I didn’t know I was going to leave Columbia University enrolled right on back in school after receiving the word Professor Frank Roberts brought to Broadway For Black Lives Matter.
Sure enough, Professor Roberts had me sitting in the front row with my felt tip marker pen and sketch book, taking notes as he dissected the meaning of the Black Lives Matter movement.
As the co-founder of the National Black Justice Coalition and creator of The Black Lives Matter Syllabus, Roberts is giving his best praise at New York University, where he created the first Black Lives Matter college course. #Amen
He stopped by our event leaving us with the nugget that this movement is a” remembrance prayer.”
Black Lives Matter, he explained, is a four part movement.
Human rights. Intersectional. Abolitionist. Artistic.
Let’s stop on artistic.
“There’s a blues ballad with Sandra Bland’s name on it waiting to be sung.”
That hit me hard.
Out of our experience, our sorrow, our pain, we make art. We always have, and I’d dare to say, we always will. Our conversations, our Facebook statuses, our tweets, and our hashtags have the potential to live on.
We must give our words. We must give our orchestrations. We must give our direction.
“This movement is for US,” Roberts rallied, noting the creativity, staging, and theatricality that goes into integral parts of the Black Lives Matter movement.
So many of us are already using the horrors of this world to fuel our arts. Keep going.
Check out the entirety of his talk on the Broadway For Black Lives Matter livestream that is archived on the website.
Black Broadway, An “Act” in Social Justice
“I write the black experience in America, and contained within that experience, because it is a human experience, are all the universalities.”
— August Wilson
Whether it be Jennifer Holliday belting out “And I am Telling You”, from her Tony Award winning performance in Dreamgirls or Viola Davis’s mesmerizing scenes from her Tony Award winning performance in Fences, Black theatre has always been the rawest form of Art imitating Life. These performances of some of the greatest stories ever to be told, have created long lasting connections to song, scene’s, and lines that forever remain engrained in the minds of the black community. Hollywood and Television, give you a second take if you miss a line, an angle is off, or the passion isn’t right, but Broadway gives you one shot at success or failure, often duplicative of the black experience and condition.
Black theatre has been the window that allowed the world to see the intersections of blackness from less than 10 feet away. However, this same space for viewing the arts is often left out of the conversations when we discuss the media’s impact on social justice movements, and how Broadway has served as a conduit towards creating effective changes against the status quo. Historically, Black theatre has been the first to acknowledge society issues through raw storytelling of playwrights like Wilson, Amiri Baraka, Lorraine Hansberry, Ntozake Shange, and many others. Their works were much deeper than the “imitation of life”, as their minds allowed them to tell narratives of blackness, without censorship, giving the world 2-hour glimpses of the totality of the black experience.
From racially divided beginnings, however, Black theatre has, and at times continues to remain in the shadows, fighting for theatre space, roles, and narratives that depict stories often left on the back burner in society. The origins of “Blackface” serve as a reminder of where Broadway began, as white actors depicted black people as unintelligible beings while reinforcing stereotypes of the black community in an effort to create a good time at the hands of whiteness. Resistance began when black actors like Bert Williams, who played many characters in black face, gave a human element to his funny role instead of just being a caricature. His talent shined through and made him the first black man to star alongside white co-stars as equals in the “Follies”. This would only mark the beginning of resistance in Black theatre, as stories began to humanize black people in a country built on segregation.
In 1921, Shuffle Along became the first black show to forgo “blackface” and show African Americans in a sophisticated style of dress, introducing a new template for how black performers and shows would be depicted moving forward. In another step against the status quo, the show which had 504 performances became the first on Broadway to allow Blacks to sit in the orchestra section. 1935 would bring the world Porgy and Bess, which is claimed by many to be the most famous black opera to ever play on Broadway. This show depicted a side of blackness that many considered stereotypical but true, putting people face to face with parts of the black community we didn’t want others to see . The revival of this show in 2012 re-invited the world to the story on “Catfish Row”, winning a Tony Award for Audra McDonald and nomination for Norm Lewis.
This form of resistance is nothing new to Black theatre, which has always had to fight to be recognized not only for their talents but for the lives of folks they often portray on the stage. August 1st of 2016 saw the Black theatre come together for the “Broadway for Black Lives Concert Event” which brought out several stars including six-time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald, and Tony Award winner Billy Porter and nominee Danielle Brooks (The Color Purple) in addition several others. This concert was put on to show a stand in solidarity while supporting the efforts of the Black Lives Matter Movement. According to the Broadway for Black Lives Matter Collective, “An overwhelming number of friends and colleagues in the Broadway community have expressed a deep desire to participate in an open dialogue about the social and racial justice issues that are troubling our nation. The event will bring Broadway performers together with policy reformers, educators, clergymen, public officials, and community leaders to discuss a plan of action. The evening will spark conversation and encourage people to discover their roles as active participants in a movement towards positive change.” Black theatre has seemingly never been afraid to confront issues of the community off stage, but more recently has taken it right to face of the oppressor from the stage.
