The New Black Fest
I believe this is truly one of the most exciting times in theater. Playwrights are actually sitting center stage with decision-makers talking about the relevancy of new play development, and, more important, the future of American theater. I, for one, believe this conversation couldn’t come at a better time. On the other side of the planet, Egyptians stand up against a bullying government. Here in the U.S., President Obama turns his nose up to anti-gay marriage laws. In Wisconsin, public workers protest a state budget that would inhibit their bargaining power. So, it brings me much joy to know the American theater, that I often believe to be the most antiquated of all the artistic institutions, has decided to turn the spotlight on the livelihood of the playwright. Why? The playwright’s creative observations often acts a barometer to our humanity, and that, my friends, ideally should incite change. Exciting times, indeed. In fact, I would dare to tag this time as revolutionary, or, at least, a revolution in the making. Believe me when I say I have my fingers crossed.
After attending Arena Stage’s Black Playwrights Convening in 2010, I decided to incite a bit of change myself. I had this idea about a theater festival celebrating the diversity within the black experience. The festival, in my imagination, would also counteract what I felt was a suspicious recycling of one monolithic black aesthetic within institutional theater. You know, August Wilson, August Wilson, and more August Wilson. (I love August Wilson, but honestly, enough was enough.)
Wait, let me backtrack a little. Over the last four years I have been in numerous conversations with fellow artists about what to do with this “waiting game” so many of us find ourselves in. I simply mean waiting for larger theater institutions to legitimize our talents and qualify our careers. In truth, many theater artists (color and gender aside) believe we are not a legitimate playwright until the Public Theater, Manhattan Theater Club, the Goodman, etc., stamp their marks of approval across our playwriting souls. That’s not only a grand burden for these institutions to carry, but it’s also a bit delusional for the playwright to expect all and everything from these institutions.
I’m not talking about commission opportunities, or diversity fellowships, or new play reading slots; I simply mean space. Unless a theater is going the movie-plex route and providing twenty-three venues for twenty-three plays in a given night, opportunities will be few and far between. When you then add a global economic crisis to the opportunity equation, and race and/or ethnicity on top of that (particularly with many institutions still regarding race as risk)—well Todd London and Ben Pesner in Outrageous Fortune have already gathered this evidence and courageously (or outrageously) provided the statistics, so I won’t continue to beat that dead playwright horse any longer.
However, what I do want to underscore is that I have spent a great deal of time with my fellow artists, discussing the “waiting game,” or what appears to be the misrepresentation of blackness on stage. Sometimes these conversations explode into legit rants about why a theater company would produce a play that depicts black characters as oversexualized, man-eating savages (I saw something like that recently in NYC from a respected theater company), or why an artistic director tends, even when their theater’s mission is much more expansive, to foster black women playwrights over black men. Yes, these conversations do happen and not even the international and national touring of a Lynn Nottage play, or an all-black Broadway production of Tennessee Williams, can diffuse them.
Let me backtrack a little bit more. I spent five years working in television as a writer. It wasn’t a pre-packaged trajectory. I was living and starving as a playwright in New York City. I decided to supplement my creative and financial slump with some acting. I quickly was cast in a play at Crossroads Theater in New Jersey. In a nutshell, the writer of the play (who also worked in TV and film) recommended me to the producers of an LA-based TV show. I remained employed there for a few years. Although theater companies, like the Mark Taper Forum and Black Dahlia Theater in Los Angeles, provided as much as they could to sustain my creative momentum, I still felt I needed to be back in New York City, where I was convinced a true playwright must strive, where true theater legitimacy existed.
I moved back, only to discover a few things: there were more theater artists and fewer opportunities. Two, many of my peers were still imprisoned by the aforementioned “waiting game.” Three, I felt I needed to do something about something, somehow. Needless to say, during my experience at Arena Stage’s Black Playwrights Convening in 2010, a few things were festering. I knew I didn’t want to have any more conversations about the imbalance of opportunities in American theater without suggesting and/or instituting some type of solvency. I was also thinking that I was in Washington D.C., where President Barack Obama, the country’s first black president, resided and what better time in our country’s history for a black man, a progressive being, an artist, to feel fearless about anything.
