars and Historians on the Status of Black Theatre Research and Publication).” Black American Literature Forum, vol. 16, no. 4, 1982, pp. 168–170. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2904228.
Morales, Donald M. “Do Black Theatre Institutions Translate into Great Drama?” African American Review, vol. 31, no. 4, 1997, pp. 633–637. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3042331.
The trends in theatre in Washington, D.C. closely parallel the overarching trends that influence all Black theatre in the USA.
(must have an Alexander Street Account to view, free access using Dartmouth login info)
Founded by Robert Hooks, The D.C. Black Repertory Company was officially incorporated on November 30, 1970. The goal of the company was “to find and train Black youth in all areas of the theatrical arts,” and was meant to serve as an expressive outlet for the Black community and a means of educating the White Community.
NY TIMES BYLINE BY LOUIS CALTA PUBLISH DATE October 31, 1974
The company disbanded in 1976 ; many of the company members continued to rehearse in the space, taking the name The Rep Inc. However, actors were not paid and had to rely on unemployment compensation or outside work to fund their shows, leading to the decline of the group over the course of the 1980s.
November 1, 1974, Page 28 The New York Times Archives
Barnes, Olive. “‘Owen’s Song’ at the D.C. Black Repertory Company.”The New York Times, 1 Nov. 1974, nyti.ms/2hMIqT8.
In 1986, two alumni of the D.C. Black Repertory Company began to develop a show inspired by Black Vaudeville, which they performed in Washington and took on tour. The show was later performed by two younger actors in an Off-Broadway production in 1999.
Excerpt from the article:
“Mr. Stevens, who created and choreographed the show with his late partner, Jaye Stewart, is aware of how his production straddlesthe arenas of entertainment and instruction. A slight, rubber-faced man, he plays Stevens in this most recent incarnation of his 13-year-old labor of love…
”One thing that is not authentic is that we didn’t do it in blackface,” Mr. Stevens said. ”That was demeaning. They had to do that and we didn’t have to.”
In 1986, Mr. Stevens and Mr. Stewart, who trained at the D.C. Black Repertory Company, developed a show called ”Rollin’ With Stevens and Stewart,” which had a national tour that included Washington and Chicago.
Like the current Off Broadway revue, it was a series of vignettes, dance routines and songs bound by the story of the two vaudevillians traveling from city to city.”
(((Lee, Felicia R. “An Encore for Black Vaudeville; A New Revue Finds Dignity in a Derided Art Form.” February 10 1999)))
By 1993 Valerie Lash had founded The Rep Stage in its place, an Equity Theatre in residence at Howard Community College; the Rep Stage still produces and performs plays in residence at HCC.
The evolution of the DC Black Repertory Company demonstrates the difficulty many Black theatre companies faced in gaining and maintaining an audience at that time, and it also highlights the outgrowth of more “mainstream” theatre companies that filled the space that was left. These groups often state that diversity is one of the primary values that they hold, and many continue to produce plays written and performed by Black artists, but nowhere near the extent that they once did.
Tribby, William L. “Educational Theatre Journal.” Educational Theatre Journal, vol. 25, no. 4, 1973, pp. 513–519. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3205612.
Shirley, Don. “Black Theater In Washington.” The Washington Post, 20 May 1979, www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/1979/05/20/black-theater-in-washington/a94037dc-0ed5-4ca9-91c1-b7078bb57105/?utm_term=.d8d58ed2e2d4.
Fleming, Harold C, James O. Gibson, and Arthur J. Levin. Harold C. Fleming Papers. , n.d..Library of Congress. Archival material. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/70983489.
Motojicho, . Vantile E. Whitfield Papers. , 1930. Archival material. Emory University Library Special Collections Department. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/961118198
The Duke Ellington School of the Arts
Photo by Bill Petros
The Duke Ellington School of the Arts (DESA) was founded in 1974 and “remains the sole D.C. public high school to offer a dual curriculum encompassing professional arts training and academic enrichment.” The mission of the school is to educate young artists “who might not otherwise have an opportunity to develop their artistic skills.” Their intensive program serves to prepare students for post-secondary school and/or a career in the arts.
DESA has been active for nearly 40 years, and has expanded their programming both on its campus and beyond. In 2000, the program expanded to include the D.C. Public Schools, the Ellington Fund, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and George Washington University, now under the umbrella of the Duke Ellington School of the Arts Project (DESAP). DESA continues to have strong local and national support, demonstrated by the protests and petitions launched by the DC community and across the US after it was reported that the DC school board was looking into relocating the campus.
(((The school represents that there those who wish to incorporate and support less privileged students in pursuing and accessing theatre; while Black theatre companies had issues because “rich Black folk don’t wanna see shows downtown” (SOURCE), the Duke Ellington school has not had this issue, and has continued to support young actors.))))
