By Miles, Shanda
Black Masks , Vol. 13, No. 2
Summit II -- Atlanta, Georgia
On Sunday, July 12th 1998, The African Grove Institute for the Arts, Inc. (AGIA) crossed the Mason-Dixon Line and convened its second summit in Atlanta, Georgia in conjunction with the National Black Arts Festival. Immersion into this site of strong historical Black experience encapsulated the Summit's goal to baptize its participants with the religious, cultural and historical realities of Black theatre today.
The summit spanned a four-day period, kicking off at the Alliance Theatre with the opening of August Wilson's Jitney. The next morning, at the Opening Plenary session, August Wilson, Chair of the Board of AGIA, clearly set forth the purpose of Summit II saying, "We are here not to protest but to proclaim." He also spoke passionately about the "systematic systemic underdevelopment of Black Theatre."
After the Opening Plenary session, eight roundtable discussions were held over the next three days. The topics of discussion ranged from "Management and Institutional Development," to "Aesthetics, Standards and Practices in the Black Theatre," from "Acting and Directing," to "Developing Black Playwrights." Sessions were held daily from 10am - 12:30pm and then again from 2pm - 4:30pm. The wealth of knowledge was endless. It was inspirational to see our history and future being written. These panels were the vehicles through which the journey began to take place. Topics that presently perplex the Black Theatre community surfaced in nearly all of the panel discussions held. Issues of strategic planning, financing, cataloging of work, training of students and youth, education, and the acceptance of our brothers and sisters within and beyond our American boundaries were themes that recurred in many discussions.
The first panel I attended was "Diversity Within the Black Arts Community." Its title was later changed by the participants to "Cultures Rooted in African Diaspora and Theatre." This decision represented the panel's belief that diversity can be divisive and that we all must be incorporated. The panelists were Ntozake Shange, poet, playwright, and professor of American Literature at Prairie View A & M; SuAndi, performance artist, poet, and playwright from the Black Arts Alliance in the United Kingdom; Joan Lewis, independent director, producer, and associate professor at Clark Atlanta University; and Ishmael Reed, author and 1998 MacArthur "Genius Award" winner. With such a dynamic panel, one can only imagine the power in the room. Ishmael Reed spoke of "the separate but equal" treatment and candidly suggested what should be done to alleviate the present day Jim Crow status of Black theaters. Reed called for "more money to regional theaters" and the creation of "an ethnic coalition." This fight is not just about and for African Americans alone.
As the panel opened up and the audience threw away their "Anglo African American" focuses, the youth jumped in and issues of generational links and sexual orientation were raised and addressed. Joan Lewis, Ntozake Shange and other panelists tried to explain that many of the issues brought up by the youth had been addressed in the works of numerous artists of the past and present. The need for everyone to educate themselves was captured by Joan Lewis who challenged the participants with a Louisiana creole saying which states: "The more ignorance you maintain, the more ignorant you become." Everyone left the room with a desire to know more about our art and with a charge to preserve and document the information.
The second panel I attended was on "Acting and Directing." Director and actor Shirley Jo Finney facilitated the discussion. It was one of the last forums held and one of the first to have the room rearranged into a circle to incorporate all of those present into a communal atmosphere. Again, I was in the presence of history, as the panel consisted of Tonea Stewart, actor and professor at Alabama State University; Glenda Dickerson, professor at the University of Michigan and curator of Theatre/Drama of the National Black Arts Festival; and Andrea Frye, actor and director. …