Who We Are
Black Theatre in the Bay Area
I have worked in the San Francisco Bay Area for more than twenty years. I am currently an Artistic Associate at The Lorraine Hansberry Theatre (LHT) and work as the Marketing Director for BRAVA Theatre Center. From this unique vantage point, I have been charged with unpacking the complexities of creating black theatre in a city that is 48% white, 33% asian, 15% latino, and only 6% black.
Black theatre institutions have historically been the primary training ground for professional black theatre artists. This is no longer true. Many play development labs, experimental theatres, and even persistently white universities now hold space to develop black theatre. It is part of many theatres’ mission and almost every theatre now in the United States has developed at least one black theatre artist and continue to attract newcomers. Here in San Francisco, the American Conservatory Theater (ACT)—alma mater of Denzel Washington, Danny Glover, and Anika Noni Rose—consistently attracts black students and currently at least a third of the class is black.
What is still true, however, is that San Francisco black theatre institutions, like LHT and African American Shakespeare Company continue to offer opportunities for training professional and semi-professional black theatre artists. The creation and consumption of American theatre still remains, largely, for those who can afford it. Training at a formal institution such as ACT may be the fast track to a professional theatre career, but is cost-prohibitive for many. Even with formal training, the scarcity of available roles limits the growth of black artists who create for the American stage. In San Francisco, most of ACT’s black graduates find it difficult to find enough work to sustain their continued residence in the city, which then makes it difficult for theatres to offer plays with black casts. Black theatres address this catch-22 by continuing to train and offer substantial work to those actors who cannot meet the cost of a theatre education, or have formal training but no opportunities upon graduation.
The efforts of black theatres help allow the theatre artists to both to thrive in San Francisco a city that has experienced an “outmigration” of the black population. The cost of living and lack of a cohesive community for black professionals has decreased the San Francisco black population. Working through this mass exodus, coupled with the loss of their space, Steven Anthony Jones has re-branded LHT as a nomadic theatre, “taking theatre to the people.”
In a recent meeting between the two companies, BRAVA and LHT both declared their commitment to the theatrical work of black women; the right and necessity to be present, supported, and accounted for in recognition of the sweeping gentrification and “white washing” of low-income neighborhoods that is pushing people of color and artists further and further from the city—dispersing the community that is at the heart of both organization’s mission. BRAVA has maintained a building inside of the Mission community for the past twenty years and therefore has a crucial need for the retention of artists and communities of color to be in the city and in the neighborhoods BRAVA serves. However, there is a lack of real initiatives in place address this particular fact (though it must be noted that Mayor Ed Lee, has paid excellent lip service to the importance of the artistic community in the shaping of the city—presenting the 2013 Arts Award to Rhodessa Jones and declaring that artists were the crucial factor in creating the tech boom San Francisco has currently experienced).
BRAVA Executive Director, Stacie Powers Cuellar noted,
…I think where the city needs to step up and make some effort is on the cultural diversity of the city and the direction that its heading [....] that we have some recognition and support from the city that supports maintaining the cultural diversity of the city and furthermore, to me, creates housing for artists, somewhere along the way, because that’s really part of the bigger picture.
Steven Anthony Jones has responded to the current cultural forces at play by pushing the boundaries of black theatre. Jones' first season as Artistic Director of LHT included a latino tinged version of Douglas Turner Ward’s Day of Absence and British writer Joe Penhall’s Blue/Orange. More recently, LHT conceived a cross cultural project, The Jamaican Wash Project, which reworks Philip Kan Gotanda’s 1980s The Wash—a tale of familial love and loss among Japanese-American immigrants that was made into a film in 1985—and adapts it to the Jamaican-American community. During the project, Gotanda spoke often and eloquently about “moving the center”—what happens when you don’t adapt within the dominant cultural paradigm and rather shift what is found in the margins to the center. This expansive view on what and how black stories get told encompasses the world view of many of the plays that are being written today by black playwrights who often present black characters in either less traditional ways—where concerns of blackness are not central to the character’s journey, stories offer a more generalized and inclusive vision of race; and sometimes there are no black characters at all. Steven comments,
Lorraine Hansberry is a black theatre but...I am not interested in fighting those (same) fights, I am not interested in running a theatre that is a museum...We live in one of the most diverse areas in the entire country…Our experience isn’t seen as universal...but that is just not the case. I hired latino artists and got flack from my core black audience who asked me why I had mexicans on stage.
San Francisco is also home to Cultural Odyssey (founded by Rhodessa Jones and Idris Ackamoor) and African American Drama Company (Philip and Ethel Pitts Walker). Still, most theatres in the Bay Area seem to only accept work by and about black people when it has already generated a tremendous amount of buzz and energy. The commitment to cultivating our own institutions and institutional contributions is crucial to the legacy of American theatre—not to control, but to expand the image of the black experience. The American theatre and black theatre must stride autonomously and collectively into the future if we wish our stories to impact the national cultural consciousness.