Reappraising the Legacy of Ernie McClintock with Dr. Ibby Cizmar
Mike Lueger: Welcome to the Theatre History Podcast, a podcast produced for HowlRound Theatre Commons, a free and open platform for theatre-makers worldwide.
Hey, everyone. I'm Mike Lueger, host of the Theatre History Podcast. Just a quick note before we get started: the following episode was originally recorded in the fall of 2019.
Hi, and welcome to the Theatre History Podcast. I'm Mike Lueger. There are innumerable approaches to the craft of acting, and no one system works for everyone. Today, we're going to discuss the life and work of Ernie McClintock, who worked to develop a system that could serve the specific needs of African American actors in the mid-twentieth century. We're joined by Dr. Ibby Cizmar whose research on McClintock led to her essay “Ernie McClintock's Jazz Acting: A Theatre of Common Sense,” which appears in the Routledge Companion to African-American Theatre and Performance. Ibby is an assistant professor of acting and directing at Vanderbilt University. She's currently working on a full-length book project about McClintock entitled Explicit Images and Inclusive Practices: Reviving the Legacy of Ernie McClintock. Ibby, thank you so much for joining us.
Ibby Cizmar: Thanks very much. Happy to be here.
Mike: Let's begin by talking about Ernie McClintock himself. Who was he, and what distinguished his theatrical career?
Ibby: Yeah. So Ernie Claude McClintock was born in 1937 on the South Side of Chicago. And he basically—what distinguishes his career is that he established all these different training schools and companies through 2003. So, there's the Afro-American Studio for Acting and Speech, established in 1966 in Harlem. Then he was the artistic director of the 127th Street Repertory Ensemble, 1973, the Harlem Jazz Theatre in 1986, and the Jazz Actors Theatre in Richmond in 1991.
And so, over the course of his career he pioneered a genre of actor training initially called common sense acting, which became jazz acting. The tenets were always there, but the name just eventually kind of developed. He also directed over 200 productions. He won numerous AUDELCOs. For those that don't know what AUDELCOs are, it's the Audience Development Committee Awards for Excellence in Black Theater that are presented annually in New York. And he won the 1997 recipient, or he was the 1997 recipient, of the Living Legend Award at the National Black Theater Festival in Winston Salem, North Carolina.
His students are still performing. Just because he passed in 2003, it doesn't mean that his legacy is not still living on. So students are still performing, applying the technique today in regional spaces, in classrooms, in dance studios, on the Broadway stage, in television, in Hollywood. Once you start mentioning his name, pull that thread, all these actors and artists start to emerge, and you realize what an impact he had.
Mike: You mentioned a few of the institutions where McClintock worked, including the Afro-American Studio for Acting and Speech and the 127th Street Repertory Ensemble. Could you tell us a little bit more about those institutions and why they were so important?
Ibby: Sure. So the Afro-American Studio for Acting and Speech, that was his initial studio established in 1966. He had previously worked with Louis Gossett Jr. downtown in Manhattan, and then really wanted to establish his own school. What he observed in mainstream acting methods was that Black actors were not being authentically themselves or what he said, imitating the imitation. And so what he did was create a curriculum where there were scene study classes, Black history and culture classes, karate, yoga, movement, dance, all within sort of this Afrocentric worldview. Marc Primus—who is the historian of the Afro-American Studio for Acting and Speech, and is now living in Atlanta—I had the chance to interview him, and he said that it was a temple of healing. So essentially, these Black actors went to the studio to learn about themselves, to learn about their ancestors, to learn about a collective history and a collective memory because their histories had been taken from them since they were captured on the shores of Africa.
Then with the 127th Street Repertory Ensemble, that became the professional sort of repertory company of the Afro-American Studio. The Afro-American Studio for Acting and Speech did have the advanced theatre workshop, which they had workshop performances, but the 127th Street Repertory Ensemble really took what that English repertory model is that we may be familiar with, and what he did in the jazz tradition was subvert that. So he messed with a white acting tradition and infused it with Afrocentric stories, street theatre performances, and plays that span a multitude of perspectives from the Black experience. I think what's so extraordinary about his work is that it really punctuates the fact that there is not one Black experience. There's a multiplicity of experiences, whether we're talking about Black revolutionaries, womanist points of view, queer experiences, Caribbean American immigrants. So he really was quite inclusive. And I think that's what really distinguishes him from his peers within the Black Arts Movement.
Mike: You mentioned the Black Arts Movement. Could you briefly explain for listeners kind of what that was and how McClintock fit into the larger context of this movement?
