NATIONALLY AND INTERNATIONALLY RECOGNIZED SCHOLAR, DIRECTOR AND PRODUCER
SUSAN WATSON TURNER pens a poignant look at four prominent Black Theatre institutions. Karamu Theatre - The Art of Tradition; The Negro Ensemble Company - The Art of Autonomy; eta Creative Arts Foundation - The Art of Ownership; St. Louis Black Repertory Theatre - The Art of Community captures the development and philosophies of four very different theatre companies across the country Recognizing A Dream soon to be published Volume One addresses the provocative question 'What color is Black Theatre in America' Read abstract and chapter samples on this site.
Karamu Chapter - Introduction
The rich history and current condition of the Karamu Theatre are inseparably tangled in the history and
condition of Cleveland Ohio. From Cleveland being featured as the retreat when all goes array – in
popular sitcoms to the regularly used phrase ‘mistake on the lake’ after the Cuyahoga River caught fire
Cleveland has produced some mixed opinions over the years. Today Cleveland, along with most of the
industrial mid-west has met with much criticism popular and economic as the great migration sends the
second generation industrialist away from those blue collar towns. Today the migration is headed far
away from the mid-western job barren land that once was the — Mecca for the civilians of the Great
Migration. During the Great Migration over 2 million African Americans relocated to urban centers from
1910-1930. This migration movement demanded that institutions be developed to urbanize the former
southern population within their new environments.
The greatest influx began in 1917, and the first waves were—understandably—made up of those
‘found standing on the street corners, who had no family responsibilities and who could leave
within an hour. These were the recruits, often-brought North at a dollar a head, on open
Those migrants built the city into a great industrial center for industrial steel manufacturers—it is those
children of the migrants who fled the Cleveland central for services centers when they reached
adulthood—as they saw the industrial giants begin to crumble.
In 1933 a book published by Gist and Halbert entitled Urban Society examines the personalities and
family structures of newly migrated Americans. They even go as far as projecting the future of
‘urbanism’ from this less than twenty year view into a movement that would changed American life view
forever. Yet from this dated purview –much can be extracted from almost a century ahead of time.
As a surcease from his labors and as an opiate to his frayed nerves he may engage in bizarre and
grotesques forms of leisure activity. Therefore, if he is frequently dissipated and nervously
exhausted; if he appears jaded and bored, a victim of ennui; if he is impatient, reckless,
adventurous the cause is likely to be found in the nature of his occupation and in the intense
stimulations he encounters in his leisure time. (317 Gist and Halbert)
The Negro Ensemble Company, Inc (NEC) was founded in 1967. The climate in New York City at the tip of the civil rights movement was fertile ground to discuss and create a professional theatre in one of the theatre capitals of the world. Lorraine Hansberry’s Raisin in the Sun had reopened the Great White Way (Broadway) to Black performers and playwrights. The American theatre burst wide open with opportunities for artists to express their opinions filtered through the established venues and bring new audiences to the Great White Way of producing plays.
Community based efforts were also popular in an attempt to settle the violent urban unrest. Yet penetration into the established theatre structure was not addressed until Douglas Turner Ward penned American Theatre: For Whites Only and published it in the New York Times August 14, 1966.
Poised for vocalized critique-- the American Theatre encircled Ward’s poignant penetration of their world. His position was appropriately aimed from the dramatists’ point of view.
That the Negro playwright is more or less excluded from legit boulevards is not a revelation for concern. More important is the fact that, even when produced within this environment, the very essence of his creative function is jeopardized. …Spectators who, though afflicted with self-imposed ignorance, demand to be taught ABC’s at the very moment when the writer is impatient to explore the algebra of his thematic equations. (Ward p3)
This quote embodied the restless and controversial spirit of the period’s Black artist. Ward’s commitment to the playwright would lay the foundation for the Negro Ensemble Company as a home for the playwright.
