On Sept. 26-29, Dartmouth’s Department of Theater, in collaboration with the CRAFT Institute, presented the 2018 International Black Theatre Summit: Breaking New Ground Where We Stand. Its host, Monica White Ndounou, associate professor of theater at Dartmouth, speaks here with Nicole Hodges Persley, a member of the gathering’s executive committee, about the summit, its inspiration, and about ways forward for Black theatre throughout the African diaspora.
NICOLE HODGES PERSLEY: Monica, congratulations on the summit! You must be thrilled with the success of the event. I know you’re working on a longer piece discussing the details of the summit, but I wanted to take a moment to tell you how much I enjoyed the event and serving on the executive committee.
MONICA WHITE NDOUNOU: Thank you, Nicole! I appreciate you and everyone who supported the summit in its various stages. I’m looking forward to sharing more about it soon.
Before we begin our conversation, I would like to take a moment to acknowledge the recent passing of legendary playwright and poet Ntozake Shange. She was one of the featured speakers of the 1998 “On Golden Pond” Black theatre summit. Throughout the 2018 summit so many attendees shared the ways Shange influenced us in our artistic development. What was her influence on you and your work?
Ntozake Shange is the artistic foremother for so many of us who are working in the theatre now. The first of her works I encountered was for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf. One Saturday while I was still in elementary school I was at the library where my mother worked, and I saw this book with a pretty Black woman and bright colorful lettering on the cover, so I picked up the book. When I read the title, I knew it was written for me. When I read the text I felt it was written about me, but how could she know? I later learned that this was a choreopoem meant to be performed. I eventually had the opportunity to direct a production of for colored girls with the most beautiful, talented and loving cast in 2010. In the process we all joined a sorority of women with a for colored girls connection.
Is this what inspired you to engage in the work you are doing with the CRAFT Institute in your mission to overhaul formal training programs?
When I was in grad school, I had the great fortune of taking a class with Ntozake called “Global Voices of Feminism,” where I had a chance to perform one of my spoken word pieces for her for one of the assignments. Her praise was everything! That same year my professor, Mikell Pinkney, invited me to assistant direct his production of Ntozake’s new work, which was a choreopoem titled lavender lizards and lilac landmines: layla’s dream.
As part of that experience I was able to learn from Dr. Pinkney while witnessing stages of Ntozake’s process. Dyane Harvey was also the choreographer, so this was a life-changing experience for me; one that I hope every student will have a chance to access in some form or another. It was an amazing opportunity to work with a Black faculty member and Black theatre and performance legends at such a formative stage of my development as an artist. It was a unique experience compared to the curriculum of most academic programs. For instance, studying for my doctorate required more of a focus on the Western canon, which is predominantly white, male, and heteronormative, so when I began teaching I wanted to find ways to shake things up for my students. I wanted to expose them to a broader range of perspectives and creative works. I’ve found that the study and practice of Black theatre is a great way to pilot strategies for bridging the divide between educational programs and the professional field.
In his 1996 speech “The Ground on Which I Stand,” August Wilson said that Black theatre is alive and well, it just isn’t funded. More than 20 years later we find the situation is still quite similar, although it is important to note that the urban circuit, also part of Black theatre, was then and still is funded. How would you describe the current state of Black theatre and how can it serve as a model for bridging the divide?
I’m glad you mentioned the urban circuit, because I also acknowledge it in my book, Shaping the Future of African American Film: Color-Coded Economics and the Story Behind the Numbers as an important example of the complexity of the economics of funding Black cultural production across platforms. So I agree that the urban circuit counts, and that the economics of black theatre are just as challenging as they were 20 years ago. Still, I would describe the current state of Black theatre as promising, in spite of the economic challenges. The 2018 reconvening of the summit was fertile ground for thinking through many of the structural challenges and opportunities across platforms. We also have several prominent black artists enriching the representation of Black people and culture onstage: Suzan-Lori Parks, Dominique Morisseau, Tarell Alvin McCraney, Ifa Bayeza, Katori Hall, Danai Gurira, Donja Love, Lydia Diamond, Robert O’Hara, Kirsten Greenidge, Lynn Nottage, Marcus Gardley, Lisa B. Thompson, George C. Wolfe, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, Mfoniso Udofia, and so many others; not to mention all of the excellent actors, directors, designers, and producers.
I don’t want to minimize the fact that Black brick-and-mortar institutions are still facing similar challenges of access to funding and resources. But I want to draw attention to abundance of materials and resources grounded in Black culture that can be used to train the next generation of practitioners, scholars, critics, administrators, and board members. Yet the curricular form and content and major requirements in a lot of the related academic programs do not reflect this in their choice to continue to privilege the Western canon.
When and how did you decide to do your self-described conference tour across professional organizations? What did you hope to accomplish by doing this, and did you achieve it?
As I began the second year of my two-year term as conference planner for the Black Theatre Association (BTA), I felt it was important for us to interact more with other umbrella Black theatre organizations, especially for more effective mobilizing around important issues. When the first year of my term as BTA president began in 2016, I made it part of my initiatives to attend the conferences of all of the Black theatre organizations to begin to form alliances. The continuity between my presidency and yours will help cement the coalitions. You’ve already helped establish a more sustainable process through your ideas for the Black Vitality Commission.
