Open Friday: Why Don’t We Support Black Theater?

This edition of Open Friday letter is something that I recognize myself as a problem but I fall victim to it myself. We always talk about black images in film, media, and music. But, what about theater support? This week a reader wants to know about theater and the black community.

 Dear D,

I have a question or want to know why Black people and people as a whole don’t support the theater?

And the Academy Award goes to… At this moment in time, I find myself on the edge of my seat waiting to hear, if not both at least one of the names; Viola Davis or Octavia Spencer following that heart palpitating phrase. I also find myself scratching my head a bit. You see, I’ve watched the interviews with Spencer and Davis and I’ve seen the scrutiny over the characters they played in “The Help”. It seems that the general consensus  is disdain that Black women are still playing maids in the 21st Century. I, however, wonder the validity of these judgmental remarks for you see, before Davis ever set foot on a film set, she was first an actor of the stage. She was portraying those rich roles , some written by the late, great August Wilson that contained depth and the flaws of the human spirit. As a student of the theatre, I find myself attending the productions of many different theatre companies, yet there is a huge deficit in  the support from the Black , 40 and under crowd.

The audience for the Black Theatre is on life support and we are missing the voice of the younger generation. Why are we so quick to judge the images that we see portrayed on TV or film by Black actors  yet we fail to support the more complicated, sometimes heroic and real characters that are presented on the stages of  Black theatres, Black theatres built and established in spite of innumerable obstacles. If you already are a consistent supporter of the theatre, then I applaud you and yet encourage you to bring more people to the theatre . There is no greater joy as a performing artist than to see the reflection of you in the audience or hear the age old custom of ” Call and Response” in a “MMM..Hmm Girl”, or “You betta sing, boy! “However if you are not a constant patron of live theatre, then I ask ” Why not”? What will make a date to the theatre just as appealing as a comedy show ,movie night, or buying out the bar with your friends? In the meantime, go see a play, preferably one in which the characters represent you!

I encourage you to start with supporting the theatre in your area. If you’re in the St. Louis area or visiting , you  can start at the St. Louis Black Repertory company, a company in it’s 35th season currently presenting talented Black artists in many of Shakespeare’s major roles. If you’re not in the area, check http://www.jacneed.com/African_American_Theatre.html to locate more theatres in your area.’

So I ask again why don’t we support black theater?

Signed,

Frustrated  Theater Supporter

Your question is a complex cultural dynamic but I will do my best to try and give you my opinion. I fully understand and have spoken about the need to provide more diverse images in film. I have (gasp) have defended Tyler Perry in saying it is not all his fault when it comes to film. And black culture as a whole being responsible for the images shown but, one thing I honestly neglected was the black theater. I mean one of favorite plays is August Wilson’s Fences and I can’t even remember the last time I saw it performed.

With all of that being said I will be the first one to admit that I have NOT support black theater as much as I should. I will say at the same token that I really haven’t support much theater period and that’s where I feel the issue lies. Society as a whole has turned away from the idea of theater. We have 300 TV stations and over 100 movies being released weekly. Then there is the issue of the arts not being pushed in public schools anymore. They are cutting art budgets daily to the extent that some students don’t know anything art as a whole let alone theater/drama.  We are living in a society now that celebrates the lowest common denominator with easy access. Some people just want to have their entertainment to be mindless (see Basketball Wives, Housewives of Atlanta, etc. Let’s keep it real the sad thing is that theater is hurting period unless it is Broadway.

We have to remind ourselves that we have a consorted effort of keeping many Black traditions rich and live.  Many traditions and parts of history haven’t been passed along for whatever reason across American society so why would it be any different in the Black community?  But, to answer your question simply…many look at theater as ancient because they have so many other things to occupy their time. But, I do challenge myself and my readers to step outside their comfort zone and check out a play at their local theater.

*Playa Tip* Think about how much you can set yourself apart from other men in a woman’s mind by taking her to theater? And if she isn’t open to checking out a play. Is she a woman you would want to even deal with?

Write in with any question for Open Friday at fromashy2classy@gmail.com

What do you think? What is your opinion on the support of the black theater?

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7 responses to “Open Friday: Why Don’t We Support Black Theater?

  1. Last Friday, I took my bride to be to the Black Rep to see A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The version was slated to mix Shakespeare and the 1970′s. I hate to say this, but that was $84.00 I could’ve saved or done something else with. From the seats being covered in dust to the actors not being believable, it was a poor experience to say the least. Originally we were going to see Westside Story at the Fox but we both wanted to support the Black Rep since we appreciate the arts and our culture. I made the wrong decision for us as we had a better time enjoying the McDonald’s that followed.

    Maybe it’s the funding or the lack of support but I can’t imagine how anyone would support such a lackluster performance. There were memorable moments but only because we share a “different” sense of humor. The director looked pleased but she shared this sentiment alone from the balcony. I seriously considered writing a letter to the Black Rep as I grew up watching performances there and was beyond disappointed by my Valentine’s Day investment.

