History repeated itself, and the possibilities for the future were revealed, as we organized the 2018 International Black Theatre Summit, “Breaking New Ground Where We Stand,” which took place at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., last Sept. 26-29. That this 20th anniversary of the 1998 National Black Theatre Summit, “On Golden Pond,” came in the wake of the stellar box-office performance of the film Black Panther felt like timing that was beyond serendipitous.
Constanza Romero, August Wilson’s widow and executor of the playwright’s literary estate, gave me her blessing to proceed with my plans to reconjure the touchstone moment in Black theatre history when Wilson, Victor Leo Walker II, and William Cook convened the earlier Black theatre summit. In 1998 I was just becoming familiar with Wilson’s plays; Ntozake Shange had been the writer who first helped me find my voice. While studying the rich history of Black theatre and performance, I learned about Wilson’s advocacy and self-proclaimed “seamlessness” as a race man. When my negative experiences as a Black woman in the industry led me to consider other career paths, August Wilson was a lifeline leading me back to acting and directing. He died in 2005, before I had a chance to tell him how much his work inspired my own seamless approach to life, craft, and pedagogy.
But by 2018, the planets aligned for me and others to revisit “On Golden Pond,” both as a tribute to Wilson’s legacy and as an opportunity to break new ground. Bringing together international scholars and practitioners in theatre, film, television, and related media platforms, and striving to foster intentional collaborations for sustainable Black cultural production throughout the African diaspora, the 2018 International Black Theatre Summit was poised to seize this potentially watershed moment as one that might turn the tide for Black cultural production across platforms. My book Shaping the Future of African American Film: Color-Coded Economics and the Story Behind the Numbers provided the organizing framework for the convening. What follows is an overview of my opening presentation at the summit, interspersed with highlights from a range of summit sessions and participants.
The rallying cry from the Black Panther film continues to reverberate on social media and in pop culture. In the film it’s a declaration of undying support for the fictional nation ruled by King T’Challa, the Black Panther, along with his surrogate mother, Queen Ramonda, his sister and tech whiz Shuri, and a fearless army of women, the Dora Milaje, led by General Okoye. Heard with a more attentive ear, this rallying cry becomes more than a line from the film; it is also a call to action.
Wakanda is a utopic, Afrofuturist rendering of the rich tapestry of African history and culture that also confronts some of the complexities of African Diasporic relationships. King T’Challa and his court offer a welcome contrast to our current reality, offering a sense of hope for a better world. But Black Panther is a film, and after the credits roll we are all catapulted from the psychic refuge of Wakanda into a reality where the sitting president of the United States has referenced countries from the African continent and its diaspora as “shithole” nations.
The 2019 awards season has reignited debates about the implications of Black Panther’s success as an indicator of change in Hollywood’s treatment of African Americans. My research for Shaping the Future of African American Film indicates that, as with so much Black-produced popular art, a hit film like Black Panther may exemplify the cultural capital and economic vitality of Black storytelling, but it cannot by itself change the system that produced it. Historically the economic success and cultural significance of a single project does not lead to sustained changes.
This does not mean the film cannot become a catalyst for the change we wish to see. In fact this would call for a revolution, if you will, loosely modeled on the anti-colonialist message in the film.
Several attempts to capitalize on Black Panther’s success have not yet yielded the ideological and structural changes needed to have the desired effect, but they are a step in the right direction. Filmmaker Ava DuVernay (Selma, A Wrinkle in Time) is partnering with HBO, Netflix, and the city of Los Angeles on an inclusion initiative designed to provide training to young women and people of color so they will have greater and earlier access to opportunities in the industry to help shape its future. Similarly, a Change.org petition called upon Marvel to invest 25 percent of the Black Panther film’s billion-plus worldwide earnings into Black communities by supporting STEM programs for Black youth. That petition was answered with a one-time donation of a mere $1 million and a single $250,000 scholarship award.
The limitations of these efforts do not minimize their relevance, but they do shed light on the need for a more comprehensive outlook, a strategic plan, and collective, tangible action steps that can bridge the disconnect that happens in training and access in the industry. Black Panther is not the anomaly it appears to be in terms of economic success. In fact, Black films tend to receive smaller budgets and generate a higher return on investment in the domestic market than predominantly white cast films that receive global distribution. How can we build our own version of a Black cultural production and distribution network spanning global markets so that we are not beholden to persistent exclusionary industry practices, repeating the same patterns that make the scale of a success like Black Panther an exception rather than the rule?
