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The projected design of the National Black Theatre, to go up on 5th Avenue in 2024.

Know a Theatre: National Black Theatre

The groundbreaking Harlem company has broken literal ground, in plans for a prominent part within a mixed-use high-rise.

HARLEM, NEW YORK: It’s a historic corner, just a block north of Marcus Garvey Park on 5th Avenue and 125th Street. As you pass on the 5th Ave. side, you can still glimpse the famous logo through construction scaffolding: the figure of a Black man, arms aloft, in front of a sunburst framed in a triangle, standing watch over faded gold letters reading “National Black Theatre’s Institute for Action Arts.” It is here that Dr. Barbara Ann Teer, an actor and dancer who’d worked with some of the historic Black theatremakers of the 1960s, decided to strike out on her own in 1968, to create a theatre “concerned with the truth of our lives.”

At first renting the building, Teer eventually bought the 65,000-square-foot building and put down roots. National Black Theatre has since stood as one of the longest continuously operating Black theatres in the U.S. Its current leaders are now in the midst of the theatre’s next step: They will embed the theatre on three floors within a new 21-story mixed-use building being developed by Dasha Zhukova and slated to open in 2024 (hence the scaffolding). We recently spoke by email with Sade Lythcott, NBT’s chief executive officer, and Jonathan McCrory, the company’s executive artistic director.

AMERICAN THEATRE: Who founded National Black Theatre, when, and why?

Sade Lythcott.

SADE LYTHCOTT: Dr. Barbara Ann Teer founded the National Black Theatre in 1968. She formed the theatre because she understood the importance of authentic and unapologetic Black storytelling as a vehicle for Black liberation in service of human transformation. She believed that a non-Western approach to storytelling would be a healing modality that could help empower Black artists and communities to live into the authenticity of their true selves. NBT was founded to educate, enrich, empower, and inform national consciousness around the social issues impacting our communities.

JONATHAN McCRORY: NBT was birthed from a need to create a destination home for Black bodies to understand who they are, where they come from—not starting from slavery but starting from a more regal, more abundant space, and creating a space for them to be healed and transformed, and for humanity to be transformed by the liberation of Black bodies.

Tell us a little more about yourself and your relationship to the theatre.

McCRORY: My relationship to NBT started in 2013 where I was brought on to engage in a project to support Sade Lythcott, CEO of NBT, on a show, Lyrics from Lockdown, which blossomed and bellowed into a love commitment for my community to create a destination and home for Black artists as the executive artistic director. Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I have really found out my passion, my purpose, and my way of giving back to my community, to my culture, and ultimately healing myself, through theatre. Theatre uses me and I use theatre as a reciprocal relationship to begin to understand and fall deeper in love with the world which I am a part of, the people that I know, and the culture that I was born into as well as envisioning the future that I can occupy.

LYTHCOTT: I am the daughter of Dr. Barbara Ann Teer, the theatre’s founder. My relationship with NBT goes all the way back to the core principles of what Dr. Teer built, which is a home away from home. NBT has been my home away from home for my whole life. I am a Harlem native and I have held almost every position at the theatre in my lifetime; I started out as a student in the Children’s School. I have been a costume designer, a playwright, an actor, an audience member, and attendee of so many of NBT’s programs over the course of almost a half century and now I get the privilege to be the CEO. My relationship with the theatre is deep and abiding.

Jonathan McCrory. (Photo by Christine Jean)

What sets your theatre apart from others in your area?

McCRORY: What sets NBT apart from theatres locally, nationally, and internationally is our centering of culturally indigenous practice for the betterment of human transformation. Our theory of change, Black Liberation + Art + Placemaking = Human Transformation, sets us apart. Focusing on that theory, the illumination of that theory, and the dedication of that theory for over half a century has crafted a multidisciplinary, multifaceted institution that doesn’t just think of theatre in a singular or binary way but as the gateway to the creative arts, and whatever way they’re expressed by the human body.

