Black Theatre in Louisville
It was 2002 and I had just come out of undergrad with my BFA in acting in hand. A local theatre company put out a call and I went in. Upon entering the room I was asked if I could "do a Spanish accent." I was initially confused because the play I was auditioning for did not mention Spain, or anything that would allude to a Spanish accent. I was told, "Oh, we want you to read for the part of the drug dealer, and we thought he should be Spanish. Can you pull of that accent?" I smiled and even at twenty-two I knew that instead of going all the way off in the audition hall—explaining everything that is wrong with the criminalization of brown people, the fact I'm not of Spanish descent, and any brown person will not do—the best course of action was to say thank you but no, and exit stage left. What really hit me was the fact that my brown skin to the all white production team apparently automatically eliminated me from reading for a lead. Even through the script did not mention whiteness, it was predetermined by the production team that this universal story had to have white protagonists.
Louisville is a microcosm of the national problem when it comes to the overused "D" word. Diversity is primarily determined by white gatekeepers who delineate the boundaries.
Too often this example seems to be one of the lessons when it comes to the state of black theatre artists in Louisville. You are vilified and victimized onstage between MLK celebrations from February to February by predominately white theatrical institutions—the gatekeepers—and underfunded and undersupported by the state agencies who dispense federal funds. In a way, Louisville is a microcosm of the national problem when it comes to the overused "D" word. Diversity is primarily determined by white gatekeepers who delineate the boundaries. I realize that "black theatre" is a very loaded term that will forever be under debate. As long as Broadway shows like It Shoulda Been You win diversity awards from Actors Equity when the original Broadway cast employed one black actress in a cast of seventeen, what "black theatre" is and what diversity actually means will continue to be controversial in nature and under harsh scrutiny.
As a practicing union theatre artist in Louisville who is black, I wanted to speak to other black theatre artists and ask them their thoughts about the state of black theatre currently in the city. Where do they see growth, change, and problems from our community perspective? What issues come from the outside, and what issues come from within?
A working definition for black theatre is theatre made by black practitioners that tells the story of black peoples.
Today, as I write this, what comes to mind for me as a working definition for black theatre is theatre made by black practitioners that tells the story of black peoples. That definition will change for me tomorrow because we are not a monolith; however, we do simultaneously share a common experience that shapes us. With each police shooting of an unarmed black person, and each unarmed black protester assaulted at Trump rallies, what it means to be black and live the black experience in America changes daily.
I began with interviewing Ken Clay, a local theatrical producer, and longtime arts administrator in Louisville who worked at Kentucky Center for the Arts for twenty-one years, from 1983 to his retirement in 2004. He is now a freelance arts event planner, black arts historian, published author, and all around Louisville arts insider who has working relationships with the major players and institutions in both black and white artistic communities in the city.
Billy Flood: What are some of the pitfalls or obstacles to a black theatrical artist surviving in Louisville?
Ken Clay: Artists must have financial and technical support to produce a quality product. Often a production is presented but lacks the “polish” needed to make it a quality, “best it can be” presentation.
Billy: What is the state of black theatre in Louisville, and what are your hopes for the future?
Ken: I think the state of black theatre (as well as other black art forms) is dire. Although there have been attempts in the past few years to provide a larger palette of black theatre, we still have a ways to go. In years past we had more theatre than we have at present, Black Theater of Louisville, James Little Christian Theater Workshop, and The West-End Players are but a few black theatre experiences that operated in Louisville in the past.
Billy: Predominantly white theatrical institutions like Actors Theatre of Louisville receive money from the National Endowment for the Arts. This is an organization that is funded by taxpayers. Does it then have a duty to represent the diversity of Louisville onstage, since it is benefiting from the taxes of citizens of color? We rarely see them onstage there outside of the month of February. Even last season when there were two plays with people of color making up the majority of the cast (Seven Guitars and Dot) that was an anomaly, as this season is mostly devoid of black actors and stories. What are your thoughts on this?
Ken: I agree that art institutions should be more culturally diverse in their programming. More plays that represent different cultures, artists from different cultures and more culturally diverse people in decision-making key positions on their staff. I think that the NEA has a responsibility to financially assist culturally diverse groups and programs. I don’t see that happening to the extent it should.
I then interviewed the artistic directors of a black theatre group that is only a year old and starting the paperwork to get their not-for-profit status—Nipsey Greene and Janelle Renee Dunn of Smoked Apple Theater Group.
In his own words, Nipsey Greene describes the plays he wants to produce as, "Contemporary, classic, and original." A year ago SATG presented a popular series called 6’10 Six Ten-Minute Plays. They plan on having a play festival this summer that will build upon that in new ways.
Billy: Could you talk about the black church theatre play movement and why it’s popular in Louisville?
