The Stages of My Revolution
by Keith Josef Adkins
We are living in a time of global transparency and radical reawakening. The day has finally come for our permanent comeuppance when we raise our Black fists and burst through an oppressive system of supremacy. From the international COVID-19 health crisis to the unwarranted murders of young Black women and men, many of us realize arm-chair politics, legislative promises and academic troubleshooting are not changing a damn thing. Black people are still in the business of dodging macroaggressions, navigating redlining of all variations, being disproportionately impacted by police brutality, and combatting whiteness as the deciding factor on all things valuable. In the words of the late, great Toni Morrison, “Racism will disappear when it’s no longer profitable, and no longer psychologically useful.” I would add when we, Black people, also decide we are done with it.
"I felt pressured to emulate August Wilson or Amiri Baraka—stellar playwrights, without a doubt, but my parents raised me to find my own voice and truth."
Speaking of profit and use, let us pick at that little niche of culture called the American theatre. Theatre is supposed to be one of those sacred spaces where souls are exposed, lives are transformed, and social change is activated. But if you are anything like me, most of your theatre-making has been done under the systemic strong-arming of privileged white institutions and the temperamental approval of white funders. Again, if you are anything like me, there have been times when you have bitten your tongue while navigating frequently racist spaces—spaces where exploitive and two-dimensional interpretations of your Black existence were a daily occurrence. Even when I entered smaller but well-organized Black theatre clusters I was often ostracized or refused for my interest in stories of gender investigation and complex Blackness. I felt pressured to emulate August Wilson or Amiri Baraka—stellar playwrights, without a doubt, but my parents raised me to find my own voice and truth. Although there are more varied voices in the present community of Black theatre, many of our Black spaces continue to be conservative, cliquish and monolithic so we buck up against the same two-dimensional and racist assaults that plague white spaces. Many of us still feel unseen, unheard and disrespected despite who is in charge.
The truth of the matter is that the only thing that will keep theatre alive and pertinent to future Black theatre makers and audiences is to build new institutions in our image. Do not get me wrong, we certainly have a history of building institutions within our communities. From Ira Aldridge to Larry Neal to Dr. Barbara Ann Teer, our trailblazers did the work and made a substantial impact. They put the sanctity of Black life first and foremost, and we should be grateful for it. But we, Black theatre practitioners, also have a history of dropping the ball on our community and sacrificing Black complexity in storytelling when well-resourced white institutions show interest and welcome us into their spaces. Yes, I am saying some of us turn our backs on Blackness and show up where we are being gifted by the shiny and white. Abandoning Blackness and deeming whiteness as the only legitimate artistic destination are tools of cultural extermination. Our only objective for the future should be to build spaces where we can champion complex stories from our Diasporic experiences without the filtering from white institutions or the dulling from non-inclusive Black ones.
"We must stand up for the NOW of our lives."
Let me share what I did. Ten years ago I, along with J. Holtham and Jocelyn Prince, kick-started The New Black Fest. I was growing tired of the misrepresentations of and lack of opportunities for my Black colleagues in white and Black spaces, and I wanted to do my part in championing Black complexity. Our goal with the Fest was to find the funding to develop the voices and works of emerging and overlooked playwrights of African descent. We wanted to flood the theatre with diverse and complicated stories that originated from our authentic experiences as Black people. We wanted to challenge Black audiences on their assumptions of Blackness and tear apart monoliths. We wanted to reshape how white institutions saw Black stories and encourage them to use The New Black Fest as a template of what is important, valuable and urgent within the Black story universe.
In preparation for our first festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), my team and I hit the streets determined to pull together Black theatre artists who were developing something new, bold, insurgent and innovative. And we found them. From Kwame Kwei-Armah to Cori Thomas to singer-actor Celi Pitt to Godfrey Simmons and his Dispatches from (A)mended America, we patted ourselves on the back for assembling a group of artists eager to be a part of a festival that sanctioned them to be the authority, the gaze and the filter. Unfortunately, but unsurprisingly, our decision to assemble without the surveillance of whiteness inspired the character assassins and shit makers to rear their divisive heads. From white artistic directors to veteran Black practitioners to institutional gatekeepers, we were accused of having no identity without white resources. We were told we were erasing the contributions of the previous generation of Black artists. We were branded as elitist. I even received an anonymous email suggesting I was trying to start a race war with The New Black Fest. But like some of our champion trailblazers before us, we ignored the hate and dug our heels deeper into our objective—to foster and celebrate the complexity of the Black experience and inspire a new generation of community. Now with a pool of over 1,000 Fest alumni, three commissioned social justice anthologies (two published by Concord Theatrical/Samuel French), partnerships with the Lark Play Development Center, the Apollo Theater, the BBC, the National Black Theatre and the Martin Segal Theatre at CUNY Graduate Center, among others, The New Black Fest continues to thrive. I could not be more proud.
Our ancestors endured more trauma than we can imagine during their lifetimes. We owe it to our Original Ones to create spaces for our complexity and to our Future Ones to strategically seek out and convince moneyed Black people to invest in authentic Black stories. And when I say Black stories, I mean complex, progressive, inclusive, challenging ones. We must stand up for the NOW of our lives. We have to be willing to forfeit allies, white supporters, (hell, some Black supporters), and kick us far into the Black future with the power of our Black authenticity.
If we are vigilant, we can save ourselves and the world.