The story of the artist's struggle for success is a frequently told one. Even the careers of black artists such as Eubie Blake, Duke Ellington and Romare Bearden have been described regularly.
So the one-hour special by Renee Poussaint on the contributions and hardships of black Washington artists, "Getting There," at 8 p.m. on Channel 7, reviews familiar history. This is not to say it is a bland chronicle, or that new or young audiences don't need the education. But the story and its conclusion--that the black artist's battle continues to be not only for recognition but against racism, too--have not changed significantly with each telling.
Poussaint, the show's reporter, narrator and writer, and Marianna Spicer, its producer, do give the story some new spins. First, they establish Washington as a cultural mecca, starting with the heady successes at the Howard Theater and the cultural brainstorming at Howard University in the l920s and '30s. The middle of the show deals with contemporary established professionals. Then, we hear summaries and forecasts from today's aspirants at the Duke Ellington School for the Arts. Here are different voices but the same divisions. Rosalynn Coleman is determined to break the code of artistic segregation by playing Lady Macbeth. Renee Littlepage has already sidestepped this fight by choosing teaching over performing.
Along with the historic material, "Getting" includes interviews with artists Lois Jones Pierre-Noel and David Driskell; musicians Frank Hinton and Mercer Ellington; poet May Miller, and theater director Frederic Lee. These artists have scaled down their ambitions to fit the opportunities of Washington, but they agree that changing times and equal opportunity laws have not made their struggle easier. "Once one or two black artists are established in the community," says Driskell, "the white community feels it has done its duty."
The production has some flaws and loose ends. W.E.B. Du Bois, the social and political theorist, is described as a Washingtonian, although he was born in Massachusetts and only visited here. That's an unnecessary inflation, as is the outlandish statement on Duke Ellington: "Some say with his arrival came the birth of jazz." Poussaint, who opens the show standing in front of the locked Howard Theater, never returns to that site to explain why several recent managements of the theater have failed. That would have fit nicely into director Lee's challenge that some of the black artist's success and failure depends on black audience support.