Ibby: Absolutely. So I think in order to understand the Black Arts Movement, we really have to kind of acknowledge the Black Power Movement because Larry Neal, who is a theorist and a scholar, coined the Black Arts Movement and said that it was the spiritual sister of the Black Power Movement. So the Black Power Movement might conjure up images of sort of militant machismo, but it's much more nuanced than that. The way that we can understand it is that if we think about it, historically, post-World War II, we have soldiers, Black soldiers, coming back from fighting for democracy. They come back to the United States, and they're not afforded this democracy that they're fighting for abroad, right? So this is sort of part of a much larger melting frustration or frustrations within Black communities. Then, what starts to happen is that there are these diplomatic efforts within government, but there's a slow burn of progress.
And so then what starts to happen is the slew of assassinations. 1961, we have Patrice Lumumba who is the first democratically elected prime minister of the Congo, who appeals to the United States, the United Nations, for support against the rebel forces within the Congo. One would think that the United Nations, the United States, would support that as a democratically elected prime minister. United States didn't find it economically or financially viable, Lumumba was assassinated. Fast forward to 1965. Malcolm X was assassinated, 1966 Stokely Carmichael, who was often also left out of the narrative, has his speech where he coins Black Power as sort of an ideology. 1968, Martin Luther King is assassinated in the same year RFK is assassinated. So there's this hope that's riddled with these assassinations. So that's what's happening from on the political front, right?
With the Black Arts Movement, it's that cultural wing of the Black Power Movement. So within that, we have—so Black Arts Movement includes poetry, visual art, theatre. And so the Black Theatre Movement is sort of a subset of the Black Arts Movement. When Malcolm X was shot, Amiri Baraka—who was living in the Lower East Side—the story goes that he moved to Harlem. He wants to be among his people. He created the Black Arts Repertory School, which lasted just a year, but nonetheless, it's a powerful marker of this movement, creating theatre by, for, and about Black people with Black people. And so it's this radical call for justice and equality through theatre, through theatre artists and social activism. So other theatres within the Black Theater Movement at this time starts to come up. As you know, Afro American Studio for Acting and Speech in 1966. Then we have the New Lafayette Theatre, which was Ed Bullins and Robert Macbeth's theatre; the Negro Ensemble Company—Douglas Turner Ward, Happy Ending and Day of Absence, some of the best known plays from them.
And there's also—there are three theatres today that are still in existence. So the Black Arts Movement did not die as many may assume. There's the New Federal Theatre in downtown Manhattan. Woody King Jr. established that; he's one of the most prolific producers directors of our time, I think. The National Black Theater was started by Dr. Barbara Ann Tear, which is more of a ritualistic spiritual center. And then also lastly at the Billie Holiday Theater, which is now run by Dr. Indira Etwaroo, who was a pupil of Ernie McClintock. So we see this legacy being pulled forward, right, through the next generations. Again, what distinguishes McClintock in his career and among his peers, there's an overlap where the self-determination of a call for equality and social activism, but really having this technique that's rooted in community building, in self-determination, with scripted and unscripted work.
There were other techniques Barbara Ann Tear talks about ritualistic approaches within her theatre, but McClintock dealt with scripted work and dealt with white playwrights as well. But really what the focus was, it was on that ensemble building, which connects to community building and the artist's individual creative agency, which relates to Malcolm X's notion of self-determination.
Mike: You talk about McClintock's techniques and use the term “jazz acting.” Could you explain what that means? And maybe talk a little bit about how it differs from other approaches to acting that listeners might be familiar with.
Ibby: Sure. Yeah. So jazz acting—if we think about it musical namesake also—it's not chaotic, much to their… there's lots of misunderstandings about jazz “Is just this sort of chaos.” It's a very disciplined form. And once one reaches sort of that level of discipline and sophistication, then one can riff, and the same goes for jazz acting. It requires discipline and ensemble building for artists to riff in performance. There's a play between the collective ensemble and that individual artistic expression, right? So when there is a riff, when we hear one musician, a saxophonist come out and play a riff, right? There's sort of that primacy on that one artist, but you can feel that ensemble supporting that one artist. The technique is rooted in the inclusion of multiple Black identities and experiences. And so, again, it equips actors to play anything from Shakespeare to Amiri Baraka to what we now call devised performance, which McClintock was doing in the mid-sixties.
And so, yeah, so it's really focused on that ensemble building and that individual artistic expression. The way that we can think about how it's different from other maybe mainstream approaches is that there's a lot of work going on in terms of Black acting methods. I know that you had Sharrell Luckett on your show, right? There's Shawnee Anello and Monica White Ndounou, just to name a couple. And so there are all these conversations within Black acting scholarship, right? That acting techniques are just as culturally rooted as a canon of plays or as a movement is, right, it's subjective. We have to understand that as artists. So the difference is that it is again rooted in this Afrocentricity, this Afrocentric worldview. And by that I mean—I'm hearkening to Molefi Kete Asante who wrote The Afrocentric Idea, who's placing African ideals at the center of any study.