LYTHCOTT: What sets NBT apart is that it was really founded out of a hypothesis around the transformative properties of theatre. NBT’s sole objective is to support and heal our communities and our artists. We know that when we are in spaces focused on our healing, we can transform the conversations both in the private and public spaces around Black people and Black culture. All of our programs and productions ask every participant, whether it’s the audience, actors, designers, director, or staff: How are we in service to creating circumstances for healing, for joy? How are we creating unabashed, authentic models by which we are looking at the care and the human condition, the after care, and creating experiences that are in service to that? Art is a vehicle that we use for that purpose, and I think that is unique in all of our offerings. You may come to NBT to see a play, but actually you are here to have a conversation with your own liberation and your own healing. Our hope in our theatremaking is that you take the experience—take the joy—out of our theatre and into your life. That you share it in the ways that bring the richness of our culture into clear focus.

Tell us about your favorite theatre institution other than your own, and why you admire it.

McCRORY: I admire the new frontier and space of New Federal Theatre in New York City. I admire how NFT is navigating how to sustain a legacy organization that has been a formative force inside of Black theatre, and theatre in general, alive during a very tumultuous time. I really admire the commitment and vigor of Elizabeth Van Dyke and the rest of that team to keep the fire started by Woodie King Jr. alive.

I also admire Penumbra Theatre in Minneapolis. I’ve gotten to know their president, Sarah Bellamy, and the way in which she is navigating the space of lighting the torch for her organization as it has been passed down from what her father, Lou Bellamy, created. I admire the way she thinks through it from her own vantage point, and is really seeking to do a space of self-ownership that allows her to feel that it is her organization as much as it is still steeped and connected to her father’s vision. I admire the way in which she puts care into the practice of what is needed for the community today.

Another theatre that I recognize is Kenny Leon’s True Colors Theatre Company in Atlanta. It has been beautiful to connect and get to know Jamil Jude, the newly appointed artistic director. Those are big shoes to fill, from Mr. Leon’s departure from hands-on leadership, and how Jamil is walking his own path is something to be admired. He is able to traverse that landscape while the founder is still so visible, alive, and present.

In all the cases the admiration is, how do you not abandon an idea, yet also grow so that the intellectual property can last for generations? All of these organizations are going through a phase seeking to name that in a time that we are in a deeply nuanced situation.

LYTHCOTT: Those are mine as well! I would also add two other theatres: One is Black Ensemble Theatre in Chicago. Jackie Taylor’s vision is around entrepreneurship and ownership, in creating a sustainable model to be able to continue to produce whatever you want to produce. There is a freedom, liberation, and autonomy, admittingly learned from Dr. Teer, that Black Ensemble Theatre has taken to the next level in Chicago.

The other is New York Theatre Workshop, a theatre that I have also come to admire so much. NBT is partnering and co-producing with NYTW this season, and their thoughtful approach to the work within our own process and the care on the producing side has been a space where we have shared a lot of pedagogy with one another and learned from each other in a way that is steeped in a reciprocity which I admire.

Liza Jessie Peterson in “A Peculiar Patriot” at National Black Theatre.

How do you pick the plays you put on your stage?

McCRORY: Plays are selected in a multifaceted approach that decenters one voice and creates a space for multiple people to have buy-in and input in the decision-making. It may be guided by someone like me, but it is done through a shared process of the creative staff reading and holding conversation about the play and around the artist. We then open the dialogue to include the CEO and the operations department, to determine whether the play fits inside the larger scope and spectrum of the institution. Decisions stem from what the community needs to hear. How can we be a vehicle and give voice to what we perceive and what we are hearing? That may be the best message at this moment.

It is a collaborative process, not a dictatorship. It is a space that leans into community care and community consensus as a way and means to get community buy-in. NBT makes sure that we get to present a mainstage production, which is a highly expensive/valuable asset for us to invest inside of.

LYTHCOTT: The process of picking plays at NBT most often starts with the artist. We constantly see ourselves as a space of service to Black artists. Often the play starts with the artist we have been supporting or we would like to support or nurture, looking at either a body of work that they have already created or NBT has been in the space of developing, and sometimes commissioning new work from artists that we believe have something to say. Part of the uniqueness of NBT as a Black theatre is that we are often interested less in the play and more interested in the human being and cultivating the human being through their art form.

What’s your annual budget, and how many artists do you employ each season?

McCRORY: NBT’s current annual budget is right around 3 million. During an unprecedented year, NBT was able to employ 120 artists (actors, directors, designers, visual artists, etc.). In previous years of operation at full capacity, NBT has typically been able to employ approximately 175 artists

How did your theatre adapt to the past 22 months of COVID-19, and what does the prognosis look like?

