“If you do not know, I will tell you that black theatre in America is alive … it is vibrant … it is vital … it just isn’t funded. Black theatre doesn’t share in the economics that would allow it to support its artists and supply them with meaningful avenues to develop their talent and broadcast and disseminate ideas crucial to its growth. The economics are reserved as privilege to the overwhelming abundance of institutions that preserve, promote and perpetuate white culture.
That is not a complaint. That is an advertisement. Since the funding sources, both public and private, do not publicly carry avowed missions of exclusion and segregated support, this is obviously either a glaring case of oversight, or we the proponents of black theatre have not made our presence or needs known.” August Wilson
Precious and the State of The Black Arts
An important part of black theatre that is often ignored but is seminal to its tradition is its origins on the slave plantations of the South. Summoned to the “big house” to entertain the slave owner and his guests, the slave that reached its pinnacle for whites consisted of whatever the slave imagined or knew that his master wanted to see and hear. This tradition has its present life counterpart in the crossover artists that slant their material for white consumption.
I wanted to write a review of Precious after I saw it; problem was, I didn’t know if I wanted to see it. Although I am an avid consumer of entertainment media, and an advocate for most, if not all things black, I hesitated to view this film. I was happy that the work of an artist primarily known for poetry had found a path to a bigger venue for her creativity. If one can go; others can follow. But it is wise to be careful what you wish for and even better advice to be careful of what you make. Creativity is a gift and a burden.
Maybe I should have followed my first mind. In the end, the best things I can say is, I brought a bootleg “directors cut,” so none of my money made it to Lionsgate’s coffers and this waste of film eventually ended. If I were to elaborate, I would offer that it made me physically ill. It was comparable to watching “The Birth of a Nation”.
I have included links of critiques of the work by Ishmael Reed, in large, he has covered the travesty that is Precious from a point of view I resonate with. Even better, he has shone a light on how and why such tripe is awarded while North American Africans fight a lukewarm fight to be seen in more realistic ways. The last sentence should focus on, “being seen,” period. The stereotypes that have always fed mainstream media have blurred visions of a “Black Experience” beyond recognition.
When did you last see yourself on stage or screen? The you reading this, when did you last see yourself on stage, TV, or in a movie? When did you last see a character that was you, and the you reading this related so strongly, you could see you own story unfolding before you? We have a curious relationship with invisibility that bears further exploration, but I digress. This discussion is about how we are “seen” and ultimately how we see ourselves.
I am always happy when Black actors work. I remember Robert Townsend’s, Hollywood Hustle, a movie parody of American drama that employed every Black actor that considered him or herself such. It was a satirical spoof on the state of the arts and a payday. I gotta love it. You can’t undercut the importance of a payday. Artists have to eat and living indoors can become addictive. But what are you willing to do in the name of the mortgage?
The battle to be seen, make a living at art, balanced by or at least tempered with the need to be relevant is not new. Hattie Mc Daniels often played the maid in her film career. I remember her best for an interview. She was asked by some forward thinking Black reporter why she always played the maid? Didn’t she know how this demeaned her and her race? Hattie replied with a question f her own, “Would you rather I played the maid for $50 a week or be the maid for $5 dollars a week?” Hattie’s logic carried her to the Academy Awards. She won an oscar for playing Mammy in, Gone with the Wind. It’s a hard point. It comes down in the end to the ground on which you choose to stand.
You must choose there is no middle ground. Serving two masters is a hard if not impossible task.
A second tradition occurred when the African in the confines of the slave quarters sought to invest his spirit with the strength of his ancestors by conceiving in his art, in his song and dance, a world in which he was the spiritual center and his existence was a manifest act of the creator from whom life flowed. He then could create art that was functional and furnished him with a spiritual temperament necessary for his survival as property and the dehumanizing status that was attendant to that.
So with our two masters clearly delineated and sat before us which path do we choose to travel? Everything in the universe, cost. You pay a cost for following in the tradition of the Black Arts. You pay a cost for jig-a-booing. There is a cost for trying to balance the cost. You get it; it all cost.
What if, what you see on TV, at the movies, the books and magazines you read, the music you listened to, and the news you watch were all defining the parameters of your existence; would you be more careful about what you take in? If artists overstood arts power to create and decipher reality, would they be more careful of what they created?
If art reflects life, where in the mirror can we take a real look at the life and times of North American Africans? One would assume that this would most likely come from the life, talent, experience, hands, and minds of Black creatives. We are a tribe that serves many masters. Some of us will do most anything in the name of the mortgage. It’s often called success.
Some artists who view art solely as a means of economic remuneration will tell you they made a clear choice. They chose the “form” of their art that would sell. They make what pays the rent. When one measures success by money alone then indeed as a friend of mine once observed: “The most salacious mainstream artist, is a conscious artist; he’s conscious of the fact he needs to eat.” If money is the ultimate measure of success if your art isn’t making money then you are not a successful artist. If its only entertainment what does it matter; we all know the difference between art and life, right? Art for arts sake?