He responded to what he saw as a missing cog in the American Theatre wheel—and addressed not only the current profile but looked forward to include those waiting in the wings for the opportunity to work. He rejected the isolated ‘cultural islands’ that sprung up in urban communities as part of other social programs and called for a professional theatre institution.
Ward would not subject the ‘art’ to a social and/or economic agenda that attempted to placate the political uprisings—yet certainly the tone and climate of America played to the benefit of Wards’ agenda. Subsequently the NEC was criticized for opening its doors in Greenwich Village at St. Marks
Eta (pronounced ‘ettah’) Creative Arts Foundation, Inc was organized as a non-profit corporation in the State of Illinois in 1971. The climate, Chicago’s south side still smoldering from the civic unrest and under shadowy generations of Pullman Porter descendants was fertile ground for the development of a Black Theatre institution. This second generation produced by the 1915 Great Black Migration from the south by the early seventies had emerged into political and social positions of power as a direct result of the American Civil Rights Movement. This history and purpose permeated the artistic goals of founder and CEO, Abena Joan Brown when she grounded eta Creative Arts Foundation unyieldingly on Chicago’s Southside through the Art of Ownership.
Eta Creative Arts Foundation, Inc. was organized as a non-profit in 1971. From modest roots and large dreams eta today has become a full fledged cultural arts institution where the artistic voice can be developed, nurtured and heard. Abena Joan Brown was one of four voices that were responsible for this monumental accomplishment. The office mission statement reads as follows:
Eta Creative Arts Foundation seeks to be a major cultural resource institution for the preservation, perpetuation and promulgation of the African American aesthetic in the City of Chicago, the State of Illinois and the Nation. Toward this end, eta Creative Arts Foundation, shall provide professional opportunities by the way of training and performance for the development of both youth and adults as artists and technicians; arts-in-education…exposure for the general public to authentic, valid projections of African American lifestyles, experiences and aspirations.
(Staying the Course – eta Annual Report 2002)
To this end the current CEO Brown has directed an institutional model that touts a balance sheet equal in size to many professional regional theatres yet remains embedded in the community. The actual budget for eta in 2005 totaled over $1.5 million which included expenditures toward capital development of a new facility design of over $300,000. Ownership and community impact present a unique model for Black American Theatre institutions. Often it has been argued that aggressive entrepreneurial development hinders artistic quality and that community arts are not presented on a professional level. That one sacrifices artistic development for administrative competency—or what Douglas Turner Ward referred to as creating ‘isolated cultural islands.’ Certainly, eta does not tout the infusion of artists into the professional world equal to Ward’s accomplishments at NEC and one rightly
In terms of economics and privilege, one significant fact affects us all in the American theatre: of the 66 LORT theatres (LORT = League of Regional Theatres, an organization made up of major professional not-for-profit theatres across the country), there is only one that can be considered black. From this it could be falsely assumed that there aren’t sufficient numbers of blacks working in the American theatre to sustain and support more theatres. If you do not know, I will tell you that black theatre in America is alive…it is vibrant…it is vital…it just isn’t funded.”
August Wilson 1996 - The Ground on Which I Stand
The Black Rep founded in 1976 touts teaching, touring and performing for young people as an integral part of its mission. The volunteer program fosters and creates positive relationships with regional community organizations. Their touring program trains and entertains thousands of local school aged children each year. The Black Rep develops work to enhance educational curriculums such as Language Arts and Social Studies. Seeming engulfed in community based activity; the Black Rep founded by Ron Himes is regularly featured at the National Black Theatre Festival in the professional company sector and Himes is an outspoken and respected artistic voice in American Black theatre today.
St Louis Black Repertory Company is the largest African American performing arts organization in Missouri and is among the largest African American companies in America. The idea for the Black Rep came to Himes while in college. At the end of the Civil Rights Movement Himes realized:
I was in search of role models while in college and I told my classmates that if they wouldn’t give us role models—then we had to make our own. And that’s what we did. We began meeting and talking about what could be done. We began performing our own work on campus. (Interview Ron Himes February 2007)