B A K NE R
Letter from the Writers Despite going to a predominantly Black high school and being members of the Black community, we had no prior knowledge of the different Black owned theaters. Inspired by our passion for theater, we decided to explore the history of Black theater. There is a lack of knowledge surrounding the evolution of Black theater in the Black community as well as in society. Therefore, this guidebook is dedicated to sharing knowledge of Black theaters in New York. This guidebook focuses on Black theaters in order to address Black ownership. Black actors often times are limited to certain roles such as slaves or criminals and feel the need to accept these roles in order to propel their career. With the creation of Black theaters, Blacks created their own opportunities. They were able to show their creative talent and range of skills by playwriting, directing, and performing their own work that accurately depicts their lives. We want to broadcast that Black actors are not obligated to go through the mainstream media in order to be successful. They can create their own opportunities and still develop quality work. So, we intend to shed light on Black success within the performing arts industry.
TABLE OF CONTENTS ACT I American Theater………………………………………………………………… 4 Blacks as Entertainers……………………………………………………………. 5 Blacks in American Theater…………………………………………………….... 7 ACT II African Grove Theater……………………………………………………………. 9 American Negro Theater…………………………………………………………. 10 New Heritage Group……………………………………………………………... 12 Negro Ensemble Company………………………………………………………. 14 National Black Theater…………………………….…………………………….. 15 New Federal Theater…………………………………………………………….. 16 -INTERMISSIONACT III Black Spectrum Theater…………………………………………………………. 19 Billie Holiday Theater………………………………………………………….... 20 Black Plays and Recommended Reads………………………………………….. 21 Crossword Puzzle……………………………………………………………….. 22
American Theater “I want you to know that I’m ragged but right/ Hopin’ like I'm livin’ like you people that’s white” These are the lyrics that echoed throughout theaters in America. Minstrel shows dominated from the early 19th to the early 20th century and were integral to American theater. Comical skits, dancing, and musical performances grew in popularity due to the use of racial stereotypes of Black people in order to provide entertainment for white audiences. These stereotypes included caricatures of Black physical features, broken language, and childish dance moves to mock and demean black people. Minstrel shows gave insight of the depiction of Blacks through the lenses of mass white America. Thus, influencing white perception of blacks in the minds of those who watched them.
Blacks as Entertainers However, while impersonating Black people fueled white curiosity, it no longer sufficed as real Black bodies became a spectacle for white entertainment. Therefore, Black anatomy became a prime point of interest not only for white scientists but also the white masses. While in Cape Town, a military surgeon, Alexander, saw Saartjie Sarah Baartman and took interest in her unusual but remarkable physical attributes such as her wide hips and backside and enlarged labia lips. Instantly, he knew she would be a grand attraction and shipped her to England where she lived the remainder of her life on display. While in Europe, Saartjie was the main attraction in freak shows in the 19th century under the name Hottentot Venus. Her physical attributes supported the concept of Black savagery as she was compared to monkeys. Not only did the members of the audience examine her body, they prodded and groped her buttocks to ensure the sincerity of her anatomy. Reduced to a commodity, Saartjie was exploited for white entertainment and pleasure.
Born in America in 1906, Josephine Baker was a French entertainer and dancer who symbolized and embodied the beauty of American Black culture. In 1925, she went to Paris to dance at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in La Revue Nègre when African folk art was at the peak of French interest. The accepted belief of Black primitiveness stretched from America to Europe. However, Baker manipulated white male imagination and fantasy through the sway of her hips in her famous banana skirt in 1926. As she reclaimed her image through her acts, she tried to reject traditional stereotypes of Black entertainers. However, through her performances, she sacrificed her civilization and dignity by allowing the French population to objectify her body as well as becoming the archetype of stereotypical savage primitive. In her first performance debuting the banana skirt, she climbs down a tree like a monkey wearing the monkey’s favorite food around her waist. Again, Black entertainment is dependent upon the sexualization of the Black body. However, now it is with the acknowledgement and consent of the Black entertainer. Josephine Baker’s entertainment lies within the fine line between civilization and savagery.
Blacks in American Theater Although the structure of minstrel shows was evolving, the racial stereotypes and caricatures persisted. However, it was not only white people portraying these savaged images, but also Black entertainers who assumed the role of embodying the average coon Black American. In the mid 1840s, Blacks were beginning to act as minstrels; one of the first Black men to perform in blackface for white audiences was William Henry Lane also known as Master Juba. Although, Blacks were established performers by the 1860s, their presence did little to alter and correct the misconceptions and images conveyed by minstrel shows. Rather, they reinforced the racial attitudes towards Blacks which were ingrained in theater as well as society. Hence, Black entertainers proclaimed themselves as â€œtrue coonsâ€? by applying burnt cork to darken their naturally Black skin and performing comical skits which belitted their existence to amuse white audiences and preserved societyâ€™s traditional racial stereotypes.
Fun Fact: William Henry Lane is credited as the inventor of American tap dance.