How should we perceive Sapphire’s treatment of the young North American African males accused of raping a jogger in Central Park? Her vividly brutal depiction of hyper-black male sexuality, black men as beast likened to wolves in a pack, wild things, hot for white girls to the point of falling on a poor innocent and ravishing her, was performed, and awarded. The collection, American Dreams, in which the poem, originally called the Central Park Rapist, and renamed Wild Things, appeared garnered her a lot of attention. So much so that she got a deal for Precious. Here’s the thing, the youngsters she vilified were exonerated, they didn’t rape the jogger. However Sapphire’s rape of the image of North American African men stands unpunished. It in fact was rewarded by a bigger venue, a larger stage, a bigger audience and a payday.
But it’s just entertainment right? We are instructed by what sells. We know the difference between fiction and reality. Nobody believes what they see on stage, on TV, in the movies. It doesn’t matter because they are just stories. In truth these crooked images are a part of the American parcel we are familiar with them, grew up with versions of them, we know what sells.
Somewhere neatly wrapped in this reasoning is an assumption that no one will pay for the truth, no one wants to hear or see it, and it doesn’t matter, pass the Patron and party on, if it ain’t about money it don’t matter.
For the sake of brevity, we will play the extremes. It is obvious that straddling the fence gets splinters into interesting places. Therefore, we will not dwell on folks who play a balancing game of being relevant to all and ending up relevant to none.
I stand myself and my art squarely on the self-defining ground of the slave quarters, and find the ground to be hallowed and made fertile by the blood and bones of the men and woman who can be described as warriors on the cultural battlefield that affirmed their self-worth. As there is no idea that cannot be contained by black life, these men and women found themselves to be sufficient and secure in their art and their instruction.
I have made my choice. The path was laid so clearly I never thought to stray. I have always sought the ground on which I stand, plant me here, I am home. I want to see myself on stage. I want you to see yourself. I want my life to matter. Your life matters to me. There is more than money to consider. The stories have a deeper purpose. They are breadcrumbs, history books, dream catchers, sooth sayers, and they are a method of inter/intra group communication. They form a conversation that is referenced, called upon, should be built upon. I do Black Theater.
We are sufficient. Our stories are sufficient. We have a duty to ourselves and our stories. Who will tell them if we don’t? The answer is simple, any and everybody, or they will not be told. We have paid a cost for being imaged by mainstream media in all its forms since inception in North America. There is a cultural battle being waged by cultural warriors to give us ground on which to stand as Africans, descended of a captured people who heroically survived and prospered in a SorrowLand and we their descendents are alive to tell the tale least it be forgotten. We the seeds of dungeons, alive and well, have a story to tell. We have a duty to that story.
Further, it is that story that holds us. The story matters, and its all a matter of story. A friend from the Middle East stared curiously at all the North American Africans I introduced him to, he was waiting for the chain wearing, gun-toting gangsta’s that Lionsgate has fed him and his countrymen for a hefty profit. He had an image before he came and he was looking for the reflection of that image. The story plays out in fearful white women hiding their purses as young black men walk by and in black elders not feeling safe in the presence of black youth. Even more sadly it serves as a blueprint for youth a one sized suit with a target on the back. We are marketed and we are marketed to. We consume it all.
If you do not know, I will tell you that black theatre in America is alive … it is vibrant … it is vital … it just isn’t funded. Black theatre doesn’t share in the economics that would allow it to support its artists and supply them with meaningful avenues to develop their talent and broadcast and disseminate ideas crucial to its growth. The economics are reserved as privilege to the overwhelming abundance of institutions that preserve, promote and perpetuate white culture.
I tell stories that lift us up. I tell stories with lessons. I tell stories with messages. I tell Black tales. I practice Black Arts. I practice inversion. I am a student of the Diaspora and a devotee to the Griot tradition of ritual story. I practice Nommo, the ancient art of speaking into being. I am battling debilitating stories that box us in either failure or assimilation into a culture in which we aim to be either invisible or the perpetual coon. I tell stories for and about North American Africans. I talk to and about them. It does not matter to me if others listen. It is a way perhaps for them to gather a different understanding. It is a way for those outside my circle to see beyond the stereotypes if they care to. If they come to listen to the tales I choose to tell they will not be coddled, they will not be pandered to, they will bear witness to reality and its consequences, they will be treated to considerations of how things came to be and how we live as a result. I am talking to family about family. It’s an honest conversation dedicated to us seeing ourselves, growing ourselves, celebrating ourselves, praying ourselves up, arming us, feeding us from an overflowing larder of stories big enough to do those things. That is the center of my artistic world. It is where I begin and where I will end. I tell tales about the complexity of our lives, the layers, the rawness of life behind the veil, the reality of being North American African in these days and times.
