STAGE : Black Theater--Its Decline Since 1960

"I think of the best efforts of the '60s, of all the pain we went through. Now we find we're sinking to the bottom."

They came neither to bury the '60s nor to praise them. But everyone at the black-theater conference at Stanford University who listened to C. Bernard Jackson utter his sad words had in mind one of the glory periods of American culture, the brief era in black theater that began with Lorraine Hansberry's "Raisin in the Sun," rose with the tidal passion of the Black Power movement, and unaccountably gutted out in a myriad of lost or dead-ended causes.

The conference was billed "Black Theatre: Moving Towards the 21st Century," with the subhead "A Conference on the Health & Future Directions of California Black Theatre." Ostensibly it was about looking ahead, but its underlying theme was an uncertain "What has happened to us, and what can we do about it?"--a question that echoes far beyond the lives of the 50 or so academics and theater professionals who showed up.

For if blacks--who were first brought to the New World as chattel and have withstood more than 300 years of attempted cultural obliteration--are feeling themselves at a loss (as this conference indicated), the rest of us who are more or less being forcibly resettled at a loss of individual identity into the global village may not be far behind.

There was the old guard, which included Jackson (who is managing director of Los Angeles' Inner City Cultural Center) and producer-director Woodie King Jr., among others, and the new. There were academic types, bureaucrat types, producers and directors, two writers, several performers, one savvy black lady who worked for a corporation but whose soul hungered for the theater (she had several enterprising tips), and one self-described white "bourgeois" (Edward Hastings, artistic director of San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater).

Some of it was cumbersome, as when Ray Tatar of the California Arts Council (one of the sponsors of the event) said such things as "our staff can help to demystify processes that seem to be exclusionary."

Some of it was unintentionally amusing. What would the first boatload of half-starved, exhausted and terrified African slaves, huddling on the dock at Jamestown under the mercenary gaze of a colonial auctioneer, have said to UCLA Prof. Beverly Robinson at hearing that they had just debarked, not from a stinking, disease-ridden hulk, but from the black Afro-American's "first performance space"?

On the surface, the atmosphere was generally convivial, even jocular--the theater is a small world, and many of these people have known each other for years. No one wanted to challenge or confront anyone else, which sometimes led to painfully unanswered questions hanging in the air.

Midway through the weekend, for example, one conferee said: "We've talked about everything except the aesthetic considerations. What about what you present on stage? Do you think of appeal, or of ideas and issues?" Hastings fished for an answer. "Art is basically a personal vision," he said, and came up with the insipid: "Politics may be involved in varying degrees. It's the excellence of the product." No one followed. The moderator asked Woodie King, "Any comments you want to add?," to which King replied "No."

Given the success of Ron Milner's "Checkmates," and the number of black actors working in television right now, the tenor of the conference seemed surprisingly guarded, even embattled. Nobody seemed heartened by "Checkmates" or the TV numbers--the topics never even came up. Several people spoke about the need of "connecting with each other" to an audience that remained politely noncommittal even in the face of controversial ideas.

Hanging over the conference was, of course, The Memory, when the good times rolled for black American theater. There's no thrill quite like that of self-discovery. It surged through the creaky melodramatic framework of Charles Gordone's "No Place to Be Somebody" like some bold and glorious new music issuing out of a dilapidated house. It rumbled like deep laughter in the black barbershop where Lonne Elder III played out his "Ceremonies in Dark Old Men." It rose as alluringly as the moon over Derek Walcott's Monkey Mountain, in whose haunted forest a mythic memory of Kenya blazed through the colonized soul of a black West Indian policeman.

A hundred years after the end of the American Civil War, black theater had at last come up out of the underground. Black life was no longer a forbidden American reality. Blacks saw the variety of their experience on stage for the first time. A great many whites saw blacks for the first time. In "The Great White Hope," James Earl Jones was emboldened to reveal an old, old secret--the rage and pain that often hides behind a great black smile.

Now the thrill was gone. The young conferees were cautious and even sometimes bland. "My perspective is that non-traditional casting is good and good for us," said actor-panelist Tony Haney, who was talking about the freedom to play white roles. But no one wanted to speculate on whether there's a limit to the crossover. Does a cultural and historical context create its own overridingly compelling need?

For example, a black Iago might lend that enigmatic role a plausible wrinkle of self-hate. But would a black audience feel outraged if two white guys played the prison cell mates in Athol Fugard, John Kane and Winston Ntshona's "The Island," which is set on Robben Island, one of the worst hellholes on Earth and an almost exclusive preserve for blacks?

