Black Theaters Hold Us Close and Accountable

by Steven G Fullwood

“The Revolutionary Theatre is shaped by the world, and moves to reshape the world, using as its force the natural force and perpetual vibrations of the mind in the world. We are history and desire, what we are, and what any experience can make us.” 

–LeRoi Jones / Amiri Baraka, “The Revolutionary Theatre,”  
  Liberator, July 1965

Black theatre is revolutionary theatre. By its very existence, it explodes the persistent narrative of the pathological Negro that plagues the American imagination. Black theatre has roots. Black theatre has a purpose. Black theatre has long held our Black stories which, despite all that has stood in their way, remain as poignant and farsighted as ever. Black-owned and operated theaters are erected to tell these stories. But in order to do this work in the future, Black theaters also need to archive them. 

We can learn a lot about Black theaters from their archival legacies. Who founded the institution? What is his or her or their origin story? What was the process of selecting and mounting plays? What did those plays hope to accomplish? These collections bear witness to Black life—carrying stories about our love, struggle and joy, and immortalizing our predecessors who created them. Understand this: holding and reporting Black stories for Black people is about agency. It is about who gets to tell the story, especially now as Black people battle the disproportionate impact of COVID-19, racial terror and more. Encouraging regular folks to come forward with their stories about these issues is something that can and should be done right now. 

Just as the institution of Black theater bears witness, so do I. In 1998, I was hired as an archivist at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Shortly after arriving, I was assigned several collections to process. The first collection was that of the American Negro Theater (ANT), which was founded in 1940 by writer Abram Hill and actor Frederick O’Neal. The theater is actually housed in the landmark building of the Schomburg, which was once the basement of the 135th Street Branch Library. Actors such as Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis, along with Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte, performed in ANT productions. Shortly thereafter, the Schomburg was the recipient of a National Endowment for the Humanities grant which provided funds for additional staff and resources. During this time, I had the honor of working on the Helen Armstead-Johnson Theater Collection, a vast archive curated by the late doctor and once housed in the Chelsea Hotel. I also worked with a team of archivists to process the records of the Negro Ensemble Company (NEC) which, to this very day, is the largest and most successful Black theatre company. NEC’s play scripts, administrative records, financial records and more are housed at the Schomburg. These collections archive the souls of Black folk. And the fact that these records exist at all extends the sole mission of these and other Black theaters—to tell our stories.

"Black theatrical history is over a century old, longer in some respects. Our archives should reflect that."

Tell me something about Black history or culture that has not been immortalized in a Black theater? Go on, I will wait. Tales of African independence, Afro-futurism, Apartheid, Black Power, Black Wall Street, the church, the Civil Rights movement, feminism, Harlem Renaissance, housing, immigration, integration, Jim Crow, LGBTQ life, middle-class life, migration, the military, miscegenation, radicalism, slavery, the upper class, womanism, working-class people and white misanthropy have all been seen on one of our stages. In short, Black theaters are for us and we must carry their legacies forward.

Two decades after my start at the Schomburg, I was hired as an archival consultant by the Black Theatre Commons (BTC) to helm their National Archival Initiative. My objective was simple: help Black theaters discover and manage their archival legacies. After conducting over 100 surveys of organizations across the country, it became evident that too many theaters had no institutional records of any kind. And while there are collections of various archives throughout our country’s public libraries, research centers, colleges and universities, it is a modest start. Black theatrical history is over a century old, longer in some respects. Our archives should reflect that. 

Straight talk: Black theaters, consider revising your mission statements to include archiving your historical records. That way, if your theater does close, managing your legacy is easier and it can help shape theaters in the future. Consider employing a historian responsible for managing your archives. Yes, many of these have been lost, but a course to correct this can be set! If you are a theater owner, actor, director, playwright, practitioner or professional, ask yourself: What will I leave behind for our collective future? Something was left behind for you. Now it is your turn.

"Black story is too precious, too vital, too critical to be sold to the highest bidder. Or, for that matter, to the lowest bidder. Or any bidder at all."

By archiving our history, we are anticipating our future. It must become an integral part of the theatrical process. The fantastic dramas of the past left their theaters along with the playwrights who wrote them, the directors, actors and creatives that brought them to life, and the audiences that experienced them. All of the hard work that goes into producing a play should not be lost or forgotten once the lights go off. 

Future generations need our stories, even the ones that go beyond theatre. Consider the images that already live in your memory of Black people getting sprayed with water hoses, bashed with police batons and bitten by dogs during the Civil Rights movement. Now consider the images our children’s children will recall of today. George Floyd? His murder was captured on film for all of mankind to see. Breonna Taylor? No footage. And her murder continues to be contested and debated. We already have the tools to do this memory work, but if we do not carry it through, narratives about the extrajudicial killings of Black people run the risk of being lost, stolen or spun against us. 

The recording and archiving of Black theaters can set an example of how we record and archive Black life. Black theaters hold us close and accountable. Black story is too precious, too vital, too critical to be sold to the highest bidder. Or, for that matter, to the lowest bidder. Or any bidder at all. Black story is elastic—it can expand and encompass infinite expressions of the Black global experience. These stories live within us forever. Now is the time to archive them. 

Be accountable.

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