By Charlene Adhiambo
“This a new vanguard, this a new vanguard / I’m the new vanguard” – Noname, “Song 33”
The past month of hypervisibility of anti-Black violence in America has led to a nationwide reckoning that has left no stone unturned, and the American theatre industry is no exception. Various Black theatre makers have used social media to air their grievances, demand change and equity, and have put forth new initiatives seeking to transform the industry, such as the forum #BroadwayforBLM founded by the Broadway Advocacy Coalition, and We See You, White American Theatre. Shaping this dialogue is the legacy of August Wilson, whose groundbreaking essay “The Ground on Which I Stand”, decries racism and exclusion in the American theatre and asserts the vibrancy, talent, and versatility of Black artists. I read this essay for the first time this past June, in the wake of these salient conversations and at the start of my literary internship with The Play Company. It immensely helped me, as a Black, female newcomer to theatre, contextualize this moment and led me to reflect on my unique positioning within this industry.
Reading Wilson, I learned foremost that these conversations are nothing new. The harm, exclusion, abuse, racism, that Black theatre makers face seems, unfortunately, time eternal. The current demands for simply more access and respect, are the same demands August Wilson makes in his essay, which he read at the eleventh biennial Theatre Communications Group national conference in 1996. In addition, he writes of the disregard for the complexity of Black culture, which many white theatre gatekeepers argued was distinct from and beneath (read: white) American art. As a result, even when Black art was staged, it was exotified or simplified.
How can the industry avoid this? Start with the acknowledgment that Black theatre is American theatre. Further, American does not mean white. In 1821, William Alexander Brown, a free Black man from the West Indies, founded the African Grove Theatre in New York, the most commercially successful Black-owned and Black-patroned theatre of the time. Theatre as we know it today, was undoubtedly influenced by minstrelsy and vaudeville of the turn of the century. If Black people were not the theatre makers, we at minimum were the theatre subjects. Blackness has always been in style, which makes it even more damning that Black theatre has been relegated as separate from American theatre. Wilson says it best:
To pursue our cultural expression does not separate us. We are not separatists…We are Americans trying to fulfill our talents. We are not the servants at the party. We are not apprentices in the kitchens. We are not the stable boys to the king’s huntsmen. We are Africans. We are Americans. The irreversible sweep of history has decreed that. We are artists who seek to develop our talents and give expression to our personalities. We bring advantage to the common ground that is the American theatre.
Wilson, however, is not asking simply for white American theatre to acknowledge Black theatre. In this moment of reckoning, in addition, no one is simply asking for exposure.
What then do Black theatre makers need? There’s not one answer. Wilson asserts several suggestions for ways that American theatre should change. He states that Black theatre makers should not wait for roles and positions to be given, that we take the “responsibility for our talents in our own hands”. By this, he means ensuring that Black stories and talent are not flattened or forgotten. He cites additional solutions, such as “students of arts management [exploring] new systems of funding theatres” or “Black artists and audiences [scaling] the walls erected by theatre subscriptions to gain access” to the theatre. We deserve to be the decision makers and the artists. We must be at every stage of the theatre making process. The Black theatres that do exist, need more funding and consistent support. That is why the conversation is equity, not inclusion. Why would we ask to be included in something we helped create? Tonya Pinkins, during the third day of the Broadway Advocacy Coalition Forum on June 10th, stated: “The majority of the people of color on this planet are filled with so much power and energy that when gatekeepers who are predominantly white get out of the way, the whole world is going to benefit from that.” This means, to me, that this conversation is more than just sharing the mic. It is giving up the mic, reenvisioning the mic, maybe even destroying it.
It means, as well, that we recognize the diversity within Blackness. Wilson does not mention any Black queer people in his essay, and Black women are more of an afterthought. I do not criticize him when I say this, I only wish to acknowledge that being Black in addition to being queer, trans, a woman, and more in this industry, matters. As we ask for change, no Black person can be left behind. The new vanguard must center the most marginalized of Black people: Black queer and/or trans women and Black gender expansive folks; all who already are the bedrock of this industry.
Theatre is mine and yours. Yet, it does not feel that way. I fear as a young Black woman in the industry, that the changes will not come fast enough. That decades from now, I will be writing an address like Wilson’s. That as I build my career, racism and sexism will tinge my theatre experience and I will either be pushed out or burn out.
Thus, I come into this industry bearing a responsibility that I did not ask for. But not all is lost. I sit on the shoulders of giants: countless Black theatre artists who have made a way out of no way, whose brilliance reminds me that I am not alone, forgotten, or powerless. Together, the Black theatre artists before me, beside me, and after me will ensure that theatre is a “common ground” rather than a hallowed one.
Charlene Adhiambo is The Play Company’s current Literary Intern. She hails from Atlanta, Georgia by way of Nairobi, Kenya. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.