So when David Dower, at the end of the convening, asked if any of the conveners wanted to share ideas about the future of black theater and I said, “I want to do a festival,” well, I knew I took the first big step. Minutes later, J. Holtham and Jocelyn Prince, then the New Black Fest’s future co-artistic directors, approached with enthusiasm, similar impulses, and some great ideas. Six months later J. Holtham, Jocelyn, and I were standing in the backyard of Lynn Nottage’s home that she generously offered up for The New Black Fest’s first fundraiser. With a guest listed that included Suzan-Lori Parks, filmmaker Malcolm Lee, artist/philanthropist Leslie Lewis Sword, playwright/screenwriter Diana Son, actor Chris Chalk, Jack Walsh and Leslie Shultz of the BRIC Arts/Media/Bklyn, actor/producer Ron Simons, among others, we were able to ignite a lot of enthusiasm from our sincere ambition to find and showcase insurgent voices within the African Diaspora and, of course, create opportunity!
We only were interested in diversifying the black narrative and penetrating the larger theater canon with a new diversity
Three months later we were at The New Black Fest’s first event at Julliard, listening to actress/activist Bridgit Antoinette Evans moderate a discussion on arts and activism with playwrights Suzan-Lori Parks and Kia Corthron as well as activist/thinkers Kenyon Farrow and Monica Williams. The enthusiastic, diverse crowd, accompanied by the biting wit and intellect of the panel, made it clear to us we were onto something very important. We were providing a communal platform for a new generation of black theater artists—global in perspective and experience, and who, undeniably are invested in building stronger community.
When J. Holtham, Jocelyn Prince, and I sat down in our early meetings about The New Black Fest we were all very clear that we wanted the “New Black” to be two things: a means for us to provide legitimacy and momentum in the often stagnant lives of black theater artists. Secondly, we wanted the “New Black” to represent the diversity within the Diaspora. We wanted to challenge ourselves by showcasing plays from black writers whose narratives were foreign, even to us. We wanted to find artists and audiences who were interested in narratives that have been shaped by the world we live in at this very moment. We were not interested in artists (or audiences) who subscribe to the notion that the only audience is white, or voices that exploit and use black story as commodity, a place to go slumming before stepping off into the real frontier. Let me say that more eloquently: we were not interested in narratives or artists who believe the only legitimate theater consumer is the white one. We only were interested in diversifying the black narrative and penetrating the larger theater canon with a new diversity.
Interestingly, J., Jocelyn and myself never thought it would be a daunting task to find what we needed. We knew the artists and audiences we sought were everywhere. The outpouring of support and donations from the theater and cultural community was overwhelming. I can’t speak for J. or Jocelyn, but for me curating The New Black Fest was thrilling. We knew we wanted to include a solvency component into our conversation and programming. We knew it was important to directly engage our audiences in conversations about reshaping the look of black theater. We also knew we wanted to talk to artivists (artist/activist) and discuss ways to send theater artists into the community and find ways to support social and/or cultural organizations. We knew we wanted music from artists who were exploring new forms of musical theater—Stew, Eisa Davis, the Afro-Punk folks, etc. We also knew we needed plays exploring every experience known, from every corner of the planet.
Basically, we wanted to change the landscape of American theater in twelve quick days. Not possible, of course, but we ended up with a pretty amazing line-up. From a hilarious and heartwarming new play on cross-cultural and pansexual romance from Cori Thomas, to a daring new play about race relations in the post-Obama South from Brandt Adams and Godfrey L. Simmons Jr., to an amazing satirical devised piece on the “new black” from the New York Neo-Futurists, we were very proud of our selections. We wanted to diversify within our diversity and we did just that.
