What if more organizations that started as a result of the Black Arts Movement survived?
I can properly state without reservation that our art form would be light years ahead of where it is now. I say this not out cultural pride alone, but looking at the artists and the art the movement spawned, the original statement might be underplayed.
I remember when I first encountered Miss Roj, on that small stage off the highway in New Jersey, I knew that it was a transcendent theatrical moment, but I had no idea of the debt that it owed to the Black Arts Movement. This play, The Colored Museum was produced and developed at Crossroads Theatre Company, New Brunswick, NJ. A company that grew out of the BAM that still survives. It was written by George C. Wolfe who developed as an artist, in part, at the Inner City Cultural Center in Los Angeles. This character and the play itself were an exploration of form and content that moved the aesthetic needle forward. Woodie King and the New Federal Theatre introduced For Colored Girl who Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf by Ntzoke Shange to New York audiences. This work not only opened up performance art but also opened a larger discourse on Black Feminism. This is not even to mention the aesthetic brilliance of Ed Bullins in both the Black House of Black Arts West as well as his work with the New Lafayette Players. His plays are numerous, but his play The Theme is Blackness is one of the great explorations in American playwriting. I have not even mentioned The Negro Ensemble Company an organization that operated as an ancillary to the Black Arts Movement but still built a cadre of playwrights, designers, directors and of course scores of actors. These artists individually and collectively have done for the American Theatre for the last 40 years what Black popular music has done for the music industry.
I have the honor and privilege to work for Penumbra Theatre Company. This organization has been the home for a myriad of artists produced August Wilson’s first professional play– Black Bart and the Sacred Hills. Our founder and Artistic Director Lou Bellamy has never abandoned the primacy of a central tenant of the Black Arts Movement: that this work needs to be “by us, for us, about us, and near us.” This concept was actually articulated during the New Negro Movement (euphemistically known as The Harlem Renaissance) of the early 20th century. These pillars forces a primacy of cultural specificity that helps to build unique aesthetics that can make transcendent art. This work also has a focus on the role of community and audience. In this concept, community and audience are near synonymous. This causes the systems of construction to be honed to a razor’s edge.
The dearth or the death of these organization has caused theatre in general and Black theatre in particular to be, as the late modern artist James Brown said, “Like a dull knife, it just aint cutting. Talking loud and saying nothing.” Artists seem to be drifting into two sub-categories; they seem to make work, by me, for them, about us, near any place but our community. This work traffics consciously or not in pointless exotica or in poverty porn. The second category makes work, by me, for acceptance, about alienation, near people with more money than God. These plays seem to engage in the atomized black body (noble or otherwise) as an outcast. Anyone who makes theatre is an outcast in someway. This is tantamount to writing a play explaining that gravity is present in our atmosphere. This work has a place, but I would still think that both of these sub-genres should engage in a deeper complexity.
Complexity is the heart of an optimist.
What are the artists in the 21st century to do with this lack of resource? A few things are possible. For the organizations that exist, struggling Black artists should redouble their efforts to revive or enhance these organizations. This is not to benefit the organization but quite honestly to benefit the art that is made, and subsequently the artist. So many contemporary pieces by African-American playwrights could have been abetted by the honest dramaturgy that a cultural specific institution can provide. Additionally the tension to reposition the work for a white gaze is mitigated. The work can be examined under its own rules.
Audiences would be aided because one of the tenets of the Black Arts Movement was to breakdown the low art and high art walls. The sister/brother on the street corner should be able to have an entry point as well as the sister/brother in the ivory tower. This understanding of multiple points is crucial at Penumbra. One of these entry points is the use of history. The Sankofa Bird in our theatre lobby is not a symbol. It is a living principle. We consciously take what is beneficial from our past; bring it into our present to enact a positive future.
Finally, I feel that no artists should be ashamed to bring their entire selves into the room. I do not mean biology I mean culture. Culture should never be apologized for, or made secondary to your humanity. (i.e. I am a playwright who happens to be Black.) If you question this, I refer you to the Langston Hughes essay the Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain. As George Clinton said, he would like his funk pure. French food tastes different when it is made by French hands in France. Additionally the causal study that most Americans have of Black life makes it impossible for most persons to interact honestly with the work, unless what you are trying to do is sell Black culture to non-Black people.
If one would ask me what I want for Black artists:
1) Make your work for Black people even if they are not in your audience.
2) Construct work that has many entry points.
3) Support, build or rebuild Black institutions.
4) Embrace aesthetics and culture not topic and genetics.
5) Read previous plays. The work of earlier artists empowers. Any questions pick up Purple Flower by Marita Bonner published in 1928.
6) Make work to change the world not ascend yourself.
7) Love Black people in all of our colored contradictions.
Dominic Taylor is a director, playwright and the head of Penumbra’s OKRA New Play Development Program. Most recently, Mr. Taylor directed Black Nativity: A Season for Change at Penumbra. Other select directing credits include the new opera Fresh Faust at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, The Negroes Burial Ground at the Kitchen, N.Y.C., Uppa Creek at Dixon Place, and Ride The Rhythm in the Hip-Hop Theatre Festival. He is an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota where he has directed The Wiz, Night Train To Bolina and this spring will direct Execution of Justice. Mr. Taylor has worked with Crossroads Theater, Rites and Reasons Theatre, Goodman Theatre, Steppenwolf Theatre, The Public Theatre, New York Theatre Workshop, Playwrights Horizons, and Ensemble Studio Theatre, among others. He is an alumni member of New Dramatists and holds a Bachelor’s and a Master of Fine Arts Degree from Brown University.