"Being black is too emotionally taxing, therefore I will be black only on weekends and holidays."
George C. Wolfe, The Colored Museum
At 1:00pm, Dr. Maya E. Roth, Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Performing Arts Director, opened the symposium with a warm and appreciative welcome to the theatre artists, scholars, and students eagerly assembled.
In "Symbiosis," a Black businessman declares that "being black is too emotionally taxing, therefore I will be black only on weekends and holidays." He then proceeds to throw the relics of his youth into a dumpster. In doing so, he hopes to severe ties with his past and release the pain of his blackness. However, his younger self refuses to go down without a fight. This short scene is at once comic and tragic, entertaining and frightful. I've included it here for those who might be unfamiliar.
- Because we have not healed the trauma around slavery, Blacks exist in a place of shame, which forces Whites to say "Get over it."
- Many of the panelists sited THE COLORED MUSEUM, DUTCHMAN by Leroy Jones/Amiri Baraka, FOR COLORED GIRLS by Ntozake Shange, FUNNYHOUSE OF A NEGRO by Adrienne Kennedy as being pivotal plays.
- The history of slavery has never been healed in this country and so the trauma has never been healed.
- Theatre offers an opportunity both to unify the Black identity, but also demonstrate the complexities of what it means to be Black.
- Theatre also allows us to push against what we think we know about slavery and what it means to be Black in America.
- Artists, who negotiate the past, are putting themselves on the line to help audiences heal.
- Artists can use theatre to explore, define and position themselves historically and now.
- There was a reminder of the danger of a single narrative and that storytellers hold a great deal of power. In the wrong hands the story of a people can be misinterpreted and maligned.
- In order to get to the place of healing, we have to get honest, ugly, deep, and real about the issues of race in this country.
Patterson then asked how does your work deal with the traumatic past without holding on to the past. Here are some of the thoughts they shared:
- One panelists said that he doesn't write stories that don't have hope in them.
- Another said that we need to wade through the bile in order to find healing.
- Then a panelist noticed that many plays offer a ritual for the characters to work through the pain, which the allows the audience to process the pain as well.
- This led a panelist to confess that she doesn't quite know how to negotiate the struggle and pain that the character must endure to go through their journey with the struggle and pain that the audience must experience.
- Finally, a panelist shared that when working with history and issues of race, she works to contextualize the trauma and find rituals of healing in the performance, even if the playwright doesn't include it in the work.
The final thoughts of the discussion centered around four major points:
- The false and dangerous construct of a "post racial" society.
- The death our theatre institutions and dwindling audiences of color.
- The need to build new models to nurture, support, and sustain artists of color.
- That artists need to take their rightful place as leaders of socials change in their communities.
After a break, we enjoyed performances of scenes from from Lydia Diamond's STICK FLY, Robert O'Hara's BOOTY CANDY, and Dominique Morisseau's DETROIT 67, and readings from Evie Schokley's THE NEW BLACK.
After this discussion, we took our another break and then launched into the second roundtable discussion. Moderated by Soyica Colbert, the speakers included Isaiah Wooden (Stanford University, Ph.D. Candidate), Meta D. Jones (Howard University, Associate Professor of English), Jennifer Nelson (Director and Adjunct Assistant Professor of Theater, Georgetown University), Robert O'Hara (Playwright and Director), and Evie Shockley (Poet and Associate Professor of English, Rutgers University).
- One of the panelists spoke about how we have to look at history in a linear and circular way. What occurred 400 years ago, 15o years ago, 50 years ago, 6 years ago, and yesterday has as great an impact then as it does now.
- Another panelist urged us to remember that geography plays an important impact on history. Where we learn our history is as important as when we learn it. Look at where is our history isn't taught and where our stories are spoken, and consider why not.
- That same panelist spoke about how language holds history in it. The term "Negro" contains specific historical relevance and meaning. The term "Negro Obama" careens history and contemporary race relations into a powerful explosion.
- Another panelist spoke about how he creates art to position himself in history where he has been erased. For instance, her wrote about the gay men during slavery.
While many panelists spoke about powerful and important historical events, Jennifer Nelson shared that she was most informed by her personal history. This spoke to me, because as a playwright this is where I go first. Here are some of the questions that she asked us to consider intermingled with some of my own:
- Who are your parents? Where are they from? When and where were they born?
- When and where were you born? What happening there and during that time?
- What streets did you grow up walking, running, and playing on?
- Who were your friends? Whose homes were you invited into? Where were you not welcome?
- How were you taught to relate to things and other people?
- What music did you listen to? What songs did you dance to?
- Who cooked in your household? How was the cooking done (from scratch, frozen, or processed)?
- What foods were prepared on holidays and on everyday occasions?
Colbert then asked the panelists to consider what type of work they are able to create now that artists of the Black Arts Movement weren't able to create. While brief, owing to time, this was an interesting conversation:
- It was acknowledged that artists today have instant access to information in a way that just wasn't available during the Black Arts Moments.
- Also, that the work that was created during Black Arts Movement was revolutionary for its time and pushed the boundaries of what had previously been created.
- A panelist then called attention to the notion of critical nostalgia of history. How we name a moment in history in order to stabilize and dissect it. However, freezing a moment in time doesn't account for the emotional impact of the event. Nor does it account for the additional information and perspective gained over time.
- Another panelist acknowledged that Black Artists don't have to live within the construct of the work that they created. They are allowed multiple identities beyond the work that they produce.
- This reminded me of the ways that people of color carry history on their skin. At which a point, a panelist shared, that the Black body is a political work the minute it enters a space. The way our skin causes social disruption is so complex and reminded of the recent panel discussion that I participated in with Dance Exchange, the details of which I'll share soon.
The final thoughts of the discussion centered around three major points:
- Who are your audiences? Are you creating work for an audience that hasn't arrived yet?
- How can we fight for communities of color and ensure that their histories are being recorded, their experiences are being validated, and their stories are being told?
- Have Black Theatre Artists failed our theatres and other theatre artists of color? Do we take opportunities at large white institutions over our theatres of color? Are we working with white theatre artists over theatre artists of color?
At this point, it was 6:00pm and the symposium came to a close. We were thanked for our time and contribution by an appreciative and passionate audience.
Also, I shared the exciting updates about D.C.'s Women's Voices Festival and couldn't help but feel disappointed that more women playwrights of color weren't represented. I also confessed how difficult it had been since the announcement to explain to friends and colleagues that I had not been approached to take part in the festival in any way. While this certainly doesn't dampen my enthusiasm for this extraordinary event, it's something that I've had to negotiate and consider even more deeply after the symposium.
Once I got home, I was past exhausted, but my mind was reeling. I was left struggling to make sense of the continued and staggering lack of opportunities for theatre artists of color. The following questions kept me awake for some time:
- If theatre is integral to the human experience, then why aren't there more spaces for people of color?
- When spaces are made for women, why aren't we considering the intersection of race, class, age, culture, and ability?