A New Script for Black Theater: Dartmouth Conference Focuses on New Strategies

Article excerpt

Nearly two years ago, playwright August Wilson stunned the American theatre community by charging that predominately white arts organizations were guilty of undermining African American theater companies. The charges -- delivered at Princeton University before the Theatre Communications Group, a leading nonprofit theater organization--sparked a national debate about the role of African American theater companies in American theater.

Black theater professionals credited the Pulitzer prize-winning playwright for voicing a widely felt frustration with the nonprofit theater establishment. The dilemma, Wilson and others argue, is that while plays with Black themes and Black theater professionals have enabled predominately White regional theaters to attract audiences and subsidies from foundations and public agencies, funding organizations have failed to support independent African American theater companies. (For more detail see August 7, 1997 edition, Black Issues In Higher Education.)

Earlier this month, two Dartmouth College professors organized a national meeting on the future of African American theater. Dr. Victor Leo Walker II, assistant professor of drama and film studies, and Dr. William W. Cook, chair of the English department, put together a six-day summit and conference at the Hanover, New Hampshire-based campus that ran from March 2 to March 7. Wilson, who is at Dartmouth as a Kenneth and Harle Montgomery Endowment fellow, served as the convener of the six-day event.

"The purpose of the meeting [was] to devise plans for the African American theater community. This [was] not a debate; it [was] a working session," Cook said.

More than forty leading Black theater artists, scholars, arts and community organizers, entrepreneurs, and executives attended private meetings during the initial five-day summit. More than 300 people turned out for the one-day conference on March 7, titled "African American Theatre: The Next Stage." Event funding came from the Rockefeller Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and Dartmouth University.

Proceedings began with closed-door sessions at Dartmouth's Minary Conference Center in Ashland, N.H. Participants discussed and presented action plans on topics including audience development, legal issues, finance, and Black playwright development. On Saturday, March 7, summit participants returned to Dartmouth for the one-day conference, which was open to the public and the news media.

Summit participant Dr. Samuel Hay, who is the author of African American Theatre Historical and Critical Analysis, used the six-day meeting to build support for the idea of a National Endowment for African American Theater. Hay, who is professor of theater arts at North Carolina A&T State University, aims to raise $25 million over twenty-five years and use the endowment's interest earnings to fund African American theater companies.

"I went to Dartmouth to get help with developing a structure to establish a fund that is going to secure the long-term future of African American theater. …