The ongoing state executions of Black people, exemplified most recently and brazenly by the public lynching of George Floyd (with no repercussions to date for those perpetrating the brutality) has been the catalyst for diverse actions seeking change. Some actions seek to create an atmosphere in which such events would not be considered normal, acceptable or even imaginable. Black Lives, Black Words International Project (BLBW), a movement comprised of theater craftspeople, is one of those actions.
Black Lives, Black Words was started because we felt there needed to be an opportunity for Black Playwrights to speak out against the sins committed in this world inflicted upon Black bodies. [Through Black Lives, Black Words, playwrights and directors of color] speak against the injustices in an unfiltered way and to speak directly to the communities that they are connected to.
BLBW intends to be a transformative movement. Their fundraising is titled “Support Our Revolution.” Their resource guide – ranging from Employment, Grants and Physical and Mental Healthcare – indicates a holistic view to supporting both theater practitioners and the communities they come from and serve.
On August 13, BLBW Zoom cast a stimulating and thought provoking hour-long panel discussion titled Black Art in a Time of Uprising. The panel featured Chisa Hutchinson (playwright), Ashley Keys (stage manager), Pemon Rame (producer/director), Katrina Richard (playwright/actor), Dominic Taylor (writer/director), Wole Oguntokun (playwright/director), Sha Cage (actor/director/playwright) and Idris Goodwin (playwright, rapper, poet, essayist).
The panel explored the challenges, possibilities for and responsibilities of theater artists when the lives of the people they come from and about whom they write are being actively targeted for oppression, marginalization and extinction.
Here are some highlights:
First, the panel noted that the death of George Floyd and multiple others starkly brought into focus the obstacles Black theater craftspeople run into when exploring work that addresses issues of importance to the lives of Black people but are not necessarily experienced by another constituency. Dominic Taylor: “Someone has to die before theater producers can say: ‘We can look at that, now.’ “ “Black culture doesn’t do protagonist/antagonist dynamic in drama.”
“Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman embodies the worldview of the Yoruba. The Europeans did not understand it. There was a world view already in place when the European arrived. The European turned the world view that was there upside down.”
There was discussion on what the artist’s role and responsibility should be in a society or a community, especially when it is in crisis. “There is no separation between “us” as people and “us” as artists. Use art to uplift our people and to restore us to our original greatness.”
“Theater is a mirror. If the theater practitioner doesn’t talk about it, who will?” “All artists have conversations with our society. Those conversations can be for the better or for worse. Are we addressing our own folks (when we write)? Are we bridging among people?”
The group explored how the economics of theater is central to any discussion of the possibilities of theater for Black theater makers, their ultimate audience(s) and the effect of their work upon the larger world. “Grant-centered work is presented primarily to white audiences. Can these presentations to white audiences change those audiences?”
Dedicated to social justice, Black Lives Black Words International Project commissions, develops and produces bold and unapologetic artistic responses to current social and political issues.
“When white theaters engaged in audience development, that process undermined Black theater institution building.” The need to make a living resulted in siphoning Black theater makers off from the communities they reflected. “The institution building discussion is difficult because of 400 years of stealing.” And “The cost to attend theater is often a non-starter in Black communities.”
The group looked at changes they wanted to see in order for theater created by Black people to play the role that this group knows it can play in the lives of Black folks and in changing how the world looks at and affects Black folks. “I would like to see critics embrace the work that values more than our suffering.” “However, how does it get produced? Where are the power structures and finance structuring to get them produced? How do we do it ourselves and sustain it ourselves?”
“Not only are you obligated to learn, you are obligated to stay connected. Tithe to our cultural institutions the same way we do to the church.” “In the past, Black artists who studied at the Art Institute of Chicago went to the Black neighborhoods and shared what they had learned with the artists who were learning there.”
As the discussion concluded, it was clear that there was much more to be said and done. It was also clear that the people involved with Black Lives, Black Words are capable of and committed to being involved in doing that work.
Part of the work includes presenting original works. BLBW’s Plays for the People features works by BLBW members. As of now, plays are scheduled through November 8. This weekend Plays for the People debuts Buttafly Precinct by Sha Cage, Aug 20 – 23. Click for tickets.