Can Multiculturalism Save African-American Theater?

By Nesmith, Eugene | American Theatre, November 1995 | Go to article overview

Can Multiculturalism Save African-American Theater?


Nesmith, Eugene, American Theatre


In order to save African-American theatre, we black theatre practitioners need to build bridges and coalitions with anyone and everyone who shares our values. We must take the lead in being inclusive. We must seek the support of individuals and institutions, regardless of race or ethnicity, who are interested in our work.

By placing less stress on the concept of "race" in our definitions of theatre and aesthetics, we will take a first step toward these goals. After all, "race" is agreed by many humanists and social scientists to be a slippery and intrinsically mythological concept invented originally by European racists to assert the superiority of whites over everybody else in the world who was darker in skin color. Noting that the concept is based on mythology rather than concrete differences is not to say that race is of no importance - to the contrary, the mythological character of the construct of race renders it a formidable obstacle, as the history of racial oppression in this country will attest.

However, it is our job as blacks in the theatre to make clear that our jumping-off point is our peculiar ethnicity and our unique cultural contributions, not the distinction of race or racism. And it is possible to interpret membership in the African-American subculture in a variety of ways - we don't have one monolithic point of view. As black theatre practitioners, we must begin to make room for these various perspectives. Considering race or blackness or even African-ness our key defining term can only serve to limit our work and exclude much of our potential audience.

The problem is that the concept of race places the stress on deprivation and oppression. The problem is also that a black theatre implies that there must be a white theatre as well. Structured as a binary opposition, the unmarked term, (white) theatre, always has the advantage, while the marked term, black theatre, is always implicitly denigrated, subsidiary and marginalized. Instead, I am recommending that we black theatre practitioners, regardless of our theoretical differences on topics ranging from the viability of community theatre to Afrocentricity, begin to consider ourselves fully equal participants in the tradition of the American theatre.

I am not advocating the demise of black theatre. Rather I would like to see the definition of black theatre expanded to be more inclusive. It matters less what we call our theatre than what we do. Most important is to make sure that our work is supported, financially and artistically, as much as everybody else's.

From the earliest appearance of black theatre in the U.S. through the '50s, a separatist concept of black theatre was necessary and unavoidable because of official and unofficial policies of segregation and discrimination rampant throughout the land. Then, during the '60s, black rage and cultural differences demanded separatism in response to history. But to persist in pursuing the idea of a separatist black theatre in the '90s seems to me narrow and self-defeating when funding for the arts in general is being drastically cut, and there is little support available for autonomous black institutions, in any case. …

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