1960s Black Theater History: REMINISCENCES OF AN ACTOR WHO LIVED IT

By Wakefield, Jacques | Black Masks, January 1, 2017 | Go to article overview

1960s Black Theater History: REMINISCENCES OF AN ACTOR WHO LIVED IT


Wakefield, Jacques, Black Masks


How does theater play a role in our lives? Is it like love? Like food or clothing? Do we need it? What is the purpose of theater in the lives of people of African descent? Is it just entertainment? Is it a distraction from ignorance, pain, or the general attitude of being taken advantage of by the racial henpecking order of a society that chases the dollar religiously? What does theater do for Black people? Why do, or should Black people go to see some fabricated semblance of reality? Isn't the drama of our individual lives enough?

Black theater is an institution of cultural information, adapted by descendants of Africans and refined in form and context (in some instances) away from the enemies of psychological enslavement. Also, it transcends everyday reality and spells out the living patterns of where and what we are, or should be or can be-a way to see our true selves. It also reveals a solidarity of effort that precludes the language and logic of our oppressors with Black aesthetic style. Yet, today too much Black theater has become revivals, popular low comedy, sentimental domestic guilt trips or venues for the young to be an angry voice of somebody else's past. Theater should be a trusted form of communication; it lives as no other art form can. It lives now. The flesh and blood of the actor and the audience are reciprocal.

I was a Black actor/poet when Black theater meant Black life-where it lived on the stage and on the page and in the hope of Black progress. The first and most memorable book I read about Black theater was Loften Mitchell's Black Drama. It helped me to understand theater from a Black perspective and led to monumental and innovative experiences for me with foundational New York Black theater institutions, such as HARYOUACT's theater, directed by Leonard Parker; Harlem School of the Arts, founded by Dorothy Maynor; Barbara Ann Teer's National Black Theatre; and Vinnette Carroll's Urban Arts Corps.

When Martin Luther King Jr. was shot in 1968, many of us in the Harlem community shot straight to 125 th St. and commenced to perform in the "theater of destruction and retaliation"-the misguided but quickest way we could think of to avenge the death of the great man. After these so-called "riots," federal, state and city agencies started pouring money into arts programs in the Black community. Black theater/urban theater received a share. I was fortunate to have been there when some of those theater groups began to breathe creative air and flex theatrical muscle in a Black way.

The Harlem School of the Arts (HSA), still located on 141st St. and St. Nicholas Ave., was started by opera singer Dorothy Maynor in 1964. I didn't know that then when I was invited to join their teenage theater group by a classmate. HSA's staff was distinguished and gave me a look at theater as a profession. Barbara Ann Teer, who went on to found the National Black Theatre, was the teenage drama instructor. NBC's John Johnson was the adult drama instructor. He performed a monologue for the Teen Drama class from LeRoi Jones's Dutchman that scared the living sheets (and pillow cases) out of me, and made me a believer in the art of acting!

It was with the Harlem School of the Arts that the teenage group appeared on CBS's Repertory Workshop performing Lenox Avenue Sunday. Teer directed and the late and profoundly missed Larry Neal wrote the lyrics, while extraordinary pianist Andrew Hill wrote the music. The musical also featured the talented actress and journalist Abiola Sinclair and the popular actor Antonio Fargas. I'll always remember that experience because I was the featured singer, and the words and music of that piece gave my artistic efforts form and focus; its lyricism floats in my head to this day.

I enjoyed my stay at HSA but it didn't last for long. There was some contention among the staff as to whether Vachel Lindsay's poem, "The Congo," was appropriate for young Black Americans to perform. …

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