On the same night producer Hazel Bryant was opening a controversial all-black interpretation of "Long Day's Journey Into Night" at a New York church, she also was rehearsing a musical at another theater, negotiating with Joseph Papp for a larger theater for "Journey" and coordinating a workshop class for 50 students at yet another studio. "She wears us out," said John Mazzola, the president of Lincoln Center.
Right now, Washingtonians are seeing some of the results of that same relentless energy with Bryant's revival of Langston Hughes' "Black Nativity" and the upcoming musical "Apollo," which originated in her workshop. Long considered a force in the black and local theater communities of New York, Bryant is beginning to expand her reputation here.
That reputation is based largely on the 13-year record of her theater company, The Richard Allen Center for Culture and Art, which survived the years of the 1960s riot "cool out" money; on her successful staging of Eugene O'Neill's classic; and on her organization of two arts festivals at Lincoln Center and a forthcoming black arts colloquium in Italy.
Bryant, 42, is a slim woman with long dark hair. Her round face has a controlled friendliness. Anxiety only interrupts when she humorously describes the maze of Italian contracting procedures she has had to confront during the last few months, or the reluctance of the African troupes to do matinees, or when she angrily lists the faults of the black theater. One of the costs of her ambition and the pressure from her business has been poor health. In 1967, the year she sang in the background for Barbra Streisand in "Funny Girl," Bryant had open-heart surgery; seven years later, she suffered from sarcoidosis, a disease that affected her lymph nodes and skin and left her paralyzed for eight months.
Restructuring "Black Nativity," the late 1950s work of Langston Hughes, a seminal black American man of letters, and then heavily editing his words was another gamble. Since the play had never been published, Bryant worked furiously to glean all the elements from scholars, performers, a recording of the first act by producer Vinnette Carroll, and Bryant's own memory of an amateur production in the early 1960s.
When she "saw it on its feet," she decided to cut it in half. "It was a two-act work . . . The second act is Mr. Hughes' response to the 1954 school desegregation decision and the incoming cultural revolution that was expressed during the '60s. A great deal of that material now is seriously dated and angry, sometimes without documentation to prove some of the charges that are made. So because it becomes an extraordinarily political piece in the second act, and is so dated, we dropped it," says Bryant.
What Bryant finally staged was artistically more manageable and dramatic, and more marketable. "I felt there ought to be an annual Christmas celebration from the Afro-American culture, similar to what they do with the 'Nutcracker Suite' . . . Generation after generation is developed knowing that work and loving that work," she explained. In the next few months, the show is scheduled for Lincoln Center and the Vatican, as part of a black arts festival of theater, dance and music Bryant has arranged. It will also be produced by the ABC Television cable division. For the first time, Bryant will have two companies touring.
Her push and her high standards come from her childhood in a household headed by a bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. For 20 years her father, Harrison Bryant, had campaigned for a bishop's post. "He never gave up. He was elected when he was 60," said Bryant, who grew up in Ohio, Kentucky and Maryland. "The kind of work I'm involved in doesn't happen overnight; what is worthwhile, what needs to be done and will serve people will be accomplished."
She has had plenty of tests for her principles. In the early 1960s, when Bryant went to New York and when black theater was thriving off-Broadway, Bryant didn't like the options available for a trained black singer.
"In 1963, the biggest thing that had been done for a black woman was 'No Strings' with Diahann Carroll. Then there was nothing. Then a few years later they did 'Hallelujah Baby' for Leslie Uggams. In the main, the only kind of work you could do were maids or companions who wore maid uniforms," recalled Bryant. "That is not the complete story of the black women in this country, but the American theater was only willing to deal with that one aspect. It became important to me because I had played a number of maids and I had had it. So I decided to write." She lets out a loud laugh, catching the irony of those conditions coming full circle, after 20 years, back to fewer roles.
Given that lack of opportunity and the limits placed on her own career after her illness, Bryant started her own company in 1968. Her family gave her money for the first year, and gradually the Richard Allen Center (named after the founder of the A.M.E. Church in America) attracted foundation and government. By the second year, however, the artists -- who included Robert Guillaume, George Faison, Louis Johnson, Beverly Todd and 'Nativity' choreographer Hope Clarke -- needed to earn a more substantial living. Bryant, who had appeared in "Funny Girl," "A Taste of Honey" and "Hair," understood and turned her attention to a laboratory theater for performances and training.
Her first festival in 1979 at Lincoln Center revived Bryant's reputation among the theater power brokers. Says Bryant, "The festival was born out of the need to work with very professional talent. After that, the professionals began to take us seriously again." In 1979 she was able to raise $500,000. Now Bryant is looking for ways to survive government funding cuts. "At least half of the $100,000 we received from the New York State Council on the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts will be cut," says Bryant. But she feels the tour and cable markets will make up for those losses.
The fund shortage, Bryant said, saps the energy of the black writers and gnaws away at the foundations of the black theater movement. "People are anxious for plays. But the black writer seems not to believe that the plays will get a hearing or he'll have the money to write the plays. The Imamu Barakas and Ed Bullins now have children who are approaching college age. Money is a major issue. It is understandable why they don't write, but it's sad. If they don't continue to write, there won't be any black theater."