We are in dire need of messages of survival, victory and transcendence. I try to supply them in a place where the “story” furnished is inconceivably heavy. I create in a space where real life is compelling enough to inspire art, is worthy of artful rendering. I create in a place where the beauty, determination, and the regal spirit of struggle is often unstoried by mainstream press. I do not see that as an accident. My mentor, Marvin X, reminds me that the other side will not tell you when you are winning. Nor are they likely to announce the form and content of warlike assaults on your well-being. I see the battlefield. I have made my choice and I have paid for it.
Access to the tools to create remain a problem for artists like me. Money is an issue. It cost to create art. People have a strange relationship with this fact. I have seen folks blow $100.00 a seat to imbibe swill served by Tyler Perry. I have also had to argue with folks for trying to lowball my performers. I point out they need to pay rent and feed their kids too. I get heated when potential producers ask what do my actors do to pay the rent as if they should not expect to live off creating art. If Perry’s tripe can feed him why shouldn’t artists who care what you eat be able to live off their art as well? You get what you pay for, so if you willingly pay for shit, then that’s all you will be served. If you stopped paying for shit, they would serve something else. If shit is all that’s on the menu you should eat elsewhere or consider a fast. It seems fairly simple but it’s not. In the dearth of positive offerings and in our love of being told stories we become unwitting co conspirators in our own poisoning. We evidence this when we accept and start to play and get paid off the stereotypes we proclaim to disdain. When we consume a steady diet of pimps and thugs balanced by video ho’s and damaged women who are the pitiful and perpetual victims of vicious men grabbing their crotch, rabidly consorting with multiple partners, refusing to raise their kids, as they shoot one another and sell drugs in an endless pursuit of the true American dream, a fly lifestyle, – we become limited in our ability to consider ourselves as anything else. Further, consider it as comfort food for people who want to believe the stereotypes, those who need those images to be consumed as truth in order to justify the conditions in which North American Africans build lives in North America.
So when you see an institution composed of artists who continue to bring you relevant art, the kind that leaves you feeling taller inside, or uncomfortable with the reality you see, consider the dedication it took to bring it to you. Consider the cost they pay to bring you something proper to eat. I can bear witness to the dwindling resources, the fear of stepping out of the box of what sells, the limited number of resources that actually exist for those who tell tales designed to rock boats. In an age that so hardily embraces diversity we seem to only be able to fund things that look the same. Our villains and heroes have run together and the end of stories are as predictable as the potential box office for them. I was not surprised to see the negative reviews of Ntozoke’s work, Colored Girls, peppered with references to the lack of multi-dimensional characters and the failure to offer a view of growth or transcendence. That’s a Perry signature. Tyler Perry has decided where he stands. One day the immense wealth he’s acquired may serve us by him backing story tellers with taller visions. Or perhaps he will understand there are other stories, and he by virtue of his access, is capable of putting more than shit on the menu. Colored girls was not a good indicator of my hopes but I will continue to hope he finds his way to art that matters. Meanwhile I work to balance the crap my better financed brother turns out for our consumption and for the comfort, titillation, and affirmation of a mainstream culture that is heavily invested in the management and marketing of those stereotypes.
That is not a complaint. This is an advertisement. Since the funding sources, both public and private, do not publicly carry avowed missions of exclusion and segregated support, this is obviously either a glaring case of oversight, or we the proponents of black theatre have not made our presence or needs known.
My troupe, The Lower Bottom Playaz, turned 10 this year. Institutions like people have ages and they are expected to become more intelligent, to grow, to stand for something. 2010 has been a year of struggle and triumph. We have grown as artist. We have become more clearly defined. We know who we are. In short, we know the ground on which we stand is a less traveled path. But we know where we are trying to go. We will not settle for making art for the sake of art or because it sells. We are guided by arts own purpose, we are driven to illuminate the breath and complexity of humanity. We have decided to do work that confronts, chronicles, and celebrates the North American African experience. We hope the work is worthy of support by those who want to be entertained and those who wish to be moved. We contribute to diversity by being true to who we are and not trying to blend in the melting pot. We stand up for us, we want to stand out for that. Rather than comfort food we are most content to be hard to digest, troublesome, provoking and unforgettably relevant in a way that makes you want to come back and ponder with us, overstand with us, as we continue to fight to be who we know we need to be in order to matter. We don’t do art for arts sake. We do art that matters.
To paraphrase Sonia Sanchez, Will your story save us?, if not it don’t matter.
References and Suggested reading.
 August Wilson-The Ground on Which I Stand (Excerpt)
 August Wilson-The Ground on Which I Stand (Excerpt)
 August Wilson-The Ground on Which I Stand (Excerpt)
 August Wilson-The Ground on Which I Stand (Excerpt)
Full text at http://www.nathanielturner.com
Why the Wire should be studied and taken off TV by Malik Russell http://www.voxunion.com/?p=3073