Theatre as Community Builder: The National Black Theatre Festival by Carl Sylvestre

A recent visit to the 15th biennial National Black Theatre Festival in Winston Salem, NC is a reminder of theatre’s role as a community builder.  In a time when the news is often about divisions and the fear of the other, theatre remains a place where people can gather to share common values within the art of storytelling.  However, to most mainstream theatre audiences, the representation and richness of black lives is virtually absent.  As such, the National Black Theatre Festival was created according to its founder the late Larry Leon Hamlin as, “a way to unify professional black theatre companies in support of each one another’s projects as they mold, nurture and give birth to amazing characters in telling electrifying stories of people of color.”

At this biennial festival, companies and audiences from all over the world gather for a week to celebrate and relish in those artistic achievements.  This year’s festival drew over 65,000 visitors to see over 35 shows at 20 venues.  It is a reminder that theatre is a great catalyst to bringing people together.  The National Black Theatre Network lists over 80 professional black theatres in the U.S.  and from the evidence at this year’s festival, many of their productions are of the highest artistic caliber.  The playwrights represented were beyond the usual suspects of Tarell Alvin McCraney, Katori Hall, Lynn Nottage and August Wilson.  This network of theatres originated the international hit musical Mama, I Want to Sing!  and have nutured the talents of Woodie King Jr., Reuben Santiago Hudson, Phylicia Rashad and many others.  Among the honorees at the festival were the actor Louis Gossett, Jr., the playwright Dominique Morisseau, and Thelma Pollard who holds the record as the longest functioning Production Make-up Supervisor in the history of Broadway.  However, in general the work from these theatres remains the property of a small number of like-minded individuals with limited  chance of being seen by a wider audience.

To better understand the challenges of bringing these works to a larger audience, I spoke with the prolific playwright and actor Jackie Alexander, Artistic Director of the North Carolina Black Repertory Company (NCBRC), Producers of the National Black Theatre Festival .  NCBRC’s audience is 95-98% African American but it is located in a community that is overwhelmingly white.  For most people in that community when they hear about a black theatre company the first question is: is this theatre for me?  Does it reflect my own experience?  It is easy to say that our stories are universal, but breaking the barriers to get people to enter a theatrical space has its share of obstacles.   

For Jackie, breaking down that barrier starts with an invitation.  It could simply mean having a regular theatregoer invite their varied group of friends and neighbors to join them at a performance, therefore making new attendees feel less like a stranger and welcoming them to a new space.  An invitation to the theatre is a powerful tool that many regular theatre lovers often forget they have at their disposal in keeping this art form alive.   This is especially critical now because over the past thirty years we have a generation that has not been raised to think that going to the theatre is part of their entertainment activities.  At NCBRC, the name is part of its historical legacy and a key part of its mission, but according to Jackie that should not be a barrier of entry for anyone.  When people feel welcomed once or twice, they are more likely to come back and participate.  They’ll remember that they shared a few hours with a group of strangers who together formed a community at a performance.  

In addition to the personal invitation, non-theatrical partnerships are critical in making theatre an essential part of a community.  Among them are houses of religious worship and community centers.  Jackie proudly speaks of continuing programs with health and wellbeing organizations that examine health disparities within the African American Community. This partnership focused on  the diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer and Alzheimers with productions of The Sting of White Roses by Angelica Cheri and Maid’s Door by Cheryl L. Davis.  From his point of view, Jackie sees that an audiences’ ethnic background should not prevent it from relating to most stories.  However, it often requires it to be framed within specific context to make those connections more clear. 

A big challenge for these black theatres is access to commercial producers or major regional theatres.  “Even the best productions will not get anywhere if the right producers do not see it,” states Jackie.  The challenges in making this happen are countless.  Artistic Directors at many regional theatres may have the best intentions, but the everyday demands of the job often makes reaching out beyond the usual audience quite the challenge. However, Jackie believes that this is changing and that black theatres should remain vigilant in making sure these invitations are continually made.

For commercial producers, the question is often: does the work have a wide appeal to return the financial investment?  However, compelling and engaged productions are hidden in unexpected places. One solution for black theatre companies and for any artist is to remain persistent in bringing their visions to a wider audience and build their network one audience member, and one producer, at a time.  Invite them to your theatre, find creative ways to engage them, and search for the common ground.   Many producers attended this year’s festival, increasing the productions’ visibility and opportunities to start new partnerships.

A common refrain in today’s arts community is that the representation in theatres across lines of race, gender and generations is woefully inadequate.  The issues facing these smaller theatres parallels the ongoing challenge across the field, which is to break through various barriers to get a work seen by the widest audience possible.  Many of these issues could be addressed by focusing on audience development to increase  awareness about arts and career opportunities at the local level in schools, churches and community centers.

The 2010 U.S. Census projected that by 2042, minority groups will outnumber non-Hispanic whites, making up 54 percent of the population.  As such it would appear that the audience for these theatres will only continue to grow with new stories to explore.  Forward thinking companies and producers at all levels in the theatre eco-system and adventurous audiences are needed now more than ever.