Of course, there were naysayers while putting together The New Black Fest. Many white theater artists (and institutions) didn’t show any support. Some articulated that we were separating ourselves, you know, ghettoizing. We were warned that if we use the word “Black” in our name it would scare people away. The world, we were told, was much more post-racial and multi-ethnic now. A good friend, black and playwright, told me he spoke to many of his black theater peers who expressed they wouldn’t support or attend The New Black Fest because they weren’t interested in “that black stuff.” I’ll admit, that type of cultural dismissiveness concerns me. It doesn’t derail my perseverance, but it does suggest that there’s a fear about collective determination and that’s scary in the year 2011. It is a real problem when a legitimate effort to elevate the overall playing field for theater is looked at as marginalizing, or some unevolved “black stuff.”
If we’re truly trying to make theater an inclusive event, an all-compassing institution, then why is there so little black representation in theater, on stage and off? Why is it okay for blackness, as some frame it, to be only supported when it’s part of the white narrative? Think about it. If the playing field in theater was already equal and diverse and representative, then there would be no need for theater artists to take matters into their own hands.
The New Black Fest is staying active. We have recently teamed up with playwright Judy Tate and actor Godfrey Simmons, Jr. and 651 ARTS in Brooklyn to launch the American Slavery Project. This brand new reading series aims to initiate new conversations around theater’s role in counteracting the increasing revisionism in our political/social discourse about the Civil War and slavery. More importantly, the American Slavery Project aims to promote a new generation of African-American voices who are telling the diverse and rich stories from an era that most adversely affected us. The series runs from mid-March through Juneteenth, throughout various locations is New York City. We’re also preparing for the next New Black Festival, scheduled for Fall 2011. It promises to be more exciting and innovative than the first one.
So as global communities invest in political change and American theater attempts to reimagine the role of the playwright, the New Black Fest will continue to provide a platform for theater artists who remain interested in celebrating the black theater voice and broadening the communal perspective of the black narrative on the American stage.
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Enjoyed this articulate and impassioned entry! You're doing the damn thing while others are sitting around just complaining and feeling powerless. Hope the reading last nite (May 2nd) went well - I was put on the waiting list so I know it was well-attended!
Yes, Keith, ultimately most of us have to do it ourselves to get the work we so believe in up and running. Congratulations for taking the initiative! Long live NBF!!!
I was so pleased to read your message that it brought goose pimples. You keep proceeding forward with the assurance that what you're about is necessary. Don't let those who need to use the white man's yardstick deter you. We have enough collective diversity--culturally, spiritually, economically, socially, etc.--to support our artistic community, unaffected by others. My check is forthcoming. You make me proud.
This consistently excites me. And I am so overwhelmingly happy that you three have taken this head on...and will continue to do so. You have a fan and supporter in me.
This is FRESH. FUNKY. DOPE. NEW. BLACK. BEAUTIFUL.
I had to pull out my short list of 1990's colloquialisms when Black people seemed (during my life time) more proud of themselves and their differences.
I appreciate, deeply what you have written and I will be there. I was there. I had a ball and we will celebrate together. I watched my father, Herman LeVern Jones, Larry Leon Hamlin and Woody King Jr. create the National Black Theater Festival in NC and...you got it. This is how it starts. Simple and complex discussion. I needed to read this. We can not be afraid to celebrate the African Diaspora. It is large and it isn't going anywhere. People who don't want to be apart of the "black stuff" will be celebrated anyway!..and MO Power to'em.
People, no matter what color, who only want to be celebrated by white institutions have deeper soul tackling to do...no judgement. Let's go humanity! Let's go Keith!
Quiet meditation in the sunshine to you Keith,
I have been in deep admiration of the mission and the work of New Black Fest since you began. Thank you for this blog. It is a blessing to read these words --- your story --- it will stay with me! And I'll pass it on...
Obehi Janiceperformer & writer
The bravery it takes to orchestrate change is something we inherit as artists. Your article is a reminder of what can happen when we choose to exercise our courage. Im looking forward to NBF's next season.
I am so pleased and excited to have read this. As a theatre artist (playwright/actor) residing in a community ripe with "...August Wilson, August Wilson and more August Wilson" and little else being produced which has been created from a black perspective, I often feel I am in the twilight zone. This article reminds me that I am not, and that I have work to do.