So in this case, in the study of theatre that involves African-centric culture and behavior. And so Afrocentricity is a moral project as well as an intellectual project that posits Africans as subjects, rather than objects, in human history. So as we, I hope we all know, right, within sort of skewed histories history is theory. History is not necessarily fact, right? So Black bodies have been placed not as objects, but as subjects. So Afrocentricity really relates not just to theatre, right, but so sort of all intellectual inquiries and discourses. So what McClintock is doing is placing the Black experience at the center, as opposed to on the periphery.
Mike: You've mentioned the playwright Amiri Baraka a few times, and you have a really striking anecdote about how McClintock's approach to what he called jazz acting worked with one of Baraka's plays called Slave Ship. Could you tell us about that particular production and what was so unique about it?
Ibby: Yeah, so I think that play in particular is a great example to use, especially for a chapter within a book and in thinking about acting theory and how it's culturally rooted. So Slave Ship is, as the name indicates, sort of it tells the story… it's sort of an expressionistic one act play that starts in the dark, basically, and the audience hears moans and drum beats and cries and shackles. And it's just harrowing and upsetting and these images of torture. And so within that, if we think about acting methods, a Method-based approach would probably not be best for a play such as this, right? So if we think about Method-based acting—and I am trained in Method-based acting at the African Actors Studio Drama school, so I have some experience with this—but using personal memories in relationship to scenes of torture for anyone is maybe perhaps not necessarily helpful.
I think, especially if we think about African American trauma, if we think about the middle passage, right, there's a cultural collective trauma that's associated with that. It's about a collective suffering as well. So with that, as directors, right, we have to be really cognizant, and then as acting teachers we have to think about that, when we're in the class, when we have to think about the individuals and our identities and really creating space for alternative techniques. So within this, what McClintock did, I got the chance to listen to a rehearsal that was on a magnetic tape and on archive collection, but he basically starts with breath and he basically starts with a very measured counting “One, two, three, four,” where those that identified as women would sound out, I think, the wind, and those that identified with men would sound out the ocean, and then they would swap.
Right. And so what starts to happen is that we're creating this mood. We're creating this atmosphere through rhythmic chanting, through listening to one another, through then becomes an improvisation, right, and creating that without necessarily having to drum up traumatic experiences to create the scene. And so I think, when he said to sound out how you feel, and I use that a lot within my own classroom, sound out how you feel so that the actors, they have that freedom of expression. And just to say, too, I was saying as a director, right—as acting teachers, it's important for us to include these techniques. I am a white cisgender woman, and I study jazz acting. And I like to include that within my classroom. Right. And so I'm always very conscious of my own white gaze when I enter those spaces. And I think as educators we need to be able to do that as well.
Mike: Another well-known production of McClintock's that you mentioned has to do with the play Equus. And there's some really striking details in there about his approach to what he called character observations. Could you tell us a little bit about that?
Ibby: Yeah. So character observation. So the premise of that, and perhaps people have heard that term in other techniques, but for him what it was about with going into his own community, right, and being among his people—that's a quote from him. And so just observing everyday people in everyday life and being able to integrate that. Within the example of Equus, Jerome Preston Bates played Nugget. Jerome Preston Bates is a very well-known actor, and I had the chance to interview him about this as well, where he hit his neigh. He could recreate the neigh— the horse's neigh, Nugget— right in front of me in a coffee shop in Brooklyn. It was probably one of the most delightful interviews I've ever had. But you can tell, the effectiveness of the technique, how many years later, 30 years later, it's still there.
So Bates and the five horsemen—one also was Levy Lee Simon, who's a playwright, was a student of McClintock's—but Bates and the five horsemen spent weeks in Central Park observing horses. I mean, I got the sense of, they slept there. I'm not really sure but sort of in my fantasy, maybe they did, but really observing these majestic characters. Right. And so yeah, so they use that within the choreography of Equus. Bates choreographed it. He's not necessarily a dancer by trade, and he won best choreography for it for the AUDELCO that year. Alan Strang was played by Gregory Wallace; Gregory Wallace won best actor for Equus. And he shared that award, best actor award, with Denzel Washington, who won for playing Malcolm X in When the Chickens Come Home to Roost, which is just sort of a nice little anecdote, but just to kind of see how McClintock's work is in this ecosystem of Black theatre.
Mike: Yeah, and to that larger idea of his work not just being sort of on its own but being part of this larger sense of community engagement, that was really important to him as I understand from your writing. Could you explain sort of how he went about engaging with the community?
Ibby: So McClintock started, in the mid-sixties, what he called street performances. And so the first one is called Where It's At. And basically what the content of the performance entailed was, um, his actors got together and they talked about what was important to them. What was important to them in their daily lives as Black men and women walking around the street, right? In terms of discriminations, racism. And so what they did was they created a devised, if you will, performance around these topics—included scenes, monologues, poetry, music, dance, you name it. So they basically went to each borough and performed these issues that were important to the actors. And so they connected with the community in that way.