Yes, the mission of the Black Vitality Commission is to organize, facilitate, and support creative and economic development of Black theatre practice and scholarship in the United States from an intersectional standpoint that includes, and relates to, the representation of Blackness and Black people in the African continent and diaspora. The commission is a natural outgrowth of a real need for collaboration for sustainable Black theatre. Did your discoveries at the events you attended yield any immediate results?
Yes and no. I started intentionally introducing the overhaul initiatives in various forms at multiple conferences in 2017, and by 2018 I had started to build relationships with allies and collaborators across organizations. People like yourself, Patricia Ybarra, Harvey Young, Joshua Abrams, Ann Shanahan, David Mitchell, Ekundayo Bandele, Teresa Eyring, Elena Chang, Emilya Cachapero, Gus Schulenburg, and many others helped support the initiatives in various ways. In addition to identifying individual allies, I served on the planning committees of TCG and ATHE (Association for Theatre in Higher Education) to learn more about the organizations while my allies, collaborators, and I contributed ideas that helped shape the conference agendas of both organizations. Our mutual efforts helped ensure both conferences contained key sessions focusing equity, diversity, and inclusion, particularly at the intersection of overhauling formal training while bridging the gap between educational programs and the professional field. I had hoped to spark an industry-wide conversation and action steps, and this approach has helped establish a promising foundation for moving forward.
Were there any particular occurrences over the course of the events you attended that stood out for you in terms of the limitations and possibilities for moving forward?
The arc began with the August Wilson Society Colloquium, which was rooted in the importance of preserving the legacy of luminaries like Wilson. Moving from the colloquium in Pittsburgh to the TCG conference in St. Louis in June was a fascinating transition. The event started with the Theatres of Color gathering, where I had an opportunity to convene with practitioners and administrators from theatres representing a range of cultural backgrounds. During this convening the Black theatre contingent also met to discuss matters more specific to Black theatre. This conversation continued through the Black Theatre Commons meetings at TCG, the Black Theatre Network conference at Hattiloo Theatre, the BTA sessions at ATHE, and finally into the 2018 International Black Theatre Summit. We were able to cover a lot of important ground over the course of those several months.
At the same time, I was tracing the curricular overhaul initiatives in each of these conferences. The necessity for such overhauls was painfully apparent while attending the TCG conference in St. Louis when the Muny incident transpired.
Yes, I heard that members of TCG participated in a peaceful protest at the production of Jerome Robbins’ Broadway due to the use of yellowface and redface. Were you involved in that protest?
I elected not to attend the performance but I participated in the protest as one of the authors and presenters of the statement about the incident. The NAACP had issued a travel warning for Black people in the state of Missouri, so I had real concerns about the ways police violence tends to escalate during peaceful protests by Black people in Missouri and elsewhere. The Muny’s response to the protest revealed all the more the reason we need overhauls in formal training that bridge educational programs and the profession. Many of those involved did not appear to be equipped to deal with the fallout and actually seemed unaware of how the production would even be perceived as problematic. We can do a better job in formal training programs by educating about the history of blackface, yellowface, redface, and other forms of misrepresentation, while also exposing students to a broader range of representation that more accurately reflects the demographics of the nation and the world. Theatres are now having to pay for these gaps in education, literally and figuratively.
Through the CRAFT Institute, I’m working with professional theatres and organizations like TCG, as well as ATHE and academic programs at various institutions. We are working to bridge the divide by eradicating the exclusionary practices in order to decrease the likelihood that those types of incidents continue to occur. Things can improve if we are more intentional and inclusive in every area.
You invited me and several others to participate on the 2018 ATHE plenaries. The first part brought together academics and leaders of professional organizations in the theatre industry, and then you and I taught a follow-up plenary workshop focused on pedagogy. Having led the follow-up discussion to that track at the summit I find that we have a lot of work to do in this area in order to truly affect sustainable change. What do you recommend as next steps for those who participated or want to be a part of the movement?
Many of the plenary participants attended the summit as well and will continue to work with us over another yearlong conference arc of CRAFT sessions that will maintain the momentum by engaging in more specific working group/workshop-based sessions. The CRAFT sessions will enable us to combine efforts of practitioners and academics in terms of developing new approaches to teaching and learning in every area of theatre training. Black theatre has been an effective model for thinking through the range and depth of material, along with implementation strategies. I’m excited about the possibilities for sustained change.
Ntozake’s passing just a month after the 2018 International Black Theatre Summit has led many of us to reflect even more on the present and future of Black theatre. How do you think we can best capitalize on this moment for sustained change?
Ntozake Shange and August Wilson were prominent voices at the 1998 “On Golden Pond” summit, and we invoked both of their names during our recent gathering. Both of their legacies, along with Maria Irene Fornés, who also passed recently, are excellent examples of how clearing space for a range of cultural perspectives and voices actually broadens the possibilities for artistic creation. There is much we can draw from their work in our efforts to overhaul formal training in theatre and performance and production across platforms. Ntozake’s for colored girls led me to the theatre, and August Wilson called me back when I felt like there was no place for me. That’s what our creative foremothers and forefathers have done for us. They have called us to rise to the occasion, so that is what I set out to do throughout my career but especially in the past few months. We must continue to move forward with targeted action steps in order to sustain the current movement to overhaul formal training programs and bridge the divide between academic/educational training programs and the professional field.
Monica White Ndounou is working on a longer piece about the summit and the issues and opportunities it raised for a future publication by American Theatre.