A New Look at Old Perceptions
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What is Being Done?
Some time back, playwright OyamO opined the American Black Theater of being dead. In light of current funding situations (and there is a situation) along with a disheartening and skewered aesthetics lending a certain stench—something is rotten in Black theater and, presuming his argument has some legitimacy, scrutinizing the dramaturgical cadaver, one can surmise, the political/economy of black theater if not entirely dead, it is at the very least, zombified with sociologically fixated creatures eating the brains of its young while insisting their theatrical fare is the latest in haute cuisine.
A general and informal examination of our current theatrical environment appears to offer up a dearth of dramaturgical and aesthetical criterion for a 21st century challenge to the existing and prevailing notion of what theater can be doing, from and for, the black theater going community. Playwrights are starving because of the lack of experimental risk-taking and solvent venues. Directors are scratching the surface, seeking one tiny worm of possibility in a hardened earth, resistant to their visions and the thousands of dollars spent on education, leaving mostly, post graduate, student loan deficits. There seem to be only a handful of Artistic Directors left on the tottering brink of insolvency, desperately seeking if not Susan, at least, four weekend running shows in the current fiscal year.
Black actors are milling about, disenchanted with stifling reading venues-- which invariably lead to nowhere-- and wondering if and when they do get an up and running project who do they have to fuck to get outta this show? Living and working in New York City, the cultural capital of the western world, offers little solace for the paltry offerings of both For Profit and Not-for-Profit Theater. Speaking of the latter-- were it not for the reading circuit, many actors/playwrights and directors would lose their minds in this theatrical wasteland of diminishing returns.
The black theatre practitioner like their white counterparts, are a special breed of artist, loving and passionate about their work ideals and stubborn in their occupational ethics to do any show at any or no cost. We are a hardy lot, like warring guerrilla combatants, living off the land while hotly pursued by those well-armed demons of mediocrity, espousing pretentious calls for order and the rule of law. Thinking everything must be fine in their theater existence, as they feast on themselves, waxing grandiose and corpulent as the background music of clinking cocktail glasses serenade their self-serving delusion.
Our black audiences are emanating a distinct odor of senility, and decomposing, with little disposable income to pay for tickets which may not pay off a respectable entertainment return chronicled as an unforgettable evening of live theater. Our younger people find scant charm ---or relevancy-- sitting through live theater if it is not a celebrity concert encircled by an arena of thousands cheering, boozed-up and drug-addled hipsters, enshrining the virtues of the thuggish.
Then there are the aesthetics of Black Theatre itself. Few of us get the chance to fail. Because of lack of resources, we come in failing. I’ve known many playwrights after more than a quarter of a century of slaving for their Muse have gone on to the great stage in the sky with luckily one non equity production to their erstwhile credit. The few up and running production companies are either doing coteries of established writers, sanctioned by downtown savants or dead playwrights who by dint of their death, offer no meaningful resistance to the issue of royalties.
Finally, there are those companies holding high the banner of universalism— doing white plays in black face-- somehow overlooking the fact that white companies are not doing August Wilson or Ed Bullins in white face. Mature, middle class black audiences (who can afford and do purchase Broadway tickets) are hungry for live theater; it represents a certain societal standing and emotional rank of the intelligentsia within its comfortable routine of westernized culture. However, their theatre demands star power in casting, and safer subject matter eschewing riskier topics, evoking pertinent discussions during after theater dinner talk. Black high-end theater goers like their out of town counterparts are being entertained and not informed vis-avis the current human condition. Not that any real theater audience is adverse to thought provoking drama; American audiences are being numbed down as a matter of course, in the general entertainment malaise. A bread and circus atmosphere seems to exist surrounding current American Theater and our critical reviews carry less and less intellectual credence as counterweights to current fare. Even Tyler Perry’s brand (with its fantastic business model) of home spun theatrics has given way to his involvement in the wider reach of the electronic media, where billions of bucks are at stake.
In New York City there exist only one weekly black print newspaper, its critical and aesthetical evaluations are treated as byproducts of publishing models. Other media hardly seem to acknowledge the existence of black dramatic efforts unless the producer is on the entitled list.
America is a black and white nation. There is a black president with a white agenda. There is a black church and a white church. There is white justice and there is black justice. There is a white economy and there is a black economy. There are white communities and there are black communities. There is white theater and there is black theater. Aside from all the other white/black thingy’s, a peculiarity of America theater along the great color divide that is mainly a white thing: churches are turned into theaters. In the black communities theaters are turned into churches begging the question, Are black churches better revenue generators than black theater?
All of the above considerations point for this author in one specific direction, what can be done about it?
What is to be done?
Most non-profit theater is on the foundation and government dole. Without it, likelihood of survival is doubtful. With it, likelihood of realizing a cultural imperative is also doubtful. The financial strain to survive on the dole implicates— in the negative-- the grim future of a theater's ability to create theater arts. Unique black theatrical functions such as pantomime, clowning, dance, puppetry, exotic musicals and experimental projects are unfunded and therefore almost non-existent. So an entire realm of theater lives in the outer darkness of no money for support, Hades. Where there is no fiscal support, there is little development. An underdeveloped American black theater is akin to an underdeveloped black Africa— everyone is starving, unhealthy and mentally unstable and the children have little future.
Like any colonial operation, there are prized elites with their vested stake in the status-quo; while the majority of us are restless natives, distracted by a contentious environ, where dreams are dear and life is cheap. American Black Theater (as well as western hemispheric Diaspora) is a contrite expression of the larger matrix of our collectively global social ills. As in the case of our political movements, eliminating the heads of our leadership, results in blind un-progress to nowhere. In our theater, the lack of leadership, results in the circular no-whereness of a century’s long trek through slowly realized— if realized at all— potential.
So it would seem a black theater movement would require nay, demand, an all-inclusive dramaturgical leadership. Dramaturgy may prove to be the key that unlocks the self-imposed prison of wishful thinking that confines us to a static and flat theatrical landscape. What then is dramaturgy? In a word, dramaturgy is consequential guidance.
To quote a biblical passage (and our condition is of biblical proportions) “For we like sheep have gone astray. Everyone to his own way.” Dramaturgy is a way of “getting it.” It can provide—if well thought out--- a set of operational parameters by which artist and their artistic organizations can potentate a fuller operational artistic model, based upon practical guidelines of consideration. The production of classics and other dead poets' works can be healthy to an extent, but we need progress, and the seed of progress lies in the new plays-– unproduced, unread, and unavailable-- the ones that are stacking up in the bottom drawers of a playwright’s desk. The older operational team models are quickly becoming useless. Where it was the producer and director with its satellites of playwrights contending and controlling the script process. There are now phalanxes of professionals, insinuating itself into the creative endeavor. The stuff of deliberation that propels theatrical projects must be a theatre that refuses serving the function of making money alone and start serving the revelation and shaping of the process of living. However, this goal can only be achieved with dramatic/theatrical projects that are designed for sustainable production runs. A four week run of a show is neither enough time to allow the show to breath, the actor to develop his/her character, and its audiences to consider its true merits; nor does it quantify the project as a viable candidate for inclusion in the canon of theatrical literature.
Black theater must be revolutionary on two equally important fronts: business of theater productions and the aesthetics of creating theater literature. Consider the above and soon I will return to this topic, expanding on the notions contained herein.
August 12, 2013