BACK STAGE WEST
March 09, 2000
Heeding August Wilson's call to strengthen black theatres, the African Grove Institute kicks off strategic agenda in L.A.
by Rob Kendt
Convening more than 100 theatre professionals, mostly but not exclusively African-American, for five days of serious organizing and strategizing, the African Grove Institute for the Arts (AGIA) unveiled to the West Coast its initial plans to become the "NAACP for the arts" at a three-day private retreat and a two-day public forum last week. The California African American Theatre Roundtable: Strategies for Growth and Development in the 21st Century, held at the Watts Labor Community Action Center and at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, was the first of several regional meetings that will take place in next 18 months to build a high-profile advocacy and support institution for African-American theatre nationwide.
The lively public conference, which broke up its talking-head addresses with bits of performance and schmooze-and-food breaks in the LATC lobby, had an informal but serious air. Clearly AGIA means business, and, as was reiterated throughout the day, is in it for a long-term commitment. But its business, after all, is theatre, and there was a theatrical flair and flavor to even the most perfunctory of the proceedings.
Opened by a joyous procession to the drumming of Buddy Butler and Leon Mobley and the tap/sax strains of Idris Ackamor, the public conference began in LATC's Tom Bradley Theatre with a welcome by Ernest Dillahay, the tireless performing arts director at the Los Angeles City Cultural Affairs Department, who was largely responsible for AGIA finding a West Coast home at the city-run LATC (the same theatre hosted AGIA in a public town hall meeting in May, 1998).
"Now is the time, today is the day. Today is your day," Dillahay began. He then introduced Juan Carillo, deputy director of the California Arts Council, who immediately called to mind a sympathetic spirit: that of the late C. Bernard "Jack" Jackson, who as head of L.A.'s now-defunct Inner City Arts Center gave stagings, jobs, and inspiration to generations of actors, directors, writers, and artists of color. Indeed, Jackson's pioneering spirit hovers over AGIA: The president and CEO of AGIA, Dr. Victor Leo Walker II, now a professor of film and theatre at Dartmouth, is completing his book-length thesis on the history of Inner City Arts, and recalled Jackson as a "principled man" who never "sold out."
Also present only in spirit was playwright August Wilson, now in Seattle shepherding the imminent opening of his newest play, King Hedley II. With Walker and Dr. William W. Cook, Chairman of Dartmouth's English department, Wilson founded AGIA after his famous speech at the 1996 Theatre Communications Group conference, "The Ground on Which I Stand," which spelled out both his critique of American theatre's liberal multiculturalism and his call to arms for self-sufficient black theatres to take the reins of their own artistic and economic fortunes. A much-publicized town hall debate with critic/director Robert Brustein followed in 1997.
Among the achievements of AGIA since its inception in '98 has been the establishment of theatre management scholarships for students of color at Dartmouth's archconservative Tuck Business School; Walker reported that in its initial year the program had four students, and it is now up to 14. Also in the works are a national capital campaign to help dispense grants, loans, and lines of credit to artists and arts organizations and a full-length documentary on black theatre aimed to air on PBS.
"Black theatre has a history, but we don't have a legacy," said Keryl McCord, first vp of AGIA and artistic director of Crossroads Theatre in New Jersey, in a stirring, unsentimental speech that set the tone for the weekend forum at LATC. "The good news is that black theatre has survived; we're survivors, not victims. The bad news is that, for instance, in the state of California, there are some small black theatres, some mid-sized, but there's not one in the million or million-plus range" in terms of budget.
Among the pragmatic lessons of the various town hall meetings and discussions at the recent retreat were, according to McCord, that while "we've been taught that the resident model of theatre works for some mainstream theatres, it has not worked for one black theatre." She meant specifically the board-driven nonprofit subscription-season model of many a LORT theatre. "Subscriptions don't work with our audience," she said flatly. "If you have a five-week run, we'll show up in the fourth or fifth week."
