The idea of there being a Black History Month—why isn’t it Black History Month 12 months a year?
— Bill T. Jones at the TCG National Conference in Baltimore, 2009
It’s February, a time for leaving winter’s grip behind and witnessing the ever-increasing light that gives way to spring’s radiance. It’s also a time for celebrating African-American history and culture through the events and remembrances that reside within Black History Month. Where did this tradition come from? It had its genesis in a weeklong celebration known as Negro History Week, imagined in 1926 by Carter G. Woodson and what was then called the Association of the Study of Negro Life and History. Their vision, at the time, was that black history would eventually become a fundamental and integral part of U.S. history, and that the need for a dedicated time frame to celebrate the achievements of blacks would evaporate. Fifty years later, in 1976, Negro History Week was transformed into a full month of celebration and federally recognized by President Gerald Ford.
This yearly focus has indeed become an important mechanism for illuminating black culture and the tremendous contributions of African Americans. It has also become a barrier and a source of frustration for many artists who yearn for their work to be valued equally, in all 12 months of the year.
TCG’s November 2012 Fall Forum on Governance focused on diversity, calling on theatre leaders and trustees to “Lead the Charge” in bringing about a more diverse and inclusive national theatre culture. Nearly 200 theatre leaders and trustees delved deeply into their own personal (and often unconscious) biases and those of their organizations; the group considered how individual and organizational decisions bubble up to define our shared national ecology—the one we are, in a sense, responsible for “co-creating.” Keynote speaker Katori Hall talked about the rewards and difficulties of being a black female playwright, citing the challenges that she and other writers of color face. With an incisive blend of humor and seriousness, Hall shared messages contained within seven rejection letters she received from theatres in 2009, including: “We’ve already done an August Wilson piece this season,” “We don’t know if our audience can relate,” and, most germane to this column, “Our February slot has been filled.”
In her speech, Hall called upon the American theatre community to take a broader view of its responsibility to artists and especially to audiences: “We are in the business of transporting people to other unique, beautiful, amazing worlds that they would never, ever have had the blessing, the privilege and the opportunity to be in the same space of.” To underscore her point, she gave the stirring example of a woman from the Upper East Side of New York City who had seen Hall’s play Hurt Village at Signature Theatre Company. The woman expressed her empathy with a particular character, a drug dealer who lived in a housing project in Memphis. The woman explained that, while her own circumstances were radically different from that of the character, she saw in him a different version of herself—and it changed her view of the world.
Hall’s drama is only one of many notable artistic presentations that have explored the sociopolitical history that brings us to where we are today. I’ve written previously about Robert Schenkkan’s All the Way, and Lyndon B. Johnson’s attempts to pass the Civil Rights Act in 1964. More recently, Lincoln, the movie directed by Steven Spielberg with a screenplay by Tony Kushner, has chronicled Abraham Lincoln’s struggle and brinksmanship in accomplishing passage of the 13th Amendment. In one of Lincoln’s opening scenes, a soldier asks the president why it is that blacks, though they were enlisted to fight in the Civil War and had achieved equal pay with other soldiers, were not being promoted to positions of leadership:
Now that white people have accustomed themselves to seeing Negro men with guns, fighting on their behalf, and now that they can tolerate Negro soldiers getting the same pay—in a few years maybe they can abide by Negro lieutenants and captains.
This bit of dialogue has an oddly familiar ring to it. While our theatre field explores increased inclusion for African Americans and for all artists of color—in all 12 months of the year—we are also aware of the relative absence of leaders of color at the helms of theatres across the country.
In its underlying ambition to change minds and hearts, our theatre community has not fully succeeded in presenting new models of how our society can look and operate when it comes to inclusion. In some ways, we have replicated weaknesses that exist in society at large, flaws carried along by the slow machinations of history.
Diversity is a core value at TCG and a core priority in our strategic plan, which says: Our nation is becoming more global and more diverse…we have the opportunity to model a whole new ideal, in which diversity is sought, achieved and coveted.
In part, this effort is about self-reflection and study. It is also about the practical matter of doing something. In June, TCG will hold its 23rd National Conference in Dallas. “Learn, Do, Teach” is the theme, and diversity will be one area of focus. We hope to combine self-awareness, learning and doing to take us one giant step closer to a new reality, one in which (to paraphrase a certain movie hero) theatre of, by and for the people—all the people—shall thrive in our country and in the world.