The 2018 IBTS executive committee, including myself, Nicole Hodges Persley, Ekundayo Bandele, Keryl McCord, and Anthony Meyers, and summit participants served as a think tank to answer this question. Using the four days to examine Black theatre and its positioning within the current state of American theatre as a case study, we sought to identify and strategize solutions to some of the biggest challenges facing Black cultural producers across platforms. Each day we explored a variation of the larger theme: Day 1, Where We Stand; Day 2, Where We Can Go; Day 3, How We Get There; and Day 4, Onward! We attracted a range of people with expertise in every area of the ecosystem of Black cultural production to begin to conceptualize and build an African diasporic network with Black theatre and artists at its core.
To encourage solution-driven conversations, the summit began by setting a tone of abundance and positivity, with closed sessions attended by invited speakers. Day One began with my presentation, “Wakanda Forever? Shaping the Future of Black Storytelling Across Platforms,” which envisioned the future of Black storytelling as intersectional, international, and interdisciplinary. I called upon funding agencies to equitably redirect resources to support culturally specific theatres, while encouraging participants to look within ourselves and our networks to develop resources and culturally nuanced stories in collaboration with Black audiences in Black theatres—stories that can translate across platforms for the widest possible audience without industry pressures of “crossover” appeal. I also encouraged participants to shift from thinking of African Americans as 12-14 percent of the U.S. population, and instead to think of us as part of a larger global community of people of African descent throughout the diaspora, with creative expertise and the ability to circumvent historical barriers in the industry through new media and technology.
Goodman Theatre of Chicago’s Roche Schulfer and Marissa Ford then explained why we need new business models, as they exposed the failures of the broken nonprofit model to meet the needs of the arts generally, and theatre in particular. Keryl McCord, of Equity Quotient, had articulated similar concerns 20 years earlier as one of the original executive committee members at “On Golden Pond.” Her 2018 presentation “The Urgency of Now” demonstrated how the concerns of the 1998 event related to our current mission to build a sustainable model of Black cultural production. “What business are we in?” she asked participants, a question that reverberated throughout the gathering. In large group discussion and closed working group sessions that followed, we collectively determined that we are in the business of storytelling, regardless of the platforms we use, and our strategies should revolve around that central reality.
During the opening ceremonies, an audio recording of August Wilson’s 1996 speech “The Ground on Which I Stand” played, along with a slideshow of images from the 1998 summit. Wilson reminded us of the critical but frequently overlooked role Black theatre has historically played in developing Black talent. In the conversation that followed between myself, Wilson scholar Sandra Shannon, and educator and director Tim Bond, moderated by Constanza Romero, we discussed the various reactions to the speech, ranging from appreciation to condemnation, how it led to “On Golden Pond,” and the implications for our convening 20 years later.
With more predominantly white theatres producing plays by and about historically marginalized groups in their “diversity slots” each season, critics and funding agencies increasingly question the relevance of culturally specific theatres, though they serve an important purpose within and beyond their communities. Ongoing racial disparities in American theatre persist due to the failure to recognize culturally specific theatres, especially Black theatres, historically Black colleges and universities, and Black churches and community centers and programs as incubators for developing Black talent on- and offstage. Black theatre audiences also serve as focus groups for developing culturally resonant creative content. Unfortunately current business models and funding processes make it difficult if not impossible for Black theatres to actually reap the benefits of their contributions.
A screening of Black Panther at the close of the first day served as a reminder to dream big as we launched into days two and three, strategizing for an African Diasporic Network with Black theatre and artists at its core. Panel discussions served as the foundation for the breakout sessions, workshops, performances and screenings that followed. Indira Etwaroo of the Billie Holiday Theatre moderated a panel titled “More Than Entertainment: The Power and Promise of Intersectional Black Theatre Present and Future,” featuring Sade Lythcott (National Black Theatre), Regge Life (Global Film Network, Inc.), Habib Iddrisu (University of Oregon), and Dartmouth student Jovanay Carter. The panelists identified opportunities to create culturally specific art and curricula that capitalizes on intersectional Black performance’s ability to transcend entertainment and blur the disciplinary boundaries of theatre, dance, music, and other art forms. Conclusion: The future of Black theatre and performance lies in strengthening cross-cultural collaboration among Black artists across platforms and national borders.
The necessity for a strategic plan for sustainable economic models was a recurring theme throughout the gathering. “The Business of Black Storytelling: Why Capitalization and Sustainability Matter,” moderated by Keryl McCord, in conversation with Marissa Ford, finance expert Marie-Claude Mendy, Ekundayo Bandele of Hattiloo Theatre, and Black Ensemble Theatre’s Jackie Taylor, introduced specific strategies for Black theatres in terms of generating alternative revenue streams due to persistent inequities in the distribution of arts funding. Taylor’s strategy of building a “village” of revenue-generating businesses around her Chicago venue, and Mendy’s financial advice on how to accomplish this, offered viable strategies that could be adapted to support the African Diasporic Network.