Another great example is the Women's Poetry Theatre. And I had a chance to interview Bolanyle Edwards, who is part of the Women's Poetry Theatre. And as the name suggests, women within the Afro-American Studio wrote their own poetry. And again, they would go out into the streets and connect with the community. And Bolanyle said, at a certain point, the women started within the community, started to memorize the poems. Then they would have this call and response experience. So there was actually, there was no division between audience and spectator, which is also part of Afrocentricity—there's this blurred line. There's not a fourth wall that is so often associated with, right, like naturalism and with Stanislavski-based training. McClintock continued the street theatre performance in Richmond and the nineties. He produced Ndangered –“N-D-A-N-G-E-R-E-D”—with a group of Black men, young Black men, where they talked about issues in terms of mass incarceration, in terms of sexually transmitted infections, in terms of issues related to father figures. Just whatever was sort of, I don't know, important to those performers.
And one of the last ones that he produced was the Rose that Grew From Concrete, which is based off of Tupac, of course, poetry, and music. Tupac was actually a student of Ernie's in Harlem. Yeah. And so Tupac was cast in A Raisin in the Sun, and he played the son in A Raisin in the Sun, and he was the understudy initially. But then the boy that was originally cast, for whatever reason, couldn't perform. And so Tupac took the stage, and the story goes that Tupac knew every line of every actor within that play. He was that brilliant as a young teenager, as a young adult. So that began his sort of foray into performance. And then Tupac moved to Baltimore. When Ernie directed El-Hajj Malik: The Life and Death of Malcolm X in Richmond in ‘96, Tupac came to Richmond and saw the performance and met all the actors within the Jazz Actors Theatre. And so yeah, the influence of Ernie McClintock is long and wide and extends across genres.
Mike: Despite that widespread influence, you argue that he's been unfairly ignored in histories of the Black Arts Movement. Why do you think that is? And what do you think an adequate appreciation of his legacy will help us to better understand?
Ibby: So when I interviewed Marc Primus in Atlanta—Marc Primus was one of the founders along with Ernie McClintock; Ernie McClintock's partner was Ronald Walker—pretty much said that the three of them, they were twice marginalized within Harlem. So being Black, being gay, and there's this article written by A. Peter Bailey in the early seventies, remarking how the Studio, the Afro-American Studio, was seen by factions of the Black Theater Moment, Black Arts movement as apolitical. However, if we think about all the work that he produced, this innovative acting technique, self-determination, community, the Studio was nothing but political in my own estimation and in Marc Primus' estimation. And so there was this sort of, even though he was included, there was sort of this… He was inclusive in his practice, but sort of left out of sort of that the sub-mainstream of the Black Arts Movement. I think part of that has to do with his, him being an out gay man within Harlem in the 1960s and 1970s.
And we have to remember that Black straight men were no more homophobic than white men or any sort of heteronormative complex, right. So we have to keep that in mind and keep that nuance. Part of that is also that McClintock was so inclusive, right? Having a multitude of perspectives, as I mentioned—Caribbean, womanist, queer, so forth, Black revolutionary—we can't box him in, right? And so what traditional narratives like to traditionally do is to box people in, and to have these neat and tidy categories, and McClintock defies all those categories. So, whether we're talking about an archive because as Diana Taylor tells us, there are ideology behind archives or a textbook; there are these neat and tidy categories that we can't, that certain artists just don't fit into. And so what starts to happen is that the hegemony sort of remains on top, and stereotypes continue to be perpetuated along with reductive assumptions and half histories.
Amiri Baraka infamously has plays that are laid in with homophobic slurs, misogynistic rhetoric, right? There's scenes depicting violence done to women on stage, right, but that's not the whole history of Amiri Baraka. And there are scholars, such as James Smethurst, who have troubled these sort of monolithic understandings of Amiri Baraka, right? So, so within that, I think what reviving Ernie McClintock’s legacy can do is to further help dispel monolithic understandings of the Black Arts Movement, monolithic understandings of Blackness, of queerness. And really understand that McClintock, even though he was on the fridges, he’s still part of the Black Arts Movement. So what that does is also reverse notions of the Black Arts Movement holistically. I think, for my students, for artists, for activists, reviving McClintock's legacy—I think there's a craving for these stories, right? Of these sort of glossed over legacies that can serve for examples, especially in our current moment, right? With political turmoil and social turmoil, right? How can we still create socially relevant art that is activist even despite oppressive circumstances?
Mike: We'll post additional information about Ernie McClintock and his work on jazz acting in our show notes. Ibby, thank you so much for introducing us to McClintock and his legacy.
Ibby: Thank you.
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