Art and Advocacy: The Pulse of Clinton Turner Davis.
In 1994, the Audelco Award for Outstanding Director and Outstanding Ensemble Production was given to the creative, disciplined director Clinton Turner Davis for The Acting Company's production and national tour of The African Company Presents Richard III. It was Davis's 55th show in a theatrical directing career that has spanned over twenty years.
Davis strongly credits his success to having taken "time to get the necessary training at Howard University's Department of Theatre Arts. That was a rare, intense, fertile climate," he states. "Debbie Allen, Clyde Barrett, Glenda Dickerson, Harry Poe, Phylicia Rashad, Clay Goss, the Truitts, and others all came together to combine their talents and influence each other. We were all taught by Eleanor Traylor, Vera Katz and the great Owen Dodson, whose passion, compassion, sensitivity and mind for theatre was on the grand scale!"
Prior to his studies at Howard, Davis had declared a major in English at Hanover College in Indiana, flirted with a career in theology, studied dance with Alvin Ailey and Arthur Mitchell, and music with Norma Williams. Thus, Davis already possessed a combination of many of the numerous, vital elements that are necessary to fulfill the role of director.
Upon graduating from Howard, Davis's entrance into professional theatre in 1971 was as an actor/dancer/singer. From there, he moved into stage management, since balancing time and organizational skills had been well-learned in the Washington, DC home of his parents. "We were raised to strive to be the very best we could in whatever we attempted. I am thankful for those expectations now." Between 1973 and 1983, while an instructor, literary manager, casting director and production supervisor for the great Negro Ensemble Company (NEC), he became not only a witness to a fecund era of Black theatre history but also an integral participant in the original mounting of a significant body of African American plays.
In 1983, he left his staff position at the NEC to work as production stage manager for Lena Horne's national and international tour. Committing himself to free-lance directing, Davis returned to the NEC during breaks in the tour and following the tour to direct Pearl Cleage's Puppetplay, Trevor Rhone's Two Can Play, Steve Carter's House of Shadows and Paul Carter Harrison's Abercrombie Apocalypse.
Meanwhile, Davis had become a councillor for Actors' Equity. As a result of Equity studies of LORT theatres (League of Resident Theatres) which floodlighted the low percentage of working ethnic artists, Davis, along with Johanna Merlin and Harry Newman, decided to bring "the issue of exclusion of ethnic artists to the forefront. Racism had to get addressed," says Davis who has also been stereotyped in the past as a director of exclusively African American plays. "The regional theatre pigeonholes ethnic directors by forcing us to compete only against one another through the unspoken policy of `we already have one and he's directing our one African American production of the season'...There should be no limits to my artistic possibilities."
Thus in 1986, the Non-Traditional Casting Project (NTCP) was created. Originating in New York City, then in Washington, DC, San Francisco, Cleveland and Los Angeles, and working through symposia, lectures, scene presentations, panels, dialogues and written documentation, NTCP approached the ignorant, the intolerant and the impervious in an effort to enlarge the windows of opportunity for all theatre artists. Under NTCP's auspices, critics, producers, writers and directors were lobbied for the inclusion of African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, women and the physically challenged. For this landmark effort, the 1987 Obie Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Theatre went to Clinton Turner Davis as one of the co-founders of NTCP. There can be no doubt that the Non-Traditional Casting Project has left an indelible mark on American theatre.
Well-aware that attention needed to be paid to the funding arena for all of the above activities, Davis became a panelist and on-site auditor for the National Endowment for the Arts, for state arts agencies and for foundations. He toured the country, assessing the quality of theatre companies and their needs; putting the work and the community in the proper context; making suggestions for grant guidelines to include diversity; exposing and exploring the subjective funding term "quality"; asking probing questions; sensitizing the unaware and disinterested; bringing these issues to the table again and again and AGAIN.
With his verbal agility, his well-honed vocabulary (from an avocation of reading a varied diet of both Afro and Euro-centric history, novels, biographies, poetry, art history and cookbooks!), his precise and careful phrasing of buried truths, and his ability to excavate new ideas, Clinton Turner Davis became an accurate, calm yet strongly centered spokesman for what he calls, "the worthiness of the ethnic urge and the rightful need for its survival."