Derek, the answer to how to engage our dispersed artistic community may be (in part) for us to carry this movement to whatever pocket of this artistic community we live in. Folks like myself (living far, far from NYC) can/must illuminate on the possibilities through work. I believe the movement will grow if those of us away from a "major hub" recognize our responsibility in it. The thing about movement is that folks must work hard to ignore it. If intention truly meets action, the community will be engaged.
I sincerely hope that I can make it to this festival. Either way, I'm honored to echo these sentiments and put in work wherever it is needed.
Black is beautiful Keith and your efforts to get black plays read and done is what it is all about.
I'm gonna echo Monica and say right on, right on! What you are doing is what we humans speaking english call "staking your claim". You define your ownership of your area and your right to work and develop that fertile soil. The power that you speak to so eloquently is unique to the arts... Your claim- and the value that it contains- is defined, created, and mined by you for the benefit of future generations. Shaka Zulu, Gordon Craig, Antonin Artaud, Jerzy Grotowski, Peter Brook, Amiri Baraka. They all understood established principles, and the need to break opposite to the currents they imposed. I stand for your commitment to creative diversity that knows the power it has no matter where anyone thinks it fits. I'm ready to write the festival a check. Keep it Coming,Jerome
Yes Keith, thanks for this. And you know, I am so excited to be part of this movement.
I am inspired and encouraged by these sentiments. At the same time, I am sobered by the daunting scope of the work ahead, and I would like to echo the words expressed by Lydia Diamond above.
In some pretty undeniable ways, New York City is the epicenter for American Theater. But an effective artistic movement must go beyond its comfort zones.
As new media matures and other forms of entertainment vie for audiences, traditional live theater has approached a crossroads. The Theater industry as a whole must evolve dramatically to be a viable 21st century art form. It is easy to forget this in NYC, where even the most challenging of works can find an audience. But elsewhere...?
I firmly believe that a 21st century aesthetics are emerging, influenced as much by the way contemporary audiences experience art as by the methods art-makers are adopting to express themselves.
I also firmly believe that the artistic vision and hope for Black Theater expressed here, holds a multitude of possibilities which will breathe new life into the live theatrical experience.
My question/challenge is how does this movement engage an artistic community that is - in every since of the word - dispersed?
In the middle of the last century, people by necessity came together physically to "take it to the streets" old school. And experiencing theater remains a communal experience. But our notions of community are gradually giving ground to new concepts of "the Network."
How can a "Paradigm of the Network" inform the trajectory (and tactics) of this movement? I'm inspired to seek answers for this question. And I would encourage all to view this new paradigm as less a cause for alarm, and more as an exciting new means to opportunities...
Hello. I actually think you have The New Black Fest confused with The Fire This Time festival. Oops. That would be a separate black theater festival in nyc. They were the ones who produced short plays during the winter. So you may want to reach out to them. J and I only sat on their diversity panel.
Thank you for this piece, it's so important to document the evolution of an idea, and I found it exciting to trace the birth and growth of The New Black Fest, as well as to see how your ideas about the position and relative power of playwrights in general is evolving. One of the first plays I performed in in college was Suzan Lori Parks' "Death of the Last Black Man...", and my favorite line was the character repeatedly saying, "Someone ought ta write that down..." Indeed, as emerging artists, we often forget that history will be told no only by the plays we write or perform, but by the stories we tell of our creative processes and journeys. Of course I appreciated all of your points in this piece, but I wanted to comment to affirm the incredibly valuable storytelling your offered of yourself as an artist in search of justice within our industry and in the world at large. May we always be in search.
Thank you so so much for this. It is insightful,and thought provoking, and moving. I hope that those who should read this, do, and are illuminated. I do believe in possibilities, and that good intentions bring rewards.
Thank you for looking out for us all, Keith!
Cori Thomasa black playwright
Great post, Keith. It's clear that you know what your goal is. I also thought that the panel in the last fest was very good, although I'm not sure why it was cut so short with so many terrific panelists who barely got to speak. The short plays in the fest' were also very good, but I left asking whether the production values best served the work. It made me wonder if maybe what black playwrights need most is more/better black producers. This question notwithstanding, I look forward to the next fest'.
