In this city with a population that is almost 50 percent African American, there is only one full-time professional black theater company. There are no black-owned theater houses or stages in operation.
Yet on any given Sunday, a theatergoer might open a newspaper and find a “black” play on any given stage.
This past season in Washington was packed with plays by or about African Americans. Arena Stage presented “Every Tongue Confess,” starring Phylicia Rashad; Lynn Nottage’s “Ruined,” about rape in the Congo; and “Trouble in Mind,” a play by Alice Childress about race in show business. Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company presented “Bootycandy,” Robert O’Hara’s play about growing up gay and African American.
Theater Alliance, a mostly white group founded to “illuminate the interests of D.C.’s diverse populations,” presented a mesmerizing “Black Nativity” at H Street Playhouse. The Ford’s Theatre 2010-11 season opened with “Sabrina Fair,” by Samuel A. Taylor, which featured a black actress in the role famously played by Audrey Hepburn. “Fela!” the energetic real-life tale of legendary Nigerian singer Fela Kuti, produced by Jay-Z, Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith, played to sellout audiences at none other than the Shakespeare Theatre Company.
The season “shows the hunger for black theater in this city,” says Glenn Alan, executive director of the D.C. Black Theater Festival, which showcases national and international playwrights of color. But all these shows were presented by “mainstream theater companies or on mainstream” stages. “Not by black theater companies with their own spaces,” Alan said.
Jennifer L. Nelson, who for years led African Continuum Theatre, the city’s only full-time, professional African American theater troupe, says: “One of the things we are seeing happening in mainstream theater are more plays by African American writers being done in the mainstream than before.”
Nelson, now Ford’s director of special programming, said, “All regional theaters include plays by African Americans in their seasons.”
While plays by or about blacks have been proliferating in Washington, black theater companies have not. The historic Takoma Theatre is black-owned, but for years has sat shuttered in Takoma Park. The legendary D.C. Black Repertory Company, founded in the 1970s by Robert Hooks, is gone. Its successor, D.C. Rep Stage produces plays in residence at Howard Community College. African Continuum, which usually stages its performances at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, has reduced its season.
“We have seen a number of our theaters go under,” said Nelson. “Since the economic downturn, it has gotten worse. What is the state of black theater in Washington? This question keeps being asked over and over again. . . . I wish I had an answer that would make it clear. Because it is not 100 percent clear to anybody.”
One fact is clear, Nelson added: “This is not endemic to Washington, D.C.”
The national economic crisis has hit theater companies across the country hard.
Black theater companies have closed in Minneapolis, Philadelphia and New Jersey. Those that are still alive struggle to find other sources of revenue. “All of us have to figure out new ways to earn money,” said JoAnn M. Williams, executive director of African Continuum. Williams said the company has shifted its emphasis to trying to build an individual donor base with deeper pockets. Very few of the city’s wealthy black patrons make substantial donations.
“There are African Americans with wealth,” Williams said, “but they don’t give us money.” Williams contended that it is imperative for black patrons to support black theater with donations. “Buying a ticket is not the same as being a financial supporter of an organization,” Williams said. “The proceeds from ticket sales don’t cover the costs of a production.”
In its 15-year history as a production company, African Continuum, which has had 16 Helen Hayes Awards nominations and three Helen Hayes Awards, has produced more than 35 stage plays and seven world premieres. This fall, its production of “The Legend of Buster Nea” played to sellout audiences. “Blues for an Alabama Sky” last spring received good reviews for the cast and crew and was extended after nine sellout shows.
“It is not like there is no demand,” Williams said. “ . . . But this is an extremely expensive business.” And Washington audiences will pay only so much to see shows by smaller companies.
Black theaters across the country increasingly have found themselves competing with mainstream stages, which began targeting black audiences and producing plays by and about African Americans, according to theater directors. The bigger companies also receive grants from corporations and government aimed at increasing diversity.
Williams said black patrons must understand when they see plays at “mainstream theaters,” they are supporting mainstream theaters, not black theater. “We need African Americans who have the potential to support us to continue to support us or we are going to disappear,” Williams said. “And you will have theater that will be filtered and sanitized and it won’t be the essence of what black theater is.”
This controversial issue of disparity in funding was argued famously in 1996 by playwright August Wilson. In a speech entitled “The Ground on Which I Stand,” Wilson made an impassioned plea for the survival of black theaters. “Black theater in America is alive. It is vital. It just isn’t funded.”
Wilson blamed donors for sending money to white regional theaters for producing plays about blacks, while neglecting black theaters.
The speech outraged some critics, who responded that theater should have no color. Robert Brustein, a white theater critic, wrote that Wilson was advocating for a “reverse form of the old politics of division, an appeal for socially approved and foundation-funded separatism. . . . I don’t think Martin Luther King ever imagined an America where playwrights such as August Wilson would be demanding, under the pretense of calling for healing and unity, an entirely separate stage for black theater artists.”
In Washington, Jane Lang, founder and chair of the Atlas Performing Arts Center, said she thinks black theater in this city is no longer considered a separate entity. “I believe if there are black playwrights, black directors, black actors, I don’t care who owns the theater. To me, I’m interested in black theater,” said Lang, who has funded and produced a number of plays by black playwrights, including “Spunk: Three Tales by Zora Neale Hurston.” “Out of five shows we have produced, three have been black theater. . . . I think race is the most critical issue we face in our country. To me, the subject is really compelling. I don’t see why it matters that I’m white.”
Still, D.C. Black Theater Festival director Glenn Alan argues that there is a demand and a need in the District for a black resident theater company. When the Black Theater Festival debuted in 2010, it received 300 submissions and staged 127 performances in one week on 15 stages throughout the city.
“D.C. needs a black company with its own theater,” Alan said. On some mainstream stages, he added, “If it doesn’t sing and it doesn’t dance, it doesn’t play. We need a house that will speak to the African American story without editing.”