Black Theater: Survival Through the Black Community ©
I am an actor, playwright, producer, marketing strategist and community builder. Yup, in one or more areas of my life, I professionally execute each of these roles.
As a purveyor of the theatrical arts I was consistently confronted with the same question, haunting me like a recurring nightmare. Where are all the Black Theaters? I cut my theatrical teeth in Philadelphia, the home of Freedom Theater who in its heyday produced theater that connected deeply with the community. I went all the way down to Florida A&M University to gain my undergraduate degree at the Essential Theater to learn about the renowned Crossroads Theater in my home state of NJ. However, by the time I graduated and began pursuing my acting career, both companies had become effectively, defunct.
Years later when I moved to New York, and began writing plays, I’d look for small black theater companies through which I could submit my pieces. I had predominately black casts...I needed predominately black actors. Eurocentric theater companies, that developed new work, shied away from work that didn’t reflect either their audiences or members. There were many, many, many Eurocentric theater companies that shied away. I hunted and Googled, and began discovering how FEW Black theater companies there were out there in the country.
This niggling question eventually led me to the thesis work I conducted while in graduate school. There were many theories as to why there was a lack of sustainability within Black theaters. Common theories were:
Black People are not a reliable source of individual donors.
Black audiences are not interested in theater
Black audiences cannot afford theater.
On first blush, one MIGHT think there was some validity to these theories. If these were the in fact true, I wanted to try to understand WHY they were true. During this quest, I had my Oprah “aha” moment. There was an absolute direct relationship between the success of Black Theater, its successful connection with the Black community, and the success of the community. Black theater could not live in an artistic vacuum, ignoring the unique challenges it faced, simply being a Black Theater. Integration was needed. This is the first of a series of essays in which we will walk together through understanding the unique challenges of Black theater and how it can create a symbiotic relationship with Black communities for the potential sustainability of both.
THEATER IS BUSINESS; BLACK THEATER IS BLACK BUSINESS
A Little History
… dandelions, you either get the full root out, or they come back again and again". —Marie Cunningham
The four main areas that determine stability and sustainability for non-profit arts organizations, in general, are donor activity, audience development, funding and governance. However, the unique challenges of Black theaters – economic disparity, systemic racism, and failing communities – are additional barriers that only compound the standard challenges. Through this understanding, Black theaters can begin their transcendence into being a vital tool for Black communities. Through research conducted in this thesis, strategies will be examined to counter these barriers and provide a path to a sustainable future.
Black Businesses Post Civil-War
The economics of the Black community are complex. From just before the Emancipation Proclamation, which set American slaves free, through The Great Depression, Black businesses and communities were established and developed into thriving conclaves of sustainability and financial success. These communities had their own banks, insurance companies, grocers, retailers and other such entities that drive economic stability. Of course, these businesses were born out of necessity. To survive a post-Civil War existence, African Americans had to develop the means to take care of themselves and their communities. These communities not only survived, but they thrived. From 1863 through 1930, Black businesses – Sole Proprietors - grew from 2,000 to 38,000 across the country.
During this time, African Americans employed in Black businesses increased from 31,127 people to 103,872 people, Throughout the continental United States, all-Black communities were established and provided for every possible need the freed slaves could have. By 1900 African American wealth in the country was estimated at $700 Million, which is just under $17 Trillion in today’s dollar. This is not to indicate that all freed slaves went into thriving businesses. The historic record of Black owned business post-Civil War is incomplete; however, it is clear, as Vera Keith and Cedric Herring expounds in their book, “Skin tone and stratification in the Black community”, that many of the business owners had been house slaves who received the “benefit” of education that living so closely to their White owners afforded them. The house slave was often the progeny of the slave master. These mulattos were brought into the slave master’s house and were exposed to (and often taught) proper English, reading, writing, arts and other special skills (Keith and Herring 1991). Slaves who were craftsmen were also especially suited to start business enterprises. The Black community was independent of Whites and entirely dependent upon each other, by necessity. Each individual success enabled more successes to follow.
W.E.B. Dubois was noted for saying that successful Black business should follow the following tenants, (Walker 1999):
College education for black businessmen;
Black business people to encourage customer loyalty by being courteous and honest and using careful business methods;
Blacks to patronize black business, even to their disadvantage;
Black churches, schools, and newspapers to promote black business;
Encourage personal savings
African American businesses and communities have a strong history of sustainability. This is a direct result of combining their resources and providing support to survive. When applying this to Black theater, the community connection is important in that the interconnectivity of the two is integral to Black theaters success.
Next essay in this series will dig deeper into the Black Communities post Civil War and up through the Civil Rights Movement. (May 6) Followed by the State of Black Theater (June 7) and ending with possible action steps toward healthy solutions (July 10).
Tanesha is the Co-Founder of Artistic Pride Productions, Founder and Executive Director of For de Arts. With a MS in Arts Administration, focusing on digital marketing and audience development, Tanesha is available for speaking engagements and developing strategic plans for developing arts organizations. Constructive feedback on this series is welcomed as I continue to develop content. More on Tanesha M. Ford