RL Lewis - Yes, please do be in touch with the Fire This Time Festival. I am one of the folks behind the Festival (which featured both Keith and J. in a Panel this January). We are proud to count the New Black Fest as a partner.
The Fire This Time Festival (much like the New Black Fest) is evolving as a platform for forward-thinking theater. Pushing the envelope for a more diverse, engaging and dynamic 21st century theater means creating the space for a new (and often non-traditional) network of producers to emerge and help change this game.
I firmly believe that investing our energy in supporting and cultivating more producers is a critical facet of this new movement in theater. For too long, we have been content and hopeful that "the producing powers that be" will finally take note. Well that's just not enough for the movement that is taking hold. As we explore challenging new directions for 21st century black theater, we are developing forward-thinking new theater producers to help bring these works to life.
LOVE this piece, Keith! Though I'm discouraged to learn of the haters afraid of "that black stuff," I'm thoroughly ENcouraged by your spirit and all the beautiful, gifted people who made The New Black Fest the success it was! This is just the beginning . . .
Much love!Kara Lee
So glad I got this link. It is hugely exciting, both what are doing, and your articulation of why it is absolutely necessary. I was sad to have not been able to get to the conference in NY... but look forward to attending and supporting many others. It amazes me that there should have to be any level of needing to justify making a space for us to legitimize, celebrate, discover, and commune with one another. More troubling that we should have to justify it to one another. I keep wondering, and will be happy to hear your thoughts one day, if this isn't generational. So glad you and Jocelyn have taken the reigns. Keep reaching out to all of us. Also, I think it would be amazing to see this movement extend itself to communities beyond NY. As isolating as it can be to be a Black Theatre artist period... many of us are located in places that make finding community that much more challenging, and subsequently, that much more necessary. Oh one more thing.... As a playwright, I'm so grateful to you for actively building an organization that understands and actively supports the diverse voices of Black artists. Thank you.
Keith,Thank you for writing such a genuine and straight-forward piece on the state of black theater, especially for emerging artists. And I appreciate your activism in embracing blackness. As a researcher and writer of African-Diaspora Aesthetics, we have so many unchartered avenues to examine as playwrights. The people who are "off black" as I call it, merely have short attentions spans for such a rich culture. For no other ethnic/racial group have I seen such a visceral response to preservation via art.It would be great if you could archive the fest online. It will grow and it would be powerful to have documentation of its genesis. Last but not least-I definitely want to support your work. You were a guest professor for my NYU workshop with Diana Son last year and that was great.
Yep Keith..... yep yep.........
Thanks for the bold honesty of this piece. Time to be unafraid to call a spade a spade in our industry and our society. It is the only way real change happens. Thanks for being an agent......
yep yep yep....
Thank you for putting this out there, Keith. I particularly appreciated your earlier line: "the playwright’s creative observations often acts a barometer to our humanity" because inheritant in that statement is a willingless to delve beyond the melanin & the history of abuse to the humanity. When theater's disregard work about people of color, it is often because the theater itself does not see the play's humanity or the theater does not believe an audience will see the humanity. I sincerely hope New Black Fest can be another vein pumping life into the evolution towards fully recognizing humanity in everyone from every crevise of our round & glorious planet...
Hi Keith: Brother, you may not remember me because we only met a couple times back in '1997' :) when your work On the Hills of Black America (directed by Tony Sias) was the Chilcote piece CPT selected for a full production. My work "Another Way to Dance" was selected that year too as the most innovative work written by an Ohio Playwright. Lots has happened since then...I earned Ph.D. from UIUC in 2001, currently am an Asst. prof in education at John Carroll and ...this year my play "Closure" about the foreclosure crises from the perspective of the 'objects' left behind opened the season at Karamu (Terrence Spivey directed, Dianne McIntyre choreographed the piece.
Your ideas for Black Theater are wonderful and I hope to be a part of it in the future. Keep up the good work Keith.
Right on. I really hope I get to see at least some of the festival (I'm down South currently). Best wishes for the venture!