Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Acting Out: Black Theater in Transition

Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Acting Out: Black Theater in Transition

Article excerpt

Theater Schools Cast in Key Role

August Wilson has achieved the success most playwrights only dream about. His award-winning plays - which include "Fences", "Joe Turner's Come and Gone," and "The Piano Lesson" - have rendered sensitive and probing portrayals of African American life. Staged in venues ranging from regional theaters to Broadway, Wilson's plays have earned two Pulitzer Prizes and lavish praise from critics.

So it came as something of a shock to the theatrical world last year when Wilson chose to castigate the nonprofit theater establishment for its alleged part in undermining African American theater. The Charge was made at Princeton University during his keynote address to a gathering of the Theatre Communications Group, a leading nonprofit theater organization.

"... Black Theater in America is alive ... it is vital ... it just isn't funded," Wilson said. "Black theatre doesn't share in the economics that would allow it to support its artists and supply them with meaningful avenues to develop their talent and broadcast and disseminate ideas crucial to its growth. The economics are reserved as privilege to the overwhelming abundance of institutions that preserve, promote, and perpetuate White culture."

Wilson criticized funding organizations for rewarding majority-White regional theaters for programming plays about minorities while failing to support Black theater organizations. He declared that White-controlled theater companies were attempting to diversify their programming at the expense of the Black theater establishment.

Wilson's comments brought new attention to the cause of independent Black theater in America. A number of Black theater professionals say he voiced a widely-felt frustration with the nonprofit theater establishment. But they also point out that continued survival of Black theater will require considerable innovation to strengthen links to the communities in which theater companies reside, and to institutions, such as historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs).

In recent years, the works of contemporary Black playwrights, such as Wilson, have found a receptive environment at HBCUs. Dr. Mikell Pinkney, assistant professor of theater at the University of Florida, undergraduate drama programs at HBCUs have remained highly competitive in attracting African American students even while better funded programs at traditionally White institutions (TWIs) have welcomed Black students. Pinkney is president of the Black Theatre Network, a nonprofit organization of African American theater faculty and theater professionals.

"One of the problems for Black students at majority White institutions is that they don't get the acting opportunities," says Dr. Darius L. Swann, former professor of drama and religion at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. "If they get a chance, it's usually the role of a maid or something like that."

Swann, an African American and an advocate of non-traditional casting, has always made an effort to give Black students a shot at substantive roles.

Black college drama programs have been considered essential to African American theater companies because they depend on trained graduates to staff their companies and to perform in productions. Yet, Dr. Michael Lomax, founder of the National Black Arts Festival and president of Dillard University, said there have been too few contemporary linkages forged between HBCUs and Black theater companies.

"Before desegregation, there were greater links between HBCUs and their communities in terms of the arts. HBCUs were largely the center of Black theatrical activity," Lomax said.

Perpetually Challenged

The tradition of independent Black theater has been considered vital to the development of American theater. As early as the nineteenth century, independent Black theater companies nurtured and produced the works of African American playwrights and provided acting and other opportunities for thousands more. …

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