Building on this premise, Harold Steward of the Theater Offensive in Boston moderated a conversation with Jonathan McCrory (National Black Theatre); Shamell Bell (Black Lives Matter); playwright, journalist, and activist Esther Armah; and playwright Mohammed ben Abdallah (National Theatre of Ghana) titled “#BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo, #TimesUp: Activism at the Intersection of Art and Business.” Panelists identified advocacy, activism, and social movements as distinct approaches to sustaining Black businesses by circumventing divisive strategies that have historically limited cross-cultural collaboration among Black people in the Americas, the Caribbean, and continental Africa. Recognizing that we are linked by our African ancestry as well as the historical traumas visited upon Black people throughout the world, Armah recommended “emotional justice” as a viable strategy for moving forward. As she defined it, this is “a creating process, practice, and language to identify, engage, and transform our legacy of untreated trauma due to our global history.” This, coupled with Bell’s emphasis on the importance of self-care while doing revolutionary work, reminded us that we are also in the business of healing from the various historical traumas and daily experiences that wound us as we do this work, thereby modeling a pathway to healing for humanity.
Clearly, reliance on the current nonprofit model and funding structure is undermining the lucrative potential of Black theatre and the greater purpose it serves. To course-correct and rebrand Black theatre within the framework of its contributions rather than its crises, we must use empowering language as we strategize our steps forward, ensure that our missions meet our needs and not simply the requirements of grants, and use our spaces creatively. “From Black Theatre to Black Film: The Business Of”—a breakout session with media professor Eve Graves, Robert John Connor (Dominion Entertainment Group), Jean Duncan (Twentieth Century Fox Films), Craig T. Williams (Red Wall Productions), and Brett Dismuke (So Chi Entertainment), moderated by media studies scholar, journalist, and filmmaker Nsenga Burton—engaged Black theatre practitioners, film executives, producers, and scholars in a discussion of how to capitalize on the inherent links between Black theatre and film. Dismuke’s work with playwright and filmmaker David E. Talbert, among others, presented the urban circuit as a model Black theatres might employ to broaden their reach into Black film and television while also reinvesting revenues back into their theatres.
A variety of screenings and live performances demonstrated the links among forms of Black storytelling throughout the Diaspora. An advance screening of George Tillman Jr.’s The Hate U Give, Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal’s Blindspotting, Nigerian filmmaker Abba Makama’s Green White Green, and the aforementioned Ryan Coogler-directed Black Panther exemplified the potential for cross-cultural collaboration across global markets through streaming services and screenings at Black theatres, and other possible strategies to circumvent mainstream studio-controlled movie theatres. A powerful performance of Roger Guenveur Smith’s solo show Frederick Douglass Now, and a staged reading of Citrus, a choreopoem by Dartmouth alum Celeste Jennings, further demonstrated the power and promise of Black cultural production in conversation across platforms.
A panel titled “Casting, Critics, and the Realities of Working While Black at the Intersections in the Industry,” moderated by Dartmouth-educated actor/writer Sharon Washington, brought together Smith with producer Jackie Alexander and Dartmouth student Lexi Warden. In addition to the expressed need for more Black critics and greater cultural competency among those who review Black work from outside the community, the theme of the “talent drain” arose again, with many noting that in spite of the rich, culturally immersive experience Black theatres can offer artists and administrators, economic and cultural pressures tend to redirect Black talent and Black cultural capital toward predominantly white institutions and projects.
This issue was revisited during the breakout session “How to Make Unions and National Orgs Work for Black Cultural Production,” in which Nicole Hodges Persley, associate dean of diversity, equity, and inclusion at University of Kansas and associate artistic director of KC MeltingPot Theatre, moderated a discussion featuring Theatre Communications Group’s Teresa Eyring, Seret Scott of Stage Directors and Choreographers Society, David Grindle of the United States Institute for Theatre Technology (USITT), and Emmanuel Wilson of the Dramatists Guild of America. Among the responses was a commitment to support and develop culturally specific training programs for critics and artists, along with new business models that would allow Black theatres and artists to thrive at the core of an African Diasporic Network of Black cultural production.
Exploring the possibilities of theatre, film, television, and related platforms revealed that there are strides being made in some areas, while others lag behind. Indeed, in several conversations throughout the event, statistical data revealed that television fares marginally better than film in terms of diverse and inclusive hiring practices, with theatre lagging behind. Trailing even further behind is academia, a subject that emerged in a later panel, “Education and Overhauls in Formal Training,” which identified the need for MFA training programs at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), diverse faculty, professional theatre administrators, board members, and critics, along with culturally specific curricula and accomplices willing to help dismantle institutionalized racism and other forms of oppression in academia. Some participants noted promising changes in recent years: a tuition-free MFA program in acting and directing at Brown University, and Yale School of Drama’s required annual diversity and inclusion training.
