Redefining, Restructuring, Revitalizing HBCU Theatre

By D, King | Black Masks, April 3, 1999 | Go to article overview

Redefining, Restructuring, Revitalizing HBCU Theatre


D, King, Black Masks


Redefining, Restructuring, Revitalizing HBCU Theatre

Does a future exist for theatre programs in the historically Black college and university (HBCU)? Will its past record be a barometer of the future? What will be the nature, structure and scope of such programs? How can administrators and theatre faculties help to prepare and influence the future status and scope of such programs? As educators, we have an ethical and professional responsibility to reflect on what it is we do, how we do it, and how we may improve it. We must develop strategies to compete in this ever-changing world of academia. We must look towards redefining, restructuring, and revitalizing our programs if we hope to be a viable force in the 21st century.

Redefining

Redefining theatre in Black colleges and universities must begin with a sense of what it is, and what it stands for. Its purpose must be made clear and significantly understood. The academic world of yesterday did not look at arts-related activities as helpful to the preparation of students for the world. Courses in theatre were not taken seriously and were thought to be an extra "frill." Theatre was merely entertainment. Many historically Black institutions still live in this type of time-warp posture, according little respect to theatre studies. Despite the distinction theatre studies might bring to the institution, theatre programs are still treated as second-class citizens. Several have been housed with other disciplines for years. Disastrous is the, plight of those small programs still housed in English departments. The lack of autonomy of such programs establishes a lack of effective leadership and provides conflicting academic values. Undergraduate theatre majors found in such departments will cease to gain the total vocational training vital for obtaining jobs and/or graduate recruitment.

Still other programs have been totally phased out in favor of what are considered more lucrative programs (i.e., mass communication, instructional technology). Considered more expensive than other disciplines by the upper administration, theatre studies is usually the most vulnerable program and the first to go when budgets and curriculums are cut to a minimum. Certainly, if a balanced commitment to theatre in our educational institutions is to be achieved, its administrative and governance structure must be clearly defined.

Theatre educators in HBCUs must also insist upon respectability and demonstrate to our college presidents, chancellors, vice chancellors and deans that we are a necessity and a lifeline for the continued growth of our culture and of the institution. This growth cannot take place without a redefining of goals, purpose and mission. "Business cannot go on as usual," stated Dr. Floyd Sandle, Professor Emeritus of Grambling State University and the Keynote speaker at the opening session of the 58th NADSA (The National Association of Dramatic and Speech Arts) Conference. Careful thought must be given to why we exist, whom we serve in this technical age and what it is we hope to achieve in this unique idiom.

Restructuring

Black college and university theatre must be more concerned with discovery. and investigation into those facts that explain our rich cultural heritage and world view. We must reinforce exploration into present-day technology to seek out, create and develop new idioms that encourage and defend our traditional values and ethics. Our literature is rich, and we as theatre scholars must encourage new growth. Our students must be made to feel free to try new modes not only in literature, and criticism, but in technical theatre and management as well.

Students must be taught how to engage in qualitative and quantitative investigative research to increase their knowledge about the historical contributions made by the African Grove Theatre, and the Federal Theatre Project, of Ira Aldridge, America's first great black tragedian, and of John M. …

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