“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.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]
Theatre Critic Hedy Weiss’ Racist Comments Rightfully Receive Major Backlash
The Chicago Theatre community is pushing back at Hedy Weiss, a Chicago Sun-Times critic, for some racially insensitive comments made in her June 13th review of the play Pass Over by Antoinette Nwandu, now playing at the Steppenwolf Theatre. A petition was quickly generated by the Chicago Theater Accountability Coalition, including playwright, Ike Holter, in response to this comment:
“To be sure, no one can argue with the fact that this city (and many others throughout the country) has a problem with the use of deadly police force against African -Americans. But, for all the many and varied causes we know so well, much of the lion’s share of the violence is perpetrated within the community itself. Nwandu’s simplistic, wholly generic characterization of a racist white cop (clearly meant to indict all white cops) is wrong-headed and self-defeating. Just look at news reports about recent shootings (on the lakefront, on the new River Walk, in Woodlawn) and you will see the look of relief when the police arrive on the scene. And the playwright’s final scenes—including a speech by the clueless white aristocrat who appears earlier in the story – and who could not be more condescending to Steppenwolf’s largely white “liberal” audience – further rob the play of its potential impact.”
The Chicago Theatre community demands
The petition demands that Hedy Weiss not be invited to future performances. It now has 3,656 signatures and counting. Steppenwolf Theatre made an official statement denouncing the viewpoints expressed by Weiss stating it “revealed a deep-seated bigotry and a painful lack of understanding of this country’s historic racism.” Despite many letters or requests over the years, she never apologizes for any of her words. Previously, Tony Kushner, the writer of the musical, Caroline or Change stated that “Hedy is incapable of understanding standards of professional ethical conduct.” Yet, she continues to be on the staff of the Chicago Sun-Times newspaper. The publication actually released an editorial (obnoxiously & condescendingly titled, “Hey, Steppenwolf: Critics gonna critique”) in support of Weiss’ work and have stated that they will pay for her theatre tickets if need be. Although many theaters have released statements in support of the opposition to her work, not all have stated they will comply with the no-comps pledge.
The Chicago Theatre community is speaking loud and clear. The demands of the petition are that Weiss be no longer granted free press passes and that racist, homophobic, or body-shaming language no longer be tolerated. Be sure to stay tuned for updates as this petition continues.
A statement issued in a press release from the organizers of this movement reads:
“To be clear, we are not calling for a ban on Ms. Weiss attending performances. We are simply requesting that she not be given a ticket for free. If she wishes to present her damaging views, we ask that she pay for the privilege.”
You can view the petition and sign HERE.
It is imperative that we bring awareness to the necessity of employing theatre critics with diverse backgrounds, with an emphasis on people of color. This type of critique oppresses the growth of the theatre community, creating riffs based on race, not only in Chicago but all over this country. Further pushing us all from actualizing one of the worlds most truly inclusive art forms. Broadway Black is here to lessen that burden, and eventually end these acts of oppression against our voices. This is why we exist, and why we must continue to do the work that highlights and critiques the theatre from an appropriate lens. Sign the petition and make it a personal mission to aide the cause in anyway you can in your own immediate community.– Andrew Shade, Broadway Black Founder
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*
B.A.C. Presents The Invitation: American Hangover
B.A.C.’s The Invitation is back and this month the discussion centers around the recent political climate that has been altered to new heights due to the recent election. If your heart is in the place of needing healing this is the event you want to attend or livestream with us.
Since the success of the Aug. 1, 2016 “Broadway for Black Lives Matter” special event, BAC continues to work closely with Columbia Law School to build a dynamic newplatform for sparking dialogue—and collective action—around social and racial justice. This unique collaboration inspired a monthly series event called, The Invitation.
The Invitation blends artistry and activism–artivism, rooted in history, advocacy, law, and policy, to inspire change. The series launched on November 6th, focusing on “Political Participation.” The evening consisted of performances and discussions that educated and inspiredaudiences on tangible ways to participate in the politicalprocess in their communities.
The Invitation: The American Hangover
Sunday, December 4, 2016
Columbia University – Altschul Auditorium
420 W. 118th Street
Room 417 – International Affairs
New York, NY 10027
There’s a lot at stake with our new administration and it’s clear there’s a deep divide of beliefs in the “United” States. The American Hangover will use dialogue and performance to empower and educate the community on how to remain hopeful after the 2016 Presidential Election, and to use art and advocacy—as well as legal tools and techniques—to work toward ensuring all people are valued, protected, and can fully participate in our democracy.
