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History in the Making

As Black History Month continues, Debra Ann Byrd, Woodie King, Jr., Alfred Preisser, and Dr. Barbara Ann Teer discuss the cultural opportunities for African-American theater.


By: Dan Bacalzo

February 18, 2008

TheaterMania.com | Theater News Feature


"I think people have really forgotten about Black History Month, Kwanzaa, and all those 60s conversations," says Dr. Barbara Ann Teer, founder and artistic director of the National Black Theatre.  "It's an intellectual process these days where people read books, mostly about slavery.  And I don't know that in 2008 that supports the value and identity of the people themselves.  So if we're talking about Black History Month, then we have to shift the weight to deepen its intention."


One of the ways this is being done is through the Black History Month Play Festival, produced by Woodie King Jr.'s National Black Touring Circuit.  The event is an extension of the 34-year-old organization's mission to highlight the work of black artists. The presentations include A Rose Among Thorns, about Rosa Parks, which was performed February 15-17 at the Harlem School of the Arts, Confessions of Stepin Fetchit, by Matt Robinson, which will perform at the National Black Theatre February 22-23, and Paul Robeson, also at the National Black Theatre February 29-March 2. "The works are highly educational," says King of the kinds of pieces he produces for the Circuit.  "But we first must get them theatrical. We deal with highly visible, well written plays that can stand the scrutiny of New York critics."


The festival kicked off on February 8 with a star-studded reading of the late Ossie Davis' The People of Clarendon County, starring Ruby Dee, Danny Glover, and Ruben Santiago-Hudson, and a second reading of the play will be presented at the Labor Center in Midtown on February 29, featuring Dee, Louis Gossett, Jr., Alan Alda, and Rev. James A. Forbes.  "Ossie's thinking process and his commitment to his freedom and his people's freedom is an awesome wonder to              

                                                          me, and he's not paralleled in any way," says

                                                          Teer, who participated in the initial reading.


                                                          In addition to its inclusion in the festival, Teer's

                                                          National Black Theatre is currently hosting Take

                                                          Wing and Soar's production of Medea, directed

                                                          by Petronia Paley and starring Tony Award

                                                          winner Trezana Beverley in the title role.  "I had

                                                          been having conversations with Trezana about

                                                          the company and what we were intending to do

                                                          over the next couple of years," says Debra Ann

                                                          Byrd, artistic director of Take Wing and Soar.  "I

                                                          told her we were planning to do Medea, and she

                                                          said, 'Really?  I've always wanted to play that

                                                          role.'  And there was nothing else for me to do

                                                          but say, 'Okay!'  Our mission is to give classically trained artists of color an opportunity and a venue to be able to do what they do when they graduate with their MFA or BFA.  They get all this deep, rich classical training, vocal coaching, and everything they need to do the classics. But when they come out, they have a challenge finding work in that arena."


An attention to the classics is also the focus of the Classical Theatre of Harlem, which recently remounted its acclaimed production of Trojan Women in a partnering with Harlem Stage at the Gatehouse Theatre, and continues to tour its musical production of Romeo and Juliet. The company began operations in 1999 at The Harlem School of the Arts, and while it is no longer affiliated with the school, artistic director Alfred Preisser -- who is not himself African-American -- notes the importance of that initial connection.


"When they made me head of the theater department, I asked if I could start a professional theater company there," he says. "Since we were working in Harlem, the objective was always to bring in African-American actors at all levels to act, perform, to be part of a crew. We continue to define our work with African-American performers, although it's not a big crusade. It's just the way the company started as part of my job, and an extension of the creative community I encountered."


All over the city, there are productions that provide further evidence of the flourishing of African-American arts. Theatre for a New Audience is presenting Nigerian playwright Biyi Bandele's adaptation of Aphra Behn's Oroonoko; King's New Federal Theatre is currently presenting a double bill at the Abrons Arts Center entitled Josh & Satchel, about Negro Baseball League stars Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige; the Algonquin Theatre showcases Same Train, comprised of seven stories about the African-American experience in the 20th century; The Flea is offering Beau Willimon's Lower Ninth, inspired by the effects of Hurricane Katrina and with a cast featuring Gbenga Akkinagbe, Gaius Charles, and James McDaniel; and at New York Theatre Workshop, Liberty City tells April Yvette Thompson's personal story set against the background of a place where people of the African Diaspora have settled.


On Broadway, one can currently find Passing Strange, a musical about a young African-American man's search for art and identity, and Debbie Allen's all-African-American version of Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, starring Terrence Howard, Anika Noni Rose, James Earl Jones, and Phylicia Rashad. Still to come this season are Laurence Fishburne as Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall in the solo piece Thurgood and Morgan Freeman non-traditionally cast in the starring role of Mike Nichols' revival of Clifford Odets' The Country Girl.


All of these shows contribute to a vibrant theatrical landscape that goes far beyond the bounds of a Black History Month, and continues throughout the year.