Beyond his masterful advocacy on behalf of diversity, the heartbeat of Clinton Turner Davis is always pounding at high speed because of his profession as a free-lance artist. In his sonorous, deep voice, he states, "I approach each job with a greater passion because I may go into a dry spell." He adds with his usual wit, "[Last month] was slow...they come and go!" Yet, it is "the magic of the rehearsal process versus the film editing room which keeps me fighting the good fight in live theatre...How human beings view the world constantly surrounded by nature; how to fill that empty space in order to make the events of the play understood; how to discover the pulse of the play and to adjust that pulse to achieve the greatest amount of comprehension" is what directing is about for Davis. "The musicality of the play, its language (both written and oral), its rhythms, how the moments fit together, the arc of the emotions, the development" all interweave into the way the actors and dancers move on his stage. "The movement is the heartbeat of the play."
In his directorial capacity, he is also "driven by bringing a text to life from the ground floor, and by crystallizing the ideas of writers, thereby making them accessible to as wide an audience as possible." He possesses enormous respect for the playwright, and is stimulated by working as a dramaturg. He has done so with scripts by Alonzo Lamont, Jr. and Eugene Lee, among others. Ever eager to realize the writer's intent, he deeply appreciated August Wilson's validating comment, "That's just what I had in mind. Thank you," after Wilson viewed the 1993 opening night of Davis's direction of Joe Turner's Come and Gone at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
In his work with actors, Davis says he searches for a serious focus and the ability "to make new, wild choices; to trust themselves and me; to embrace vulnerability; to get the necessary homework done; to keep ahead of the curve of time; to understand the enhancement of the technical contributions to their roles; and to respect the essentials of theatre." He adds, "I often try to stay clear of those who come to auditions with personality and emotional problems: the baggage of trouble."
In a career as prodigious as Davis's, capturing and documenting all of the contributions he has made defies space. Nevertheless, his teaching and consulting throughout the Bahamas; his nationwide appearances as theatre panelist; his stage management/production supervision for notable concerts such as Phylicia Rashad's at Town Hall (1985), and the late Noel Pointer's at the Savoy Theatre (1982); as well as The Tribute to the legendary Diana Sands at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre (1972); all dramatize the vast, resonating outreach of Clinton Turner Davis.
His dark eyes also vibrate with excitement about his role as production company manager for the "Celebrate Africa Festival" held in Atlanta as part of the Cultural Olympiad in 1994. This event, which presented theatre companies from all of Africa, reverberated with one of Davis's major themes: ritual. His spiritual center is grounded in the Yoruba consciousness, "finding that balance in the space one occupies between oneself, the ancestors and the unborn."
Continuing his leitmotif of balance, Davis speculates on his future. In addition to his other artistic pursuits, he also wishes to write both plays and musicals. In 1985, his production of Air Guitar which he co-wrote with Robert Alexander, won the Bay Area Critics award not only for direction, but also for book, score and choreography. He also wrote and directed the "Tribute to Katherine Dunham" at the First National Black Arts Festival in Atlanta in 1988. Moreover, he has authored and presented numerous published addresses, including one entitled, "Black Theatre at a Crossroads, In Crisis...Coalition?" given at the Black Theatre Network National Conference in 1994 in Chicago. Davis's 1995/96 plans include being a visiting professor in the Drama Department at Colorado College in Colorado Springs; directing Black Nativity at Freedom Theatre; and directing Ifa Bayeza's Homer G and the Rhapsodies in the Fall of Detroit, Episode I, The Judgment of Paris at the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre in San Francisco. This adaptation of the Homer's Iliad and Odyssey recently won the Kennedy Fund for New American Plays.
Davis's continual creed of "revealing oneself to oneself and not fearing or getting angry about what one sees there"; his sustaining four-year personal relationship; his supportive network of close global friends; and his journeys home to his mother and father and family feed his stability in this teeter-totter business. Speaking of family, he says in folksy vernacular, "Ya' know, many of my cousins are in the theatre: Horacena Taylor, John `Moe' Moore, John Williams, Clifton and Camilla Sherard."
But not all of Clinton Turner Davis's life is wrapped up in the theatre. Somehow, he also finds time to collect art and sculpture, antiquarian books and first editions of African American authors. He also enjoys quoting lines retained from his avaricious reading. He can reference passages of dialogue to music as well, drawing from his knowledge of classical music and jazz. And he lights up when he dreams of building his log cabin on family land in South Carolina. "Ya' see, part of me takes theatre extremely seriously. Another part says I could be something else. It's not the end all and be all 'cause, ya' know, I'm still on that journey!"
Photo (Phylicia Rashad and Seret Scott)…