The Duke Ellington Schools of the Arts official website: http://www.ellingtonschool.org/about/history-mission/
Black Women Playwrights’ Group
Karen L. B. Evans
The Black Women Playwrights’ Group (BWPG) was began in 1989 following a seminar hosted at Arena Playhouse with the goal to promote, support, and connect African American playwrights writing for the professional theatre, “as well as to provide leadership and advocacy on critical issues within the theatre world,” and was officially incorporated in 1993. The BWPA provides workshops, readings, and information on production opportunities to its membership, and provides important connection. Members of the BWPG are also very involved locally, visiting local universities, DC Public Schools, group homes, and children of the incarcerated
The Grove Alliance, named for The African Grove, is a membership of men working with BWPG to promote the works and membership of BWPG.
The BWPG still meets regularly, and has launched its Cyber Narrative Project, an interactive app to promote both local and national communities.
(((They also participated in the First National Meeting of Black Women Writing Drama, and have documented the trends of the emergence and success of Black women playwrights.
The stability of this organization is interesting, given the decline of Black theatre companies–but it still fits the pattern, as new works by Black playwrights continued to be put on by DC theatre companies from this time into the twenty-first century.)))
Perkins, Kathy A., and Sandra L. Richards. “Forum: Black Women Playwrights in American Theatre.” Theatre Journal 62.4 (2010): 541-5. ProQuest. 20 Nov. 2017 .
Hill, Anthony D. and Douglas Q. Barnett. The A to Z of African American Theater. Lanham, Toronto, Plymouth, UK: Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2009.
They also have the benefit of consulting a dramaturge for historical accuracy. Major people involved were Denise Stevens, Joy Jones, Betty Miller Buttram, Louise V.Gray, Joy Hunter Carroll,Debra Rode, Stanice Anderson, Caleen Sinnette Jennings, and Oni Faida Lampley (49).
Lampley and Jennings have had professional productions of their plays:
African Continuum, Black Drama Second Edition, 1850 to present, Alexander Street
The African Continuum Theater Company (ACTCo) was originally founded in 1989 as The African Continuum Theater Coalition to bring together local theatre professionals, organizations, and advocates in order to promote Black theatre in the DC area. In 1994, the organization elected to become its own theatre company, resulting in the change of its name; however, its goal stayed largely the same:
“The Coalition collaborates on activities and initiatives that will increase its ability to serve and involve the community, promote awareness, and create a supportive working environment.”
ACTco produced dozens of staged plays, hosted a staged reading series focusing on new works by playwrights of color, and presented several world premieres. The company was hosted by many local theatres, including the Kennedy Center and Ford’s Theatre, and collaborated and co-produced shows with other local companies, includnig the Washington Shakespeare Company. In 2006, the ACTco was invited to stay in residence at the Atlas Performing Arts Center on H Street.
ACTco has received numerous awards* for its theatrical productions and community service, such as its Back on the Block (BOBco) program, its school workshop programs, and its touring companies.
*three Helen Hayes Awards, DC Theater Scene Audience Choice Award, the Mayor’s Arts Award, the Washington Post Award for Distinguished Service to the Community to name a few
As of 2012, ACTco was the only Black theatre company in Washington D.C., and was producing fewer and fewer shows until its disbanded in 2015.
“Mainstream stages are engaging artists of color in unprecedented numbers, administrators of color are shepherding innovative work all over the world, and young artists are creating bold theatrical responses to the world around them….This is not an end, but a stage in the continuum of the African-American theatre tradition. We look back fondly at the great accomplishments of our past, and we look forward, with confidence, to the future of African-American theatre.” – Thembi Duncan, Artistic Dir.
A letter sent out to Galvanize, a google group that shares news and info about theatre opportunities for people of color
What is the institution/individual’s current status?
Are there any anomalies represented by the individual or institution that might offer an alternative way of seeing, producing or defining black theatre?
Living Stage Theatre Company was founded in 1966 by Robert A. Alexander to promote social change through theatrical works, specifically through improv theatre. The company was a venture of Arena Stage, (MORE). The company held interactive workshops for children, young adults, teachers, parents, and other community members. The goal of these workshops was to “transform individuals and communities through creative empowerment,” based on the company’s core belief:
“every one is born an artist and the act of creation is the ultimate act of self-affirmation.”
When was the institution founded? Or when did the individual’s career begin?When was the institution/individual most active?What is the institution/individual’s current status?Are there any anomalies represented by the individual or institution that might offer an alternative way of seeing, producing or defining black theatre?
Community efforts to save the theatre from closure led to the first Takoma Park Folk Festival in 1978. Today this highly popular event is still run by an all-volunteer community committee and showcases local performers — the legacy of its founder, activist Sammie Abbot (Mayor Takoma Park, 1980-1985).
Kelsey Collie is a director, playwright, and teacher. He went to Howard University Graduate school for PhD in 1975. There, he was an assistant professor and director of the Children’s Theater. He taught drama around colleges in the D.C area. He also produced many children’s musicals such as Fiesta and Celebration (1969). Other plays inclusive Black Images/Black Reflections (1975), Good Friday; or, The End and the Beginning (1962).
