Breaking Through the Bottleneck
Theatre Makers in the Black Community Congregate to Change Dynamics in Boston
On Tuesday, July 17, eighteen theatre makers in Boston’s black community gathered at the Calderwood Pavilion to reverse the energies expelling them to the edges. They gathered to change the landscape of audiences who experience their work, to change how they communicate with each other, to change their lack of presence in the field, and most importantly to change themselves.
The significance of the eighteen people in the room was magnanimous even if this number may be considered small by some measure. Everyone in attendance had self-selected to be there—followed an inspiration, a frustration, a need for more work, more stages, more audience, more youth, more scholars, more funding, more support, more community—essentially a need for each other.
As the door to the Arts Resource Room in the Calderwood Pavilion opened, I was greeted by an all-star cast of Boston’s black theater makers:
- John Adekoje (filmmaker/playwright/educator)
- Jessica Chance (actor)
- David Curtis (actor/musician & filmmaker)
- Lydia Diamond (playwright/professor, Boston University)
- Kirsten Greenidge (playwright)
- Maria Hendricks (actor/activist)
- Obehi Janice (actor/producer/playwright & solo performer, Fufu + Oreos)
- Sonya Smith Joyner (actor)
- Allyssa Jones (acting senior program director for the arts, Boston Public Schools)
- Terrence Kidd (playwright/co-founder, Proscenium Playwrights, Lesley University)
- Barbara Lewis (director, Trotter Institute at UMass Boston & co-founder, Boston Black Theater Collective)
- Monica White Ndounou (scholar/director, Tufts University)
- Mwalim Peters (playwright/director/storyteller/professor, UMass Dartmouth)
- Lisa Simmons (founder, Roxbury Film Festival and co-founder Boston Black Theater Collective)
- Phyllis Smith (AEA stage manager/associate production manager, Boston Center for the Arts)
- Beverly Morgan Welsh (executive director, Museum of African American History)
- Summer Williams (director/co-founder, Company One)
Anyone who knows the history of diversity in Boston knows that a bottleneck effect exists that causes change to take place at a very slow pace. For black artists in the theatre community this effect is asphyxiating. The diversity of the meeting attendees signified a profound need for theatre makers in Boston’s black community to come together across discipline, aesthetics, and organizational affiliations. Moreover, it reminded us that though sometimes dormant, Boston has a very vibrant community of black theatre artists—some at the national forefront of our field.
The truth is that we have tried to come together many times over the years. Like a good old faithful automobile the engine would start and stop, start and stop, but perhaps the catalyst for this motor starting up again was the 2012 TCG Conference which was held here in Boston.
The theme of the conference was Model the Movement, yet as I looked around, I realized that the people who are synonymous with one of the most significant movements in United States history, the Civil Rights Movement, were without a model or a movement in Boston. It made me nervous to acknowledge this thought, then anxious, then nervous again. What does it mean? We, the children of the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Arts Movement, the sons and daughters of the Harlem Renaissance, were without a unified voice in a city with a rich history tied to the American Revolution. It made me wonder, where are we? I purposely avoided all the open conversations about race and diversity at the conference because I was ashamed that my city, the host city, didn’t have a model to share.
Enter the Latinos, our cousins. They too had the same questions, needs, and desires for unity—for a network, and they did something about it. They organized. In New York City, Los Angeles, and Miami. I was thinking it’s a shame that so many of my colleagues in the black community were not able to attend the conference. So I approached Dr. Barbara Lewis, Executive Director of the William Monroe Trotter Institute for the study of black culture at the University of Massachusetts Boston about organizing a meeting where those of us black theatre artists who attended the conference could share and discuss what we learned and experienced. The meeting would also serve as a focus group for theatre makers in the black community to devise a way of developing a similar network as our Latino cousins.
Anyone who knows the history of diversity in Boston knows that a bottleneck effect exists that causes change to take place at a very slow pace. For black artists in the theatre community this effect is asphyxiating.
So, here I will try and recap what we experienced in our meeting. Truthfully, I don’t know what “we” experienced. The meeting was rather short—only one hour and forty-five minutes—to pick the brains of eighteen individuals who represented 222 plus years of experience gathered together in a room of only 750 square feet. But if hope is conciliation for dreaming, then we experienced hope. The gathering reflected the commitment of everyone in the room who gave up attending a meeting, a rehearsal, writing a grant proposal, a move, a child, a husband, a wife to be there. Everyone chose to break away from the life that keeps us all overly engaged and disconnected—to connect and acknowledge that we need to revisit the tribe. The call was wide and loud. Everyone was invited, which we felt was important—to model a movement that is inclusive of all.
So what did we accomplish in that small space, small time, under the weight of our collectively huge accumulated experience? We found we need to come back. We understood that we composed an immensely powerful syndicate that could start a movement not just for blacks, but for all people of color historically marginalized, misrepresented and underrepresented in the theatre. Was it a planetary alignment that got us all in the room together?
Perhaps this remarkable gathering was a result of the recent reading of James Baldwin’s The Amen Corner staged by Barbara Lewis at the African Meeting House, the oldest black church in the country and part of the Museum of African American History. A part of PROJECT 1 VOICE, a national initiative to preserve black theatre and culture, the reading featured prominent players from Boston’s public and private sectors. In participating in the PROJECT 1 VOICE reading, Lewis had done something quite unusual and revolutionary in Boston’s black arts scene—she had invited the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker to come out and play. A special quality of this evening was that all the theatre makers were sitting in the audience—Lydia Diamond, Benny Ambush, among others—and they all came out changed. So changed in fact, that at this meeting Diamond remarked that the reading had instilled sense of community she had never before seen in Boston.
So where do we go from here? How do we come back together? There was a call at the meeting to come back not just for another meeting but instead to take action now—and to do it well and do it often. We could start with a monthly staged reading series, taking turns to present a play, a film, or a project being developed at our institutions or individually, and work as one producing team to educate and build the audience. The key to achieving success would be consistency—something that Boston has notoriously lacked in its feast or famine landscape of black theatre.
So check in on us—“hold us to it” as Harmond Wilks of August Wilson’s Radio Golf would say. Coming to Boston? Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org to find out when the next reading will be. I am optimistic, that this time is the right time. The best is yet to come!