By Randy Gener
NEW YORK CITY | You can’t call yourself a bonafide Black believer (or a Black supporter) if you’ve never heard of the National Black Theatre.
Created by Dr. Barbara Ann Teer and dubbing itself an “Institute for Action Arts,” National Black Theatre has been an essential fixture — not just in the Harlem neighborood of the New York City borough of Manhattan. It is a lodestone in the Black Arts phenomenon.
The capital letter in my use of Black is neither incidental or whimsical. Capitalizing “black” marks the artistic significance of this cultural insitution. Founded in 1968 by Teer (she was actress, director and producer), National Black Theatre might now be seen as yet another community-based African-American concern. Except that the company is more properly a contemporary pathfinder within the long legacy of the Black Arts movement.
While the rest of black theater (lower case intended) curtsies in front of the damaged temples of th U.S. non-profit industry, the National Black Theatre lives on today and holds up the ramparts and authencity of Black Arts experiences.
Note the slate of creations currently on the boards and in the works.
Nambi E. Kelley’s BLOOD as staged by director Elizabeth Van Dyke, runs in November 2017. In it, Scipio is dying. His estranged son visits. What happens when these two men meet after decades of silence? BLOOD takes us into the journey of Scipio’s mind spanning time, reality, and blood memory to question the very essence of his own existence as a Black revolutionary, a father and a man.
THE PECULIAR PATRIOT by Liza Jessie Peterson arrives courtesy of Talvin Wilks, an accomplished director. It ran this past October. This solo play confronts the complex and critical issue of mass incarceration. With more than 2.5 million people behind bars, America is the world’s leading prison superpower. The play follows protagonist Betsy LaQuanda Ross, a self-proclaimed peculiar patriot, as she makes regular visits to penitentiaries to boost the morale of her incarcerated friends and family, navigating love between barbed wire. As she shares neighborhood updates and gossip and reminisces about family, Betsy delivers a shrewd indictment of the criminal justice.
This past June saw the birth of James IJames’s KILL MOVE PARADISE. In it, characters named Isa, Daz, Grif and Tiny try to make sense of their new paradise while confronting the reality of their past in the world they have been ripped from. The play takes the Elysium of Greek antiquity and flips the script. Inspired by recent events, the play wants to be “an expressionistic buzz” seen through what many people still as a “contemporary myth that ‘all lives matter.'” It is a portrait of the slain, not as degenerates who deserved death but as heroes who demand that we see them for the empowered beings they are.
Upcoming in March 2018 will be MOTHERS OF THE MOVEMENTS to staged in partnership with the Harlem Stage and Carnegie Hall. A celebration of the contribution of Black women pioneers from the Civil Rights and Black Arts movements, this piece is a two-part series that will take place in both Harlem-based institutions.
Just as important as the cultural aim is the education embrace. As far back as 1969, Teer purchased the 8,000 square foot theatre in 1969 at 9 East 125th street. In 1982, the NBT expanded to 64,000 square foot complex that houses two theatres, classrooms, and an African and Nigerian art gallery which currently resides on 5th Avenue in Harlem.
Teer founded the NBT with a goal of creating a “massive cultural and artistic movement to create people culturally literate.” Teer viewed the African-American community as one that was in desperate need of an African cultural education. The company committed itself to representing and establishing “a black theatrical standard — a standard based on black lifestyle.”
The NBT produced plays that were dedicated to raising the consciousness of the African-American community by crafting a distinct departure from White theatrical conventions. As Teer wrote in a critical essay, “You cannot have a theatre without ideology, without a base from which all of the forms must emanate and call it Black, for it will be the same as Western theatre, conventional theatre, safe theatre.”