African Grove Theater The AFRICAN GROVE THEATER is considered the first known Black theater company. Founded by William Alexander Brown in 1821, the company set up shop in his Tribeca home. At a time when Blacks could not enjoy entertainment or enter certain establishments, Brown welcomed theatergoers who desired to escape the stressors of life. While plays were performed and poems were recited, Brown served food and drinks to his guest, one of them being actor James Hewlett. Along with Hewlett, Brown created his own ensemble of actors called the African Company. Due to its growing success, the theater was moved to numerous locations over time, one being the garage on 165 Mercer St. Here, Black actors were able to express themselves creatively and playwrights composed stories that accurately depicted their lives. Typical plays performed included Shakespeareâ€™s Richard III and Othello, among others. Original works could also be seen at the Grove Theatre. Brown, being a playwright himself, developed a play titled The Drama of King Shotaway, based on the revolt of the St. Vincent people against British colonists. It is treated as the first play to be written and produced by an African American in the United States. Multiple reports have different factors contributing to its demise. The theater was facing financial troubles internally and discrimination and harassment externally. Neighbors complained of noise and misconduct and the police subsequently shut down the theater. Afterward, it was suspiciously burned down. Nevertheless, the African Grove Theater was enough motivation to open more Black-owned theater companies in the future. Fun Fact: The first play published by an African American was The Escape: or, A Leap for Freedom by William Wells Brown.
American Negro Theater The AMERICAN NEGRO THEATRE came forth in 1940 through the Federal Theatre Project. The founders, playwright Abram Hill and actor Frederick O'Neal, believed there were limited roles for African Americans on Broadway. They wanted to provide opportunities and sharpen the skills of not only actors but playwrights, directors, and technicians. In the beginning stages of its development, it was housed in the basement of the Harlem Library Little Theatre (the Harlem Branch of the New York Public Library) and has moved multiple times during its lifetime. Its first notable production was On Strivers Row. However, its rise and fall would come from Anna Lucasta, written by white playwright Philip Yordan. The play was originally written for a Polish family but was performed by the theater with a Black family. The success led to international performances which unfortunately detached the theatre from its roots of working closely with the Harlem community. The company received few royalties from the performances and when the play moved to Broadway many of the original actors were replaced. Despite receiving the short end of the stick, the theatre was still expected to produce similar work. To live up to this expectation, they adapted more work written by white playwrights. A little over a decade after its birth the loss of community support led to the closing of the theatre.
STUDENTS OF ANT Harry Belafonte is an actor, singer, and activist. He debuted his acting career in the Broadway play John Murray Anderson's Almanac, for which he won a Tony award for. He later went on to star in multiple films and television shows.
Ruby Deeâ€™s acting career started from her role on Broadway from Anna Lucasta. Over a decade later, she would earn great acclaim for portraying the housewife in A Raisin in the Sun. Her awards include an Emmy, the Screen Actors Guild Award, and the National Medal of Arts.
Working alongside Dee, Sidney Poitier also starred in Anna Lucasta and A Raisin in the Sun. In addition to acting, he directed films such as Uptown Saturday Night, starring Belafonte. From his success, he became the first Black actor to win an Academy Award for Best Actor and Golden Globe for Best Actor.
New Heritage Theater Group
229 West 135th Street, 1st Floor, New York, NY 10030
Fun Fact: The New Heritage Theater Group is the oldest Black non-profit theater company in New York City. Website: www.newheritagetheatre.org
The NEW HERITAGE THEATER GROUP was created by Roger Furman who actually began his career at the American Negro Theatre. Originally from its start in 1964, the theater was called the New Heritage Repertory Theatre with the purpose of preserving timeless Black plays. After Voza Rivers, a producer and filmmaker, took over in 1983, it was renamed the New Heritage Theater Group. He focused on grooming actors with training, experience, and exposure. The theater currently has three program divisions: New Heritage Films & Harlemwood Film Festival, Furman Theater Rep, and IMPACT Repertory Theatre. New Heritage Films & Harlemwood Film Festival produces works about Black life. Every year, twelve filmmakers are assisted in learning what it takes to turn a script into a production. Furman Theater Rep has two subdivisions: Core Ensemble of Professional Artists & Young Performers and The Roger Furman Reading Series. The Core Ensemble of Professional Artists & Young Performers promotes Black and Latino international artists and introduces them to the U.S. market. The Roger Furman Reading Series advises upcoming playwrights on drafts of their scripts in hopes of presenting them in front of an audience. IMPACT Repertory Theatre is the youth program of the company for ages 12-19. In addition to the arts, the program focuses on teaching the youth leadership skills, social awareness, and community service. Their resume includes appearances at the Apollo and the United Nations. They were also nominated for an Oscar and Grammy for their song â€œRaise It Upâ€? which appeared in the movie August Rush.