Nipsey Greene: I don't knock that lane but you know… it's just not my lane. I feel like with white theatre, they cover every aspect, and I think that's the thing about black anything, we're always so cornered to a certain category that we talk about, so when we do break out, it becomes this great big deal but it shouldn't be, it should be the norm. When it comes to theatre I feel like the norm is this Tyler Perry kind of thing and even when you look at BET, it's those kind of shows, and it just bores me. When I go to Actors [Actors Theatre of Louisville], I think where are our plays like this? Where are they at? So I said, see a need, fill a need, and that's what we're doing.
This season they start the ball rolling by presenting King Hedley II. One of August Wilson’s most demanding plays. It is a three-hour drama set during the Reagan era and critical of trickle-down economics in a way that the white theatrical establishment finds hard to take. It is rarely staged, unlike Piano Lesson or Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, which are more palatable to white audiences due to their singing and dancing and being less damning of the status quo. King Hedley lets no one off the hook, not the characters, or the oppressive society that locks them into their downcast state.
Billy: In your curtain speech before King Hedley, Janelle, you summed up black theatre in Louisville. You said, "There is some, but there's not enough." On the subject of being "community-based," what does it mean?
Janelle Renee Dunn: It definitely means bringing in from the community, the downside of Actors Theatre, and even Kentucky Opera, or Derby Dinner is they do have room for local talent, but normally they bring in people from out of state, so someone like myself who is still here in the city, who has the talent, who has the training … I'm not going to get a job here. Not a living wage job. So community-based means not neglecting the city, we need the city, the community. We want to use that talent and build up, and hire from within instead of from outside.
We talked about the mission of the theatre, and they both brought up a free summer theatre program for kids they are working on establishing. We talked about visibility and how images matter. Janelle Renee Dunn made a powerful statement when it comes to theatre and intent when it comes to the black community.
Janelle: Not to say they [the aforementioned theatres] aren't accepting [plays by black playwrights], but they aren't reaching for them. It's about creating those opportunities. Because if kids see someone like themselves onstage, you see their faces and they get so excited. We want to create that opportunity.
Nipsey: Even within this region there just isn't enough [black theatre].
Billy: The word diversity is thrown around all the time. There is a trend in taking race out of consideration when it comes to diversity. Is it important to keep blackness and the African experience at the center of what the theatre is doing?
Janelle: It has to be central and I think it has to be at the forefront, if we get away from our blackness we lose who we are and why we started this.
Nipsey: We have hopes, but at the end of the day there just isn't enough [black theatre], so whatever we can do to help that cause, that's what I'm always down for, we need more of it. White people aren't going to do it for us. We got to do it for ourselves.
Janelle: It's our duty to define what it is, what our blackness is.
SATG caused some controversy last year when in one of their play festivals, they had some white playwrights accepted into the final slate of plays. White writers, writing black characters. We spoke about that. It is a difficult subject to approach, which means it is necessary.
Janelle: We caught a lot of flack for that decision from local playwrights and it seems the argument was that it wasn't black theatre because the playwrights were white [five out of the six plays produced], which totally negated the fact that all of the actors onstage were black, all of the directors were black, tech … all of the aspects of the production were black, except for the playwrights. And so then in my mind if we are defining black theatre, black film, whatever, by the fact that the person who writes it is black, does that make Grey's Anatomy a black show? Until I saw an interview with Shonda Rhimes, I had no idea she wrote that show.
Nipsey: It's all about perception … there is a big demand for black theatre here and it's not just the black people who tell us that. It's the white people; they are the main ones who are like: “where is this at? Oh you have it? I want to be a part of it.” There is a void and we are here to fill it.
Lastly, I spoke to longtime successful local theatrical producer Larry Muhammad, the artistic director and owner of Kentucky Black Repertory Company. When asked what he thought was the key to surviving as a black artist in Louisville, he focused on pay and scarcity.
Larry Muhammad: Generally speaking US culture devalues art, we’re a mercantile society where creators aren’t adequately encouraged or rewarded. It’s hard out here for artists, period. Even though the theatre community in Louisville is remarkably robust for a city its size, I’m estimating some thirty community theatres, four of them I know of including my Kentucky Black Repertory Theatre, are African American. I've worked with dazzling performers who have amazing resumes but nearly all have full-time jobs outside theatre.
Black theatre is as complicated and as fully lived as the community it is about. As a black artist teaching and practicing in Louisville, I do not have all the answers about diversity, but I know talking with other black artists—those firebrands who are longtime professionals and the new upstarts—and bringing those conversations to light here is a start to bringing the passion of the black artist and the support of the city together. It is through this dialogue we will come to an answer that grows everyone. In the end, Nipsey Greene said it best: “We are here, and we want to support everybody."