LYTHCOTT: COVID-19 came at a really auspicious moment for NBT. We closed our doors along with everybody in March 2020, but we also signed our capital redevelopment deal with our developer on June 18, 2020—Dr. Teer’s birthday. So COVID-19 for us has been a really bifurcated time. Obviously, like the rest of our sector, we are grappling with the impact of lost revenue, and at the same time we were gearing up for a historic ground-up construction project that brings a multi-use 22-story building to our property on the corner of 125th and Fifth Avenue. For us it has been a period of great strategic planning, of moving out, of demolition, of building, of designing, of putting together our capital redevelopment team. It has been a time of extreme growth to meet the opportunity from a capacity standpoint. A tremendous amount of hiring, creating strategic plans, fundraising—all of the things associated with a full-on capital project and campaign, which has been really exciting and overwhelming to do over Zoom. Creatively, NBT leaned into our mission more than ever, which is service and which is care. My role as CEO went into overdrive around advocacy for the sector. Advocacy on the state, city, and federal levels for COVID-19 relief and recovery.

From a creative standpoint we did what a lot of people chose to do, which was to pivot to a digital platform. The uniqueness of NBT is that we really believe a superpower of ours is acknowledging that we don’t know what we don’t know. Therefore, instead of rushing to put our plays on digital platforms or creating digital plays, our first reflex was to check in with all of the artists and staff that we support, becoming active listeners and beginning to curate new digital conversations. We launched NBT@Home based on creating space for artists to talk about their concerns through navigating the pandemic. Although we couldn’t produce plays in person, we could continue to support Black artists through the commissioning and development of works, and growing our residency program—understanding that artists often belong to a class of labor that slips through the cracks of the safety nets that were being rolled out by the federal and state government. As a home away from home for our culture and for Black artists, we wanted to make sure they had a place to land. What they could be secure in, over the last 20 months or so, is that we were still very actively their home away from home in all respects. NBT has also extended our residency program so that existing residents when the pandemic hit could continue to be supported with artistic and financial resources.

Clinton Lowe, Ryan Jamaal Swain, Sidiki Fofana, and Donnell E. Smith in “Kill Move Paradise” at National Black Theatre. (Photo by Alan C. Edwards)

How has your theatre responded to calls for racial justice and more equitable working conditions put forward in documents like We See You, White American Theater, among others?

JM: National Black Theatre has responded by listening and taking note that it has occurred. We took that time of social and racial injustice that was not necessarily new but present in the American consciousness as a moment to be more reflective. Personally, it was a way to name, address, and challenge the ways in which I operate from an anti-Blackness space, and to ruminate over that terminology of addressing anti-Blackness work and curation.

NBT has always centered healing, community, and treating our staff as family. We’ve always been at that precipice of creating an equitable and care-forward site for people to work under, within and in partnership. There is a need for many in our field to be awakened and to come to terms with what is happening. We See You, White American Theater, among other documents, have challenged the field to lean into progressive models of operating. Yet there is a deeper need to fulfill the promise etched into those kind of documents. It raises the question: What momentum and community action must take place to complete the conversation in a nurturing, healing way that mends the exposed nerve?

LYTHCOTT: Black theatre is and has always been a response to racial justice. Telling our authentic stories, reclaiming our narrative, is an act of political, social warfare and racial justice. It’s not about the last 18 months or George Floyd’s murder. This is about the white Western gaze waking up to the everyday realities that people of color, Black folks in particular, face. Where it feels like an awakening for some, these are the very trenches that many Black theatre founders created out of. There’s no need to become responsive, as Black theatre has always been that in its own way.

Granted, in these last few years, there has been an acute amount of attention, and that attention has allowed us to do something we always do, which is work to be reflective. It has held up a magnifying glass of accountability. Everyone plays a part, and NBT absolutely took the time to take stock where we can to do better, where we hold our own racial bias, where we as Black folks have participated in activities that were not as supportive as they could be or unconsciously biased and anti-Black because of our conditioning, because of the colonial lens by which everything kind of orientate. As a result, when we saw We See You, White American Theater coming out with documents, NBT wrote a manifesto that was really about looking at the opportunity not to call folks out but to call people in. We know that the ground on which we stand is solid Black theatre in terms of why, how, and what we produce. Calling people in to our ancestral knowledge and technology, to our indigenous practice, was a way that we felt our voice could lend something to the broader and public narrative.