  2. Sigh the black theater! Ok, I love quality black dramas and plays but the influence of Chitlin Circuit as plays have watered down the whole concept. There are only so many “Mama Don’t Throw The Grits at Mes” I can handle!

    The quality plays I am willing to go see but these Talbert and Perry plays are too much for me right now and just like film Black plays have to step their game up

  3. I love the theater! I go as much as I can here in NY but Dig make sa great point that many other cities don’t support niche culture as much as other cities do. The sad part is many people will only bitch and complain when its gone already.

    I will agree with the other commenters above though! There needs to be better quality works put out as well

  4. I have been in Black Theatre for over 20 years. It’s a large part of who I am. I have done shows with white theatre companies and while the productions with those companies have been good, nothing speaks to me like Black Theatre. I’ve been hooked ever since I played Curtis Taylor in “Dreamgirls” back in college.

    Black Theatre has had a few problems I have witnessed over the years. The first is getting quality work produced. I can tell you there are great Black playwrights out there. The problem is unless your play has a combination of church, a man in a dress, or Clifton Powell, chances are you’re going to have a hard time getting your show on stage. The second thing I’ve noticed is that the executive producers of some Black Theatre companies are unwilling to give up their positions. If Black Theatre is going to survive, they will have to train the next generation.

    Black Theatre is having the same troubles as regular theatre. Hopefully we won’t have to live in a time where it no longer exists.

  5. Wow. Really surprised by the comments about Midsummer’s Night Dream because I saw it, loved it, and will be going to see it again! I don’t want this to be a commentary on one play at one theatre, but suffice it to say we are used to the glossy and airbrushed world of movie idols… or the shallow world (as stated by the blogger) of reality shows. Live performances are more complex… not always allowing easy and obvious emotions to rule; often delving into areas we’re not so certain of… leaving us to look at ourselves more honestly. We’re challenged to accept (at least while in those seats facing not only the stage actors but the other patrons) an idea that may not be ours. But it’s worth it… to witness another’s ideas manifest before us for a couple of hours. And when I think of the validity and brilliance of a man’s words who lived more than 400 years ago… touching me TODAY, making me laugh, making me understand feelings that are timeless… I am in awe of the actors and directors who brought those words to life for me. In 400 years… Basketball Wives won’t be in anyone’s vocabulary. At least I hope not!!!

  6. I LOVE the theater and yet, I am also guilty of not seeing as a many plays and musicals as I would’ve like to…within the last few years or even in my lifetime. I think you have to look at and analyze two different groups. One, people who have always loved going to the theater but don’t go often and two, people who do not find the theater as an enjoyable form of entertainment. As someone who fits in the first category, I tend to choose comfort and saving money over going out; and that may be the case for many people out there. Time and money are the two things that people feel they don’t have enough of and it’s obvious that it has affected what people choose to do with any free time they have. Also, it doesn’t help that the “ADD generation” has so many other options that offer more in a shorter amount of time. How can the theater complete with films like Transformers, Inception, even Red Tails, that have offer such amazing sensory stimulation? Filmmakers have the freedom to put anything on the screen, but in the theater, all you have to work with is that stage.

    I think the main problem lies in the lack of appreciation for the art form. Within the last few years I’ve seen Wicked at the Fox, a couple plays at the university I was attending and even went to see some improv at Second City in Chicago. Though I don’t go often, each time I leave a theater, I know I’ve witnessed something great. People are disappointed because they can’t get from the theater what they get from film, but fail to realize that the “one-take-only”, emotionally-charged, beautifully preserved art of storytelling is something that will be surely missed if it ever goes away. People need to somehow be reminded how great the theater is.

  7. I too am surprised by the comments about A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Being a black theatre enthusiast and supporter, I went to opening night of the play and had quite a different experience than that of one listed above. I paid particular attention to the set design, the costumes, choreography, the acting, and the interpretation of the play; these contextual elements went a long way for me. This is the first time I’ve honestly enjoyed and followed this particular Shakespeare play from beginning to the end. No doubt is he a timeless playwright (i.e. he told captivating, cutting edge stories, and the man wrote primarily in verse/meter, which isn’t an easy feat by any stretch of the imagination), but I needed something more than his genius to pull me in this time. The Black Rep provided that extra something in their version of the play. The Rep stayed true to the original language and genre (comedy) in which Shakespeare wrote. But, they got out of the box; they pushed the limits of their craft and the audience’s imagination by offering us what they gave in this interpretation. Kudos to you, Black Rep!

    Unfortunately, The Black Rep (just like any of us), won’t be able to win everyone every time. So, what then are they to do now?…Glad you asked!…They keep on keeping on, doing what they do and wowing those who are open to taking unexpected, unfamiliar journeys. They keep pressing forward staying true to the mission and vision of the Black Rep and knowing that everyone won’t be a believer but many will. My money and time were both well spent.

    Again, Kudos to the Black Rep! You’ve got a supporter in me.

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