Appearances by Broadway legend and Tony Award winner Ben Vereen, Tony nominee Brandon Victor Dixon currently starring in Hamilton: An American Musical, Tony nominee Condola Rashad, Tony award winning composer Jeanine Tesori, Broadway artist LaTrisha Harper, Director of the Mediation Program and Clinical Professor of Law at Columbia Law School Alexandra Carter, Director of Community Organizing and Engagement at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform Richard Gray, Columbia Law School student and Co-President of Student Public Interest Network Patricia Okonta, Jaffin Professor and director of Center for Institutional and Social Change at Columbia Law School Susan P. Sturm, Nash Professor and Director of the Center for the Study of Law and Culture at Columbia Law School Kendall Thomas
— Broadway Advocacy (@BwayAdvocacyCo) December 1, 2016
For more information about The Broadway Advocacy Coalition and “The Invitation” check out the official website, www.bwayadvocacycoalition.org
B.A.C. Presents The Invitation
As previously reported, The Broadway Advocacy Collation (BAC) is just getting started and doing so by launching a monthly series in partnership with Columbia Law School titled The Invitation as a follow up to the tremendous #BWAY4BLM event that happened August 1st, 2016.
Introducing Broadway Advocacy Coalition, Where Artistry & Activism Meet
Often times people think that when you do one thing for a cause that you’ve done your part, the work is then over. Well, the Broadway Black community showed up and showed out for #BWAY4BLM on August 1st. However, it’s been unanimous throughout the community, that was only the beginning.
The Broadway for Black Lives Matter Collective has transformed, renewed and refined to propel their mission for change. Now the Broadway Advocacy Coalition, the focus seems stronger than ever, defining their keys to success as Education, Engagement, Enlightenment, & Empowerment.
Amber Iman, Britton Smith, Adrienne Warren, Cameron J. Ross, Christian Dante White, & Jackie Bell tell us more about BAC in their introductory video and how they’ve created a portal for change, connecting artistry and activism. Artivism.
Broadway Advocacy Coalition
The Broadway Advocacy Coalition aims to educate and enlighten our community on its rights, roles, and responsibilities. To engage and empower our community, through open forums and discussions, concerts, media, and service, in order to bridge the gap between artistry and activism as we move towards positive social change.
What We Believe:
We believe in the power of the arts to collaborate and converse with the community the beliefs of equality, and that together change is possible.
St. Louis Protesters Interrupt Aida at the Muny Theatre, Ken Page Speaks Out
St. Louis protesters interrupt Aida at the Muny Theatre to recognize the second year anniversary of Michael Brown’s death. Mike Brown, victim of police brutality, was murdered in the northern suburbs of Missouri (Furgeson) on August 9th, 2014.
I think it’s safe to assume that the protesters considered their nonviolent acts effective and timely in recognition of the anniversary, location, and relevance to thematic structures found in Aida.
For instance, Aida, set in Egypt, deals with some ideas of enslavement and oppression, which may or may not seem synonymous to the core issues of the BLM movement. At any rate, the outdoor production in Forest Park, Missouri was stopped for nearly 30 minutes in the beginning of Act two. 40 protesters chanted between audience members exposing the importance of social justice to a venue that supposedly seats 11,000 people.
In this production at the Muny Theatre, Grammy-winner Michelle Williams plays the title role for a limited run (Aug 8-14) of Elton John and Tim Rice’s, Aida. Once she and the other actors were brought back onstage, she delivered a speech about the unplanned protest! Here’s what her co-star Broadway veteran Ken Page (CATS, Ain’t Misbehavin’) said immediately following the protest:
The speech was earnest at the very least. And as a Broadway veteran (The Color Purple, Chicago, Fela) I’m sure she’ll find some new and fresh way to channel her feelings about the BLM movement in a role–originated by Heather Headley–she once played back in 2003.
About Broadway Black:
BroadwayBlack.com is dedicated to highlighting the achievements and successes of African-American theatre artists on and off the Broadway stage. For so long, our voices have been skimmed over inside and outside of The Great White Way. However, we know we have experiences to share that are essential. BroadwayBlack.com serves as a collective of things we all care for. It is a platform for all things Black theatre. Created for the child in all of us who looked up to the stage searching for the faces that looked like ours. Celebrating the dedication of those who hand over their life to give all they have to the stage, shining light on those that continue our journey, & paying tribute to those who blazed the way for our story to be told, seen, and heard on The Great Way.
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