The Colored Theater of African-Americans

Why are African-American theaters still numerous in America, putting their cultural background up front? When looking at the missions and productions of these theaters, one can notice that specific groups of people are being targeted. Their vision of community thus tends to be different from other theaters in general.

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Detroit ’67, The Ensemble Theater

Theaters can either claim to address a specific community or not. Black-community theaters such as the African-American Shakespeare Company,  the Black Ensemble or The Ensemble Theater are based on skin color, made for Black people and with shows performed by Black artists. The Marin Theater Company and Central Works do not claim skin-color as a basis of their activity nor address a specific audience or group of professionals. Comparing the missions and season programming of these two categories emphasize the nature of the community each of them builds.

Organizational Choices as Mission

These five theaters are not organized in the same way. The Black Ensemble Theater, the Ensemble Theater and the African-American Shakespeare Company pay close attention to an ethnic group – the African-Americans – whether for their shows, their audiences or their artists. Each of these three theaters offers shows starring African-Americans, directed by African-Americans. However, while the African-American Shakespeare Company exclusively focuses on this ethnic group, the Ensemble Theater and the Black Ensemble Theater also target groups like Japanese or Colombian people. In the Marin Theater Company, people working for the staff are White people and there is just one show addressing the African-Americans – a show about slavery. In Central Works Theater, nothing seems to be addressing them. There is no show starring them and no mention of African-Americans working for the theater. At first sight, the theaters seem not to address the same kind of audience. While the African-American Shakespeare Company and Central Works Theater may be focusing on a unique group of people according to their skin color, the three other theaters seem to be paying attention to the way they target different audiences by addressing different ethnic groups.

Placing the Underrepresented in the Spotlight

Cinderella, African-American Shakespeare Company

The three following theaters try to address underrepresented minorities to help solve the issues of the African-Americans and thus tell their own story. Through the African-American community – formed by African-Americans for African-Americans – as a base for their mission, the Black Ensemble Theater aims at giving a stage to other underrepresented communities – based on skin color – so that this gathering of different people can mix and improve their social life in America. Thanks to historically thought-provoking plays made of dance and music, the different communities in America are able to show and share their culture through art. Everyone is involved, as everyone is regarded as playing an important part in the mission of the theater – that of “eradicating racism” in everyday life.
Unlike the Black Ensemble Theater, every show is centered on African-Americans in the Ensemble Theater. Through plays staging ordinary people, American history is being told through the eyes of African-Americans. Each show mainly stages African-Americans and their relationship to other communities, as well as the struggles they face in their everyday life in America.
The African-American Shakespeare Company appropriates some parts of the world history from which African-Americans were excluded by playing classics. These classics enable them and other “communities of color” to open up to the literary world. The African-American Shakespeare Company is a centrifugal force in building a wider community made by “diverse audiences”. It enables classics to be accessible for African-American actors but also spectators, and other under-represented groups.

Wider Issues to Address Local People’s Lives

Gem of the Ocean, Marin Theater Company

When it comes to producing shows, the Marin Theater Company and Central Works Theater are heavily influenced by American history and heritage. They see national issues as centripetal forces in building a local community. The Marin Theater Company, by promoting “intimate experiences and Bay Area communities”, is forming a community out of local people able to dialogue with the theater. The plays are diversified, and the way they are described enables the audience to get an insight at what is happening in America. Indeed, historical issues such as slavery and undocumented workers are dealt with
so that people may take part in the mission of the theater which is to “[find] a new understanding of [their] lives”. Central Works Theater’s community, like the Marin Theater, is based around “local artists” and the audience. They are inspired by “current political events, history and literature”. However, the themes of their shows may be seen as quite elitist, which may fail to attract diversified audiences. By staging shows such as “The Yellow Wallpaper” that develop very specific and refined themes, Central Works Theater may tend to attract a more specialized audience.

Community can Strengthen Cultural Ties…

For theater people, culture plays a key part in defining a community. For instance, theaters such as the African-American Shakespeare Company, the Black Ensemble Theater and the Ensemble Theater share a specific attention to cultures that are a minority in America. Whether born in the United States or not, there is a need for these people to link their origins to the country they now live in. In this way, the shows that they produce may be seen as a product of integration and acculturation. These shows may be regarded as a claim for these ethnic groups to be socially represented by speaking out about their everyday life struggles. Thus, they might have a political purpose. In this case, the community embodies and justifies a need for ethnic groups to feel as members of the American society by gathering different people together. The community makes them stronger.

Photo by Kevin Berne

For Central Works Theater and the Marin Theater Company, the notion of community can be found somewhere else. It is rather a justification of what they promote, that is to say a broader “cultural environment” for Central Works and “address[ing] [their] national and local concerns” for the Marin Theater. Because of the variety of their shows, the Marin Theater Company seems to be developing a vision of the community that can be regarded as a mini-America in locally-targeted place. Indeed, this theater tackles several issues that American people are confronted to. In this way, the community here may be seen as a way to improve one’s condition. In the case of Central Works, its community seems to be a way for its members to be better cultivated. Their vision of community is linked to collaboration and participation and seems to have an educational mission.

… But also Identity to Enhance Oneself

These five theaters enable to set a common definition of the word ‘community’. It is a group of people – artists, audience, staff – who may come from different places and share common interests or values through art. A community in theater is a way to gather individuals so that they can contribute to the mission of the theater while they contribute to their own well-being. People can act about issues or defend their values on a broader scale thanks to their motivations that unite them. On one hand, most African-American theaters look to involve ethnic minorities so that they can be better represented in the wider society. They thus tend to widen their notion of community. On the other hand, non-minority oriented theaters can either choose to deal with minority issues so that more people can be aware of the fact that they are part of the American experience (like the Marin Theater Company), or putting art up front (like Central Works) to develop first a community of artists, not restricted by race.

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