Item: One night last week, the audience sat riveted at Arena Stage as Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson's drama, "Joe Turner's Come and Gone," unfolded its powerful tale of the black experience circa 1911.Item: On a recent rainy evening, parents and supporters of the Eastern High School choir, which has been invited to represent the United States in the International Youth and Music Festival in Austria, applauded proudly as this group of dedicated young people sang "Lift Every Voice" to kick off a fund-raising drive for the trip.
Item: A few days before, an audience in black tie and art chic cheered wildly the local and African dancers, singers, artists and poets at the annual Mayor's Arts Awards.
At a time when blacks are grappling with questions of culture and identity once thought settled, the enthusiasm of audiences at recent cultural events revived a question that has long haunted me: Why can't Washington sustain a high level of black theater?
It wasn't always this way. In the wake of the 1960s and 1970s cultural explosion, this city did indeed support good black theater. The D.C. Black Repertory Company headed by actor Robert Hooks was the best known. That theater has been defunct for years. Thus, with the exception of the struggling Takoma Theater and the Howard University Players, which do not get the audiences they deserve, a black theatrical void exists in this predominantly black city.
"A lot of people thought the D.C. Black Repertory Company got a lot of money," said Peggy Cooper Cafritz, chairman emeritus of the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities. "It did not, but it was expected to achieve at a certain level. There was never enough money to hire a good administrator. We never had good marketing strategy, and philanthropy is a developing tradition that has to be cultivated in the black community."
What Cafritz was referring to was the lower economic status of an older generation that often prevented it from supporting culture. But younger blacks have no excuse. "We have had enough education to move beyond being stingy," she said.
But there's another factor as well; the black community must give long-term support so that its cultural institutions have time to develop. It took Arena Stage nearly 30 years of steady building to gain the first-rate national reputation it enjoys. New York's Negro Ensemble Company is celebrating its 20th anniversary season. But there was far less support for the growing pains of the D.C. Black Repertory Company.
Meanwhile, in its 20-year history, the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities' budget has grown to $3.5 million. Add the Art in Public Places project and other programs, and city funding for the arts is expected to exceed $6 million next year.
"Our goal is to make Washington, D.C., the cultural capital of the nation," commission staff head Barbara R. Nicholson said. So why isn't this town able to sustain black theater -- and dance, too, for that matter?
In seeking to foster the Barry administration objectives, the commission has pressured predominantly white theaters to put on black plays and employ black performers. "They have a responsibility not to ignore the public," Cafritz said.
Recently, Mayor Marion Barry formed a 69-member Blue Ribbon Committee for Promotion of the Arts and Economic Development with a subcommittee that is focusing on the Downtown Arts District. That's a good step, for downtown is a great location for a first-class black theater company.
Indeed, if the mayor is serious about making Washington "the cultural capital of the nation," a proposal should be made to downtown developers to create first-class theater space. Not only would it bring people downtown at night to get a dose of much-needed culture, it could also enliven the downtown region generally.
Although there is the sense that the cultural explosion that grew out of the 1960s identity search is long past, the standing ovations and enthusiastic cheering of black audiences at recent cultural events demonstrate that people are hungry for the spiritual and emotional release the arts offer, especially serious black drama.
A lot of forces must come together for Washington to realize itself culturally and rebuild the energy and enthusiasm we had when the D.C. Repertory Company was in full swing. In Cafritz's view, the media must be part of this leadership by fully covering local events. But it's also going to take assertive city leaders, people in arts movements, individual citizens and developers, all working in sync. It's time for things to happen; we ignore our culture at our peril.