Benny Ambush, one of the younger conferees, is artistic director of the 6-year-old Oakland Ensemble Theater and a prototype of the newer regional theater director, who must be an artist and an articulate public spokesman at the same time. His words might almost have been spoken at any regional theater conference in America.

"We have a staff, real estate and a mission statement," he said. "I as a black man and artistic director have a point where I stand in this world. An audience can't understand the vision just by seeing a few plays alone. It takes years. You hope over a period of time you can give a body to that vision."

He spoke of audience demographics, conflicting tastes, "a board of directors speaking in one ear and a director of development speaking in another while I'm looking at a house that's not always full. I think about it all the time and have come to one kind of truth: I have to be true to myself. If I try to fulfill too many expectations, I've lost my way and my theater has lost its way." He added: "I can't survive if I just rely on a black audience. . . . We're still caught up with some folks saying, 'We're blacker than thou.' "

Ambush was a voice of anguish-tinged reason. In his keynote address, Woodie King, director of the National Black Touring Conference and the only national figure at the conference, came out swinging.

"The (American black) theater institutions are going through terrible times," he said. "We very seldom depict the past. We try and re-create the present. So many of us are disappointed in the world, we try to create an illusion of it to make it safe. A lot of students came into the theater as a haven and got out. The values have gone out of the theater because we failed them or the system failed them--it's so negative they can't believe it's real. They acquiesce to the media hype and the political hype of a white value system that destroys them."

King had mentioned the black artists in Africa who were inspired by the American civil rights revolt and its corollary expression in the theater, implying that the movement had generated an international pulse. Now all that has changed. "The marketplace is set up to knock you down," he said. He described the Broadway theater as racist and overcontrolled. Blacks have once again become invisible to funding agencies.

Earlier, Jackson had spoken of the aching persistence of the question "Who am I?" and concluded that, in a world dominated by scientific thought that "takes things apart," only the artist stood to create "a new spectrum, a new dimension" by inventing new ways to survive (he noted that the spiritual, unknown in Africa, was an Afro-American invention for survival). Later he said, "We're desperate to be just like those individuals and institutions that have succeeded. But we don't have goals relevant to our actual conditions. The American government exists to contain our aspirations, or to appease us, or to convince us everything's all right when everything's not all right.

"Our community has different needs than others. The models we've chosen may not be the models that succeed. The Inner City Cultural Center isn't about putting on shows. The only other institution we had in the community was the church. . . . There are people who come in and steal our soap and toilet paper. If we're a theater, then we want to keep those people out. But we want to bring those people in , to gain a sense of relationship with their community.

"Why is it 8 out of 10 in jail are people of color? Is it because we're just no good?" Jackson asked. "The social scientists haven't come up with an answer. The artist should examine this, not just to mirror, but to actively come up with solutions to these problems. We affect the way people see things."

Many blacks, one heard in the course of the conference, envy Diana Ross and Sidney Poitier as prototypes of commercial success. (Whitney Huston's name was also bandied about as a draw for poor blacks who choose her above a night in the theater.) Others admire the courage of John O'Neal, a 47-year-old philosophy and English university grad and front-line civil rights worker, who has made a career of touring his solo "Sayings From the Life and Writing of Junebug Jabbo Jones." (Jones is a mythic folk hero who sees America from the back of the bus.) When O'Neal speaks, people listen.

"This conference is troubling me," he said. "It appears to me the net has been cast too large. These problems can't be solved without a unity of purpose. Most of the theater I see, whether black, white or green, I ask, 'Why are they doing this? Who's being improved?' Y'all go out and demonstrate and 30 years later the mass is worse off. It's true of Latinos, Asians and Italians. What's happening in this country is extremely dangerous. The middle class is getting larger but further away from where it came from. We're growing irrelevant to the interests of government and corporations."

Many participants spoke of incorporating some kind of vision into the theater. That, in fact, seemed more of an underlying need at the conference than exchanging stale rhetoric or how-to tips. UC Berkeley Prof. Margaret B. Wilkerson spoke of black students at Berkeley who felt "a lack of a cohesive sense of self" and found in the theater and black studies a road to themselves. Wilkerson runs a black theater workshop on campus and notes other elite campuses are doing the same thing--Harvard has its own gospel group.

"The theater is more lifelike than any other form," she said. "It has the power to move and shape. If physicists dominate the world, who will dominate their minds?"

Less than 30 people, scattered throughout the auditorium, stayed around for the end of the conference to hear these words. "When will we meet again?" Sandra Richards, one of the organizers, asked urgently. No one could say for sure. The last conference of this sort had been 10 years ago. This one had presented too many things to think about, and too few answers to talk about meeting again just yet.

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