Nearly two years ago, playwright August Wilson stunned the American
theatre community by charging that predominately white arts
organizations were guilty of undermining African American theater
companies. The charges — delivered at Princeton University before the
Theatre Communications Group, a leading nonprofit theater
organization–sparked a national debate about the role of African
American theater companies in American theater.
Black theater professionals credited the Pulitzer prize-winning
playwright for voicing a widely felt frustration with the nonprofit
theater establishment. The dilemma, Wilson and others argue, is that
while plays with Black themes and Black theater professionals have
enabled predominately White regional theaters to attract audiences and
subsidies from foundations and public agencies, funding organizations
have failed to support independent African American theater companies.
(For more detail see August 7, 1997 edition, Black Issues In Higher
Earlier this month, two Dartmouth College professors organized a
national meeting on the future of African American theater. Dr. Victor
Leo Walker II, assistant professor of drama and film studies, and Dr.
William W. Cook, chair of the English department, put together a
six-day summit and conference at the Hanover, New Hampshire-based
campus that ran from March 2 to March 7. Wilson, who is at Dartmouth as
a Kenneth and Harle Montgomery Endowment fellow, served as the convener
of the six-day event.
“The purpose of the meeting [was] to devise plans for the African
American theater community. This [was] not a debate; it [was] a working
session,” Cook said.
More than forty leading Black theater artists, scholars, arts and
community organizers, entrepreneurs, and executives attended private
meetings during the initial five-day summit. More than 300 people
turned out for the one-day conference on March 7, titled “African
American Theatre: The Next Stage.” Event funding came from the
Rockefeller Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and Dartmouth University.
Proceedings began with closed-door sessions at Dartmouth’s Minary
Conference Center in Ashland, N.H. Participants discussed and presented
action plans on topics including audience development, legal issues,
finance, and Black playwright development. On Saturday, March 7, summit
participants returned to Dartmouth for the one-day conference, which
was open to the public and the news media.
Summit participant Dr. Samuel Hay, who is the author of African
American Theatre Historical and Critical Analysis, used the six-day
meeting to build support for the idea of a National Endowment for
African American Theater. Hay, who is professor of theater arts at
North Carolina A&T State University, aims to raise $25 million over
twenty-five years and use the endowment’s interest earnings to fund
African American theater companies.
“I went to Dartmouth to get help with developing a structure to
establish a fund that is going to secure the long-term future of
African American theater. This is my hope, and that is why I [was] here
to lobby on the idea’s behalf,” Hay said during conference proceedings.
On Saturday, Hay presented a paper on audience and community
development that illuminated traditional pitfalls for African American
“…based on my recent survey of five of the leading African
American professional theaters, ticket sales account for a median of
forty percent of theater income. Yet, the theaters devote a median of
fourteen percent of the expense budget to marketing,” he said.
The dilemma, according to Hay, is that “directors at this time
cannot increase the marketing budget because of so many other pressing
needs that directly affect production values. If these values are
decreased, the long-term damage to the theater’s reputation might make
increasing ticket sales improbable.”
Other prominent participants at the Dartmouth conference included
playwright-poet Ntozake Shange; writer Thulani Davis; Dr. Mikell
Pinkney, president of the Black Theatre Network: and Ricardo Khan,
artistic director of Crossroads Theatre in New Brunswick, NJ.
Cook says he and Walker organized the national meeting to build on
the momentum the Wilson speech created. He said the response to the
Dartmouth conference was overwhelming, and that many people were unable
to register for it because the conference became overbooked. Cook
dismissed the notion that it was unusual that such a conference would
occur at a predominately-White, Ivy League institution.
“This was something that had to be done. It doesn’t matter where it
happened,” Cook said, adding, “This is only the beginning. There will
be more meetings resulting from this one.”
Paul Thomason, assistant professor of theater arts at Clemson
University, was unable to attend the Dartmouth conference because he
had organized a panel discussion at the Southeastern Theater Conference
(SETC) that was held in Birmingham, Alabama, at roughly the same time.
That panel discussion featured African American university faculty
members in theater presenting proposals on the need for graduate school
programs in drama and theater at historically Black institutions.
Thomason says he supported the goals of the Dartmouth conference,
and adds that lie will attend future such meetings. Initially wary of
Wilson’s 1996 speech because he had interpreted it as a call for
resegregation, Thomason says he’s become increasingly receptive to
Wilson’s ideas. Thomason says the speech has helped motivate him and
his wife to launch an African American community theater in Greenville,
Part of Wilson’s message was that Black theater represents the
effort “to help Blacks learn more about themselves and their culture,”
said Thomason. “It’s our own culture that many of us don’t know much
about. [In predominately White theaters], we’re going to get it
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