Ed Bullins was born in 1935 becomes a major contributor to the Black Arts Movement in the 60s. His plays are said to include a typical style that was popular with the black Arts Movement, such as the interracial tension and “street” vernacular. Some
Ntozake Shange is an award-winning poet, playwright, and culture keeper. She is most notably famous for her play For Colored Girls Who’ve Considered Suicide when the Rainbow was Enough (1975). The play Boogie Woogie Landscapes was produced was produced in Washington, DC, at John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in 1980, at St. Martin’s Press
Amiri Baraka was the writer of The Toilet, Baptism, and The Dutchman and the Slave. He attended Howard University for his undergraduate degree.
Baraka’s first published work was a play, A Good Girl Is Hard to Find (1958). Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note, a book of with personal poems was published in 1961, by Allen Ginsberg, and Jack Kerouac. He later published several other collections including The Dead Lecturer (1964), Black Art (1966) and Black Magic (1969). His later collections include It’s Nation Time (1970) Spirit Reach (1972), Hard Facts (1977), Am/Trak (1979), and Thoughts for You! (1984).
“Amiri Barak 1934-2014.” Authors’ Calendar, authorscalendar.info/baraka.htm.
“Kelsey E. Collie Experience.” http://www.kelseyecollie.com/staff.htm
The Carver Theater was founded in 1948. The theater is said to have held over 500 people and it was a popular location on U Street. The Carver Theater decline in the 60s and eventually closed, only to reopen in 1967 at the Anacostia Community Museum. The theater is currently undergoing renovations for a non-profit called the Good Samaritan Foundation.
Plays of Negro Life, A Source Book of Native American Drama (1927)
Alain Locke, Montgomery Gregory, and Aaron Douglas (Illustrator) created an anthology of plays by black and white writers in and before 1927. The writers include Eugene O’Neill, Ridgley Torrence, Ernest H. Culbertson, Paul Green, Willis Richardson, Frank H. Wilson, John Matheus, Eulalie Spence, Georgia Douglas Johnson, Thelma Duncan, and Richard Bruce.
*bolded names are black artists mentioned in other posts.
The Development of Black Theater in America: From Shadows to Selves (1988)
Leslie Catherine Sanders analyzes various black theater playwrights and productions to understand the conventions that are introduced by Europeans but transformed into something created by and for black individuals. In relation to D.C.She analysis Willis Richardson’s use of many types of black characters to counter the stereotypes that were being crafted about specific black characters, such as Topsy.
An Article of commentary was written by Tim Youngs in response to this development. In this critique of Sanders’ book, Young suggest that Sanders’ attempt to show range of the writers’ work was a sacrifice to thoroughly analyzing the works. Young suggests, “Insufficient attention is paid to features such as Richardson’s use of the group protagonist and Edmonds’s use of black actors and white gangster stereotypes in Gangsters over Harlem (Young 459)”.
The A to Z of African American Theater (2009)
This book complies an extensive list of African American Theater entangled with Egyptian rituals, West African folklore, and European theoretical practices. This collection involves storytelling, mythology, rituals, plays, dances, etc. from ancient times to the present (2009). The chronology references over 500 cross-referenced dictionary entries on actors, directors, playwrights, plays, theater producing organizations, themes, locations, and theater movements and awards.
Hill, Anthony and Douglas Barnett. The A to Z of African American Theater. Volume 111 of the A to Z Guide Series. Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2009.
Locke, Alain and Montgomery Gregory. Plays of Negro Life, A Source Book of Native American Drama. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1927.
Sanders, Leslie Catherine. The Development of Black Theater in America: From Shadows to Selves. Baton Rouge and London: Louisiana State University Press, 1988.
Youngs, T. “The Development of Black Theater in America: From Shadows to Selves by Leslie Catherine Sanders (review).” Modern Drama, vol. 32 no. 3, 1989, pp. 458-459. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/mdr.1989.0008
In 1873, African-American performer, James A. Bland, educated in Washington, D.C. and graduated from Howard University. He wrote over 700 songs, often called “The World’s Greatest Minstrel Man”, Bland toured the United States, as well as Europe. Bland’s earliest recorded minstrel performance was with the “Original Black Diamonds of Boston” in 1875. Beginning in 1881, he spent 20 years in London before returning to the United States. Bland toured Europe in the early 1880s with Haverly’s “Genuine Colored Minstrels” and remained in England to perform as a singer/banjo player without blackface.
Peel, Matt, 1830-1859. Route table for Campbells [Minstrels] from August 7 to Nov[ember] 4 : autograph manuscript (signed), ca. 1857.
Records towns in which Campbell Minstrels performed in Rhode Island, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Washington D.C., Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Louisiana.
According to The African-American Theatre Directory, which contains records of Blach theatre involvement from 1816 to 1960, Washington, D.C and the greater D.C.-Maryland area is recorded as having many dramatic clubs and societies created by/for African Americans, or with racially integrated membership policies, during the late 19th century.
(1883) Ira Aldridge Assn./Club/Co. in Washington, D.C.
(1882) Lawrence Barett Dramatic Club in Washington, D.C
(1888) Our Boys Dramatic Club in Baltimore, MD
Named after American actor, Lawrence Barett, the D.C. Lawrence Barett Dramatic Club was a dramatic club that African-Americans could join in order to create theatrical communities, hone their crafts, and possibly, put on productions. According to records of membership, it appears to either have been a racially mixed group or likely to have had two branches.