In terms of care and how we treat our staff, we are a home away from home, not only for artists or for staff. Where we chose to double down is really seeing the impact of not just the racial reckoning that was happening, but that, coupled with COVID, it was disproportionately affecting our community. So we immediately instituted a wellness fund for staff that can go toward anything that would promote joy and well-being in our staff’s lives. We have radically overhauled and invested in the benefit packages that NBT offers, because we know that the vessel that is our body, our mind, and our spirit is what carries us through to do the work. Whether it’s racial justice or racial healing, we believe that we have to be whole in order to reckon with and respond to anything.

What show are you working on now? Anything else in your season that you’re especially looking forward to?

McCRORY: NBT is currently working on a couple of projects. Dreaming Zenzile had its world premiere at St. Louis Repertory Theatre, then traveled to the McCarter Theatre Center in New Jersey, followed by ArtsEmerson in Boston, and will land in New York as a co-production with New York Theatre Workshop. NBT has been the nonprofit to usher this production to each location, with the support of a producing collaborative and Mara Isaacs, the producer of Hadestown on Broadway and founder of Octopus Theatricals.

NBT is also excited about our digital work. We have two films that will be premiering on ALLARTS television network and streaming platform. We are learning how to be hybrid while doing in-person and digital work through partnerships with the Public Theater (Fat Ham), the Apollo Theatre and American Composers Orchestra (The Gathering: A Sonic Ring Shout), to the New York Philharmonic (Authentic Selves: The Beauty Within Festival). There are so many ways that we are engaging the community and creative live performance and digital ways for the community not to feel pressured to come into a room but still have access to culture.

What’s the strangest or funniest thing you’ve ever seen (or put) on your stage?

McCRORY: A funny moment on NBT’s stage was a reading of Jocelyn Bioh’s Nollywood in 2013 during the first year of our Keep Soul Alive Reading Series, which provided 23 actors with a space to develop brand new work. In the early development of the piece, Jocelyn wanted to test the writing and hear the words aloud. The theatre was bustling with guttural laughter and full joy from the top of the rafters to the bottom of the floor. It was surprising to see a reading bring that to our space. In 2021, Nollywood had its world premiere at MCC. It’s the connective tissue and livelihood of how NBT has supported artists to dream and be an ignition space.

What are you doing when you’re not doing theatre?

LYTHCOTT: Outside of NBT, I spend a lot of my time in spaces of advocacy for our sector, whether it is co-leading Culture @3 or participating in several projects that support Black artists and cultural productions (museums, dance, etc.) advocating for our people. I also spend a lot of time with my family. My brother and I are very close and our sons are even closer, which is so sweet to see. My four-year-old son Thelonious is really where I derive so much inspiration and joy.

McCRORY: When I am not doing theatre, I am taking care of 64 plants. I am cleaning my home, bike-riding, walking, and kick-boxing. I am a collector of crystals and I enjoy making jewelry with crystal-intention beads and bracelets. I am constantly doing self-help work to be a better person.

What does theatre—not just your theatre, but the American or world theatre—look like in, say, 20 years?

McCRORY: Theatre has an existential crisis on its hands. In 20 years, it will have had to meet that crisis to understand and center its values, from the people it employs to the stories that are told. We have to make clear choices around what we care about and what we value or we are not building a future. The real question is, how are we making sure that our children have the best chance to live the most abundant life possible without being selfish at this moment? Hopefully, theatre in the next 20 years has figured out how to be sustainable, how not to be so flippant with its resources, and how to disarm the patriarchy of capitalism and work from a space of muscle versus heart. Theatre in the next 20 years has figured out how to provide health care for all employees and for everyone involved. Theatre has started to center this notion of being of service to the community versus service to the bottom line. Through theatre, we learn to uplift culture, not race as the space in which we occupy.

LYTHCOTT: I will make manifest that all theatre will be transformational and not transactional. Theatre will be absolutely and truly accessible. It will be immersive, it will harness the power of storytelling to heal our planet, our climate, and our communities. Radical storytelling that is rooted in the truth of who we are is on every mainstage. We practice what we preach; no longer is theatre performative or placating, but it leans into who we were all born to be, fully and authentically. Theatre will have built a new table where everyone has a seat so that we can be renewed and reflected.

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