McCord checked off the grant trends by decade: In the 1970s, it was CETA grants, in the '80s there was "diversity" money, and in the '90s, arts in education has been the funding magnet. "You can get on that train if you want to, if that's what you do," said McCord, citing the positive example of Philadelphia's Freedom Theatre, whose booming theatre education program supports its theatre programming. "But you'd better make sure you have a longterm funding in place for when the next trend comes along."
McCord reported briefly on efforts to bridge the divide between black Hollywood and the struggling theatres that in most cases helped breed many of today's black stars. The eight-figure-earning Will Smith apparently called August Wilson offering to back the New York run of Wilson's play Jitney, currently at L.A.'s Mark Taper Forum, which will begin next month at the Second Stage with a star-studded gala benefit for AGIA. Finally, McCord urged participants not to get "bogged down in the details of how-dream. If you could, where would you go? What would you do?"
Likewise, in his speech Walker said of AGIA's mission: "We don't want to deal with minutiae. This is about a larger vision, about creating an institution. If you're not about the business of long-term commitment, of 10 or 15 years of work, don't get on this train." Walker quoted Wilson as saying: "I'm in this long-term. Twenty years from now, I want my two-year-old daughter, Zula, to be able to go into black theatre, and to survey a vast array of opportunities."
While some of his speech bogged down in academic language of culture hegemony and ontology, it is perhaps Walker's academic work ethic that gives him a clear taste for the long-term plan and for the politics of "going to the difficult meetings"-in his case, getting Paul Daniels, the dean of the Tuck Business School, to agree to the theatre management scholarships, or sitting down with the creative brass at Disney, not to "beg" for money but to "establish common ground" and "reconfigure our relationships with business" to "dismantle the whole master/slave relationship."
Walker also took pains to point out that accusations of a "separatist agenda" are off the mark, given the alliances and partnerships AGIA has formed with other theatres and artists. AGIA is definitely about promoting black theatre, but not necessarily exclusively with and for African Americans.
"Just because the product is ethnically specific doesn't mean others won't find interest in it," said Walker. "In fact, it is often precisely in the specificity of the cultural experience that we recognize the universal truths of the race to which we all belong, which we sometimes call human."
As if to illustrate that point, Dr. William H. Cook of Dartmouth took the stage for a seminar titled "Hello Daddy, Goodnight: Fathers and Sons in African-American Drama," using scenes from the likes of Joseph Walker's The River Niger, James Baldwin's Blues for Mr. Charlie, August Wilson's Jitney, and Lorraine Hansberry's Raisin (the latter a mother/son scene that Cook explained as illustrating "partriarchy without the patriarch").
Smaller breakout sessions followed on topics from money to aesthetics, from advocacy to marketing. In addition to the abovementioned, among those in attendance for the weekend roundtable were actor/director Ted Lange, Berkeley Rep artistic director Tony Taccone, TCG president Ben Cameron, actor Soon Tek-Oh, playwright Alice Tuan, director Alice Jenkell, arts administrator Quentin Easter, and UCLA professor Beverly Robinson.
If the work of AGIA seems only periphally related to the spread-out theatre scene of Los Angeles proper, The Los Angeles Times' Don Shirley gave a recent update on plans to build and sustain theatres in the traditionally black South Central L.A. area: the Washington Boulevard Performing Arts Center, a CRA-fostered plan which will include a 402-seat theatre on the site of the historic Ebony Showcase; the William Grant Still Arts Center in West Adams, with an eye to build on property at the Metropolitan AME Zion Church, and the Vision Theatre in Leimert Park, a 1,050-seat former movie theatre which the city is purchasing and for which it seeks a nonprofit company to operate and program.
Clearly, whatever timetable these projects follow, black performing arts in Los Angeles had and have advocates, from C. Bernard Jackson to Ernest Dillahay, who will ensure that local artists will be at the forefront of the discussion as it takes shape in the new century.