Art and Advocacy: The Pulse of Clinton Turner Davis

By Katz, Vera J. | Black Masks, December 31, 1995 | Go to article overview

Art and Advocacy: The Pulse of Clinton Turner Davis


Katz, Vera J., Black Masks


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.

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