Following the 2016 election, the cast of Hamilton stood together in protest following the election of Donald Trump, when actor Bradon Victor Dixon, who play Aaron Burr, stated “We, sir — we — are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights,” he said. “We truly hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us.” His remarks caught the eye of the President who in a since-deleted tweet claimed his VP was “harassed” and deserved an apology, to which Dixon responded in a now deleted tweet “@realDonaldTrump conversation is not harassment sir. And I appreciate @mike_pence for stopping to listen.”
Black theatre has forever lived in the shadows of what many refer to as “The Great White Way.” A system, like many others that won’t be changed overnight but with constant work and resistance can be broken and built anew, reflective of the world we actually live in. The last century of Black theatre has seen great strides made towards equity and equality on and off the stage. I expect Act II to be just as great as all those that came prior, with the hopes of a “Curtain Call” for a job well done.
Sarah Baartman to Kim Kardashian comparison reveals the need for more black critics
“A Kim Kardashian of another era returns in Suzan-Lori Park’s ‘Venus,'” – New York Times
On Tuesday, The New York Times received serious criticism for their choice to run an article about the play Venus by Suzan-Lori Parks, comparing the life of Saartjie Baartman, a 19th century enslaved woman known for her exaggerated body features to that of Kim Kardashian. The play opened on May 15th at the Signature Theatre, and stars Obie Award winner Zainab Jah (Eclipsed) as Baartman, chronicling her life journey on the London Freak Show circuit.
In a review written by Ben Brantley, he drew several comparisons between Baartman and Kim K. stating “Attention, please, those of you whose greatest ambition is to acquire the traffic-stopping body of Kim Kardashian, there is a less drastic alternative to costly and dangerous buttocks implants.” However, this delusional comparison between the very privileged, wealthy life of Kim K to that of Baartman, who lived in inhumane conditions and died in poverty, speaks volumes to need for black critics in a very oversaturated white theater world.
Kim Kardashian has grown up living a life comparable to “lifestyles of the rich and famous”, nothing of which Baartman ever experienced. Kim has played up her body features as part of her imaging and branding, making it a profitable part of her career. Baartman, also known as the “Hottentot Venus”, was forced to travel as a part of a European freak show, where her body was ridiculed by onlookers.
According to South African History online, her owner “began exhibiting her in a cage alongside a baby rhinoceros. Her “trainer” would order her to sit or stand in a similar way that circus animals are ordered. At times Baartman was displayed almost completely naked, wearing little more than a tan loincloth, and she was only allowed that due to her insistence that she cover what was culturally sacred. Baartman died in poverty at the age of 26 in 1816. Her body was then dissected and placed on display at the Musée de l’Homme until 1974. Baartman’s life
Twitter erupted immediately following the article, with several speaking to the very problem that occurs when you have white critics that lack historical context, critiquing black narratives.
Rebecca Theodore, a black film critic, tweeted to the issue of surface level reporting and the need for Black women critics.
The New York Times has since deleted the tweet and issued an apology for the poor “headline” but not the article itself. Unfortunately, this will continue to happen unless “The Great White Way” opens it’s doors to some people of color reviewing that which they know best. The hiring of critics, writers, editors who are people of color could be the first step in ensuring that this problem occurs with less frequency.
Across the board, media has an issue with the amount of black and brown people on staff doing the work on black and brown topics. This same problem often occurs when white editors, writers, and critics are asked to review cultures outside of their own. Their lack of first-hand knowledge often lends to the problem of assessing bodies of work through a white gaze, rather than the population that is most impacted by the work. The continued comparison of Baartman to Kim Kardashian shows a refusal of white writers to comprehend the black experience. When black centered movies, stories, and experiences are created Black and Brown writers are necessary to give proper critique of the shared narrative and experience from the lens of first person. However, this story speaks to another problem that occurs when you don’t use google to research what has been spoken on the topic already.
As simple as this sounds, there is no reason that google was not used prior to making the decision to run this piece. Anyone who is writing a piece should do at the bare minimum research into the topic they are discussing to inquire if it had been written about before. Had the New York Times simply googled the words “Kim Kardashian Saartjie Baartman”, they would’ve realized that this controversy had already been discussed in full length almost 3 years ago when the same horrible comparison was made. The disregard for research around the play Venus shows the gross nature in which plays centered in blackness are reviewed and the effort one puts into getting that correct.
Going forward, things like this will continue to happen unless media publications and outlets realize the importance of having employees that are reflective of the stories and events they are going to be covering. The New York Times apology follows a long history of retractions and misstatements made by publications who continue to operate using a white lens. If they are going to continue to use white writers to discuss black narratives, I urge you to save yourself sometime a leave it to those who know best.
*Saartjie Baartman is often referred to as “Sarah” Baartman to make her name more pronounceable*