Black theatre is often overlooked. Unlike black literature and cinema, which have both struggled in their own respects to be recognized, theatre is even more ignored and under-appreciated.
And locally, it’s even worse.
But there is a growing effort to make Rochester a better home to black theatre.
“We’ve always been behind the curve when it comes to the stage,” said Paula Herald, a black theatre fan who acted in her youth. “However, I think we’re at a point where that might change. We have more plays, festivals and more interest. I think black theatre can really boom here, but it’s going to take some work.”
Last week, the Bronze Collective Theatre Fest was held at the Multi-Use Community Cultural Center. This week-long theatre festival showcases African-American theatre productions created by area locals. It’s not the only festival; Sankofa Evening of Theatre and Jazz Fest will celebrate 10 years this August and does the same.
“Ive been part of the Sankofa festival and Ive been with the company since the very beginning. I’ve seen it grow from one night to now it’s two weeks. It’s really grown…The talent and the desire is there because we have stories to tell.”
Another local telling these stories is playwright Karen Culley, the author of “The Promise,” a play that examines incarceration and its burden on the black family structure. Jamal, the play’s main character, is a young man in his early twenties that was recently released from prison. He isn’t welcome to stay at his father’s house after his release and instead stays with his paternal grandparents, risking homelessness- a harsh reality that many recently released convicts face.
Culley said she hopes it will resonate with the audience and inspire other black families like the Barnetts to have these difficult conversations in order to facilitate a space where emotions can openly be discussed.
“I was hoping they [the audience] would be engaged, that they would look at their own generations and families and look at places where emotionally healing needs to start,” she said. “I’m hoping we have a dialogue. We have learn how to listen to each other’s emotions without judgment.”
Culley, like many black playwrights, utilizes theatre to explore themes central to the black community. This is a critical component to black theatre, which not only seeks to entertain, but to explain, criticize, question, empower and/or uplift.
This allows audiences to see their issues, culture, and identities not only recognized but often celebrated on stage. This doesn’t happen as often in mainstream or white plays where black characters are relegated to secondary roles or have their identities erased.Instead, black theatre allows this identity to play a central role, as Shaquille Payne and Anderson Allen did in their play “Anatomy of a Black Man” performed last Tuesday, during the Bronze Collective. It was a two-man play that questioned masculinity, black masculinity, vulnerability and much, much more.
“It’s narrative but it’s more than that,” said Payne in advance of the show during the ROC Awards. “What we’re really basically trying to talk about is what it actually means to be a black man.”
However, this discussion is dependent on execution and this is something Rochester creators often struggle with, according to Terry Chaka from the Baobab Cultural Center, an avid black theatre expert.
That doesn’t mean Rochester’s theatre community isn’t talented. If anything, it shows the resilience of black theatre locally. It has had to subsist on the barest of bones, operating at the fringes. Sankofa for instance has grown to two weeks from just a single day. However, because of this there are few opportunities to better actors, writers and others involved in theatre.
Chaka explained that about 50 years ago, funding was created to support black theatre at the city level. In Buffalo, they jumped on the chance, but in Rochester where our social and cultural climate differed, we missed the boat.
“People were just trying to get jobs, ” she said, discussing how here poverty and joblessness ran rampant in the black community. With the focus on working to combat discrimination in the workplace, hiring practices and even housing, the funding was missed out on.
Half a century later and Buffalo has two dedicated black theatre spaces, which not only hosts plays but also offer workshops to better actors and writers. By having a literal home for the theatre, they can move past hosting and focus on bettering everyone involved, making the actors more relatable, the writing more impactful.
In addition to working on little resources, the theatre must fight against the stereotype than anything black must mean its subpar.
“Somebody told us that,” said Chaka. “Look at TV now, who’s got the most popular shows on TV now? Shonda Rhimes. She’s got the best stuff on TV now. Ava DuVernay. So, don’t tell us we can’t do something. The fear is actually when we do something, we do it bette than. When we set our minds to it, I don’t care if it’s doing a sport, I don’t care what, we gone blow them out of the water.”
“We didn’t grow up seeing our stories on tv,” said Herald. “So when you’re taught that what’s on TV is cool, or worth discussing what’s that say for our stories? We’ll deal with everything in our lives and then go watch people deal with much less on TV. How does that make sense?”
While other cities may have a headstart, the black theatre locally shows a persistence and desire to fight back into the conversation as Thomas mentions. While the festivals allow the conversation to grow further, locally the conversation just needs to grow. We are a few decades behind other cities, who actually received funding to build this infrastructure, however persistence and collaboration can go far. From sharing the event with friends to buying tickets for youth, there are many ways to get involved.
“Rochester is home to great black history, and there have been some excellent stories to happen here,” said Herald. “We just need to believe they’re worth telling and stop waiting for other people to tell them.”