303 W 42nd St Suite 501, New York, NY 10036 Website: www.necinc.org
Negro Ensemble Company In 1967, playwright Douglas Turner Ward, producer/actor Robert Hooks, and theater manager Gerald S. Krone came together to form the NEGRO ENSEMBLE COMPANY. Itâ€™s origins begins years prior when Hooks began teaching young Black actors in his free time. They would put on shows written by Ward for their parents and neighbors. One night, a newspaper reporter attended one of these plays and encouraged Ward and Hooks to expand their business further. This expansion included recruiting Krone. After the trio produced numerous successful plays, The New York Times requested that Ward write an article about the state of Black theater. His article led to a grant provided by the Ford Foundation and the official formation of the company. Even with the grant and continuous success, the theater later found itself in economic trouble being forced to produce only one play a year. Ironically, the first play to be staged after the decision, The River Niger, put the company back on its feet. The company describes their mission as helping Black actors learn and grow in their craft. Overall, they want to produce plays by Black playwrights about the Black experience to a diverse audience.
National Black Theater
2031 5th Ave, New York, NY 10035 From her conviction that Black theater could be used to empower Black communities, Dr. Barbara Ann Teer founded the NATIONAL BLACK THEATRE in 1968. Like most Black artists, she wanted to depict authentic Black experiences and use it as a way to fill the void of African Americans not having knowledge of their culture or history. She wanted these productions to address the issues affecting Black communities in an effort to overcome them. Fun Fact: The National Black Theatre is one of the longest theater companies owned and operated by a woman of color. Website: www.nationalblacktheater.org
The companyâ€™s core mission is: 1. To produce transformational theater that helps to shift the inaccuracy around African Americans' cultural identity by telling authentic stories of Black lifestyle; 2. To use theater arts as a means to educate, enrich, entertain, empower and inform the national conscience around current social issues impacting our communities; 3. To provide a safe space for artists of color to articulate the complexity, beauty and artistic excellence intrinsic in how we experience the world in the domain of acting, directing, producing, designing, playwriting and entrepreneurial autonomy.
New Federal Theater
St. Augustineâ€™s Church
543 W. 42nd Street NY, NY 10036
Another organization that comes from the Federal Theater Project is the NEW FEDERAL THEATER. The theater emerged from the Mobilization for Youth (a program designed to improve the community to help troubled youth) by Woodie King Jr. in 1970. The company first began to stage plays in the basement of St. Augustineâ€™s Church in Lower Manhattan. They offer multiple opportunities for minority playwrights, actors, and directors to display their creativity. They also provide vocational workshops for people who want to start their careers in theater, drama workshops for actors, and educational workshops for playwrights. With these programs, they plan to bring minorities and women to the forefront of mainstream theater by preparing them to present their own work to a mixed audience. Website: www.newfederaltheater.com
Intermission: Federal Theater Project As part of the New Deal, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Federal Theater Project. Its goal was to help struggling actors and other theater workers gain employment during the Great Depression. One subdivision of the project was the Negro Theater Project. The unit was set up around the country but the most popular and most active was the New York location. Their greatest accomplishment during that time was the production, Voodoo Macbeth. The play was an adaptation of Shakespeareâ€™s Macbeth with a Black cast and set in Haiti. Classic plays were recreated and new ones were produced.
Black Spectrum Theater
177-01 Baisley Blvd, Jamaica, NY 11434 Initially, the BLACK SPECTRUM THEATER started as a traveling theater group in 1970. Since that time under the supervision of its founder Carl Clay, it has expanded from a theater company to a media company. In addition to performing plays, they produce films and videos. They focus on exploring issues affecting African Americans in the community. Due to its devotion to the community, the company also serves as an after-school program for at-risk youth. They have partnered up with the Board of Education to create an experimental theater program for suspended junior high school students. It is the only company of its kind in Queens. Website: www.blackspectrum.com
Billie Holiday Theater In 1972, the BILLIE HOLIDAY THEATER branched from the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporationâ€™s desire to improve the neighborhood. At that time, Bed-Stuy was the second largest Black community in the U.S. This theater allowed them to be exposed to Black theater art. One of their productions, Inacent Black and the Five Brothers, went on to be performed on Broadway. It is the first Broadway play to receive 50% of its funding from the Black community. Decades later, the theater went through a multimillion-dollar renovation to keep up with the growing community. 1368 Fulton St. Brooklyn, NY 11216 Website: thebillieholiday.org
Black Plays and Recommended Reads
Leslie Lee- Black Eagles, First Breeze of Summer Samm-Art Williams- Home George C. Wolfe- Spunk, The Colored Museum August Wilson- Fences, The Piano Lesson, Seven Guitars and Two Trains Running Ntozake Shange- for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf Suzan-Lori Parks- Venus, The American Play, The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World Langston Hughes- Mulatto, Black Nativity Lorraine Hansberry- Raisin in the Sun, The Sign in Sidney Brusteinâ€™s Window Adrienne Kennedy- Sleep Deprivation Chamber, Funnyhouse of a Negro
Shakespeare in Sable by Errol Hill Black Broadway: African Americans on the Great White Way by Stewart F. Lane Black Theatre, USA by Ted Shine African American Theater: A Cultural Companion by Glenda Dicker/sun
It’s not the load that breaks you down, it’s the way you carry it. -Lena Horne