Still, many educators, administrators, and institutions persist in the belief that outmoded canonical curricula, accompanied by lip service to a diversity mission, is adequate to prepare students to enter a professional theatre that is being economically driven to acknowledge racial, gender, and economic disparities on- and offstage as well as homophobia, ableism, and other forms of discrimination. Indeed American theatre audiences are becoming more critical of theatres that privilege white culture and toxic masculinity as the only representation of humanity. Through social media and organized protests, audiences are growing increasingly diverse, vocal, and selective in terms of the theatres and projects they will patronize. As a result, many theatres engaging with equity, diversity, and inclusion initiatives through programs like TCG’s EDI Institute are paying for training their employees should have received in their formal education. These theatres should be able to expect academic programs to implement these changes in higher education to better serve students and prepare them for the American theatre not as it has been historically—i.e., predominantly white—but an American theatre that is becoming more aware of the need to represent the demographics of the nation and the world.
The summit offered several examples of strategies for incorporating culturally specific curricula. My public conversation with award-winning actor Stephen McKinley Henderson, “Speaking on the Craft,” chronicled his formal training and careers in acting and directing, as well as his friendship with August Wilson. We also discussed my transformative experience training with the Black Arts Institute, an actor training program he co-founded with Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Phylicia Rashad, Michele Shay, and Sonia Sanchez in collaboration with Stella Adler Studio of Acting and the Billie Holiday Theatre. The African Performance Traditions Workshop provided participants an opportunity to practice song and movement as a demonstration of the ways in which griots chronicle history through performance. We also demonstrated the role of cultural specificity in the design process and writing processes. In Kathryn Bostic’s Sonic Storytelling Workshop, participants learned hands-on strategies for developing musical scores using creative processes that draw from cultural perspectives rather than repressing them.
Bostic later joined Constanza Romero in “Design Collaborations with August Wilson,” in which both artists discussed their experiences working with the late writer to develop specific characters and dramatic elements in his plays. Nigerian American stage and screen storyteller Mfoniso Udofia, conducted a playwriting workshop exposing the limitations of traditional storytelling models dominating playwriting programs. And workshops led by screenwriting professor Steve Duncan and Anthony Meyers of Leading ChangeMakers opened culturally specific pathways to television writing and arts administration.
On the final day of the summit we recalled the past as we moved forward. During “The Elder’s Circle: An Intergenerational Conversation for Cultural Insiders,” we engaged in a ritual process of collective remembrance of our ancestors and “On Golden Pond,” while also projecting our hopes for the future. Victor Leo Walker II told the story of how the 1998 National Black Theatre Summit came to be, while attendees from the original event shared their reflections on how we can use our knowledge of the past to move forward with our new initiatives as part of a continuum. The CRAFT Institute honored 1998 summit executive committee members in attendance with the Continuum Award, Constanza Romero with the Legacy Award, and Ruben Santiago-Hudson with the Excellence Award.
The Keynote Conversation with Santiago-Hudson, whose careers as an actor, director, and writer span platforms and decades, carried on the ritual of remembrance as we discussed his longtime working relationship and friendship with August Wilson. He also used the moment to project the positive potential for long-term impact of the 2018 summit and its international, multi-disciplinary focus.
The Working Groups Presentation of Outcomes & Action Plan outlined specific ways we will move forward with conceptualizing and building the framework we envisioned. Currently the Black Vitality Commission, as part of the CRAFT Institute’s mission to overhaul formal training programs and serve as a bridge between academia and the industry, plans to help facilitate the collaboration between Black theatre organizations in an effort to capitalize on our strengths, while building relationships among Black theatres, artists, critics, administrators and board members as well as Black film and media companies.
Throughout the next year the work of this group will continue through a range of projects, presentations, and publications. And in our ongoing efforts to develop the infrastructure for an African Diasporic network, our steering committee will meet to plan another summit in 2020. Strategically reinvesting revenues back into the network to seed even more projects is one way to bypass the barriers of ongoing funding inequities.
We welcome interested participants, potential partners and sponsors eager to work toward the common goal of making the American theatre and global stages more accurately reflect the range and depth of human experiences. Participation is open to everyone who wants to be a part of this movement for self-sustained, intersectional Black cultural production and cross-cultural collaboration.
Put more simply: Wakanda forever!
Monica White Ndounou is an associate professor of theatre at Dartmouth College.