I've seen several plays lately that bring up "The Color Question" in local theater circles, and I'd like to consider some positive developments.
First of all, there have been some surprisingly effective plays --- in general-audience theatres --- that tackled race problems head-on. I mean Zeitgeist's "Chain" Company 1's "Jesus Hopped The 'A' Train" and The New Rep's "No Niggers, No Jews, No Dogs". (That last will probably be a strong candidate for several awards at the IRNE Bash next March.) And two different Community Theatre Companies have announced intentions to produce competing productions of "Ragtime" that has, in a sense two-and-a-half roles that must be played by Black performers --- Coalhouse Walker, his wife, and his little son.
Frankly, for several years back, for a company to announce any of these plays would be chancy on simple grounds of casting. The actors in this area who happened to be Black --- both Equity and non-equity --- were working all the time all over the New England map, because there were so very few of them. They were, of course, very good; the best way to learn to act or to get better at it is simply To Act, and these people had a lock on a unique slot no one else could challenge. But schedules were so full that, sometimes, companies had to juggle their rehearsal schedules around those of other companies, or have a major figure step into the role only a week or two before performance. The pool just wasn't big enough, and sometimes for that reason people who might want to do a play requiring a Black face simply put it off.
That may be changing.....
Three new companies make me optimistic:
Back in the coldest dead of last winter, I went two subway-stops in-town to see this company do "The Wiz". I was disappointed, and embarrassed. There were many bright spots (mainly the young lady playing the lead), but many that didn't work at all.
Luckily, I made a mistake and turned up the last Night of the run, expecting to see a group of one-acts that actually played not that night but that afternoon. I saw "The Wiz" again --- which I fully expected would give me that uneasy feeling of "deja-HAD"
Ghod, was I wrong!
Director Lois Roach and her cast had literally re-created the entire show, until it sang.
Now, it was important, I think, that this show was done in the huge (and arctically cold!) auditorium of Roxbury Community College, down the road from one of Boston's major Black high-schools. And it's important that they chose "The Wiz" which is a big-cast Black re-creation of a lily-white classic full of star-turn parts. It was, in essence, the perfect Community-Theatre vehicle. So, here was a "community theatre" show actually done for its Community, who loved it!
Now, one of the truths people rarely admit about Community Theatre is that they do big-cast shows because every member of the cast and the crew can generate two to six ticket-buying relatives who will Love The Show simply because they know someone in the cast. And, More Power To Them! There may be a lot of "amateur audience" in the hall, but such a house-full of paying customers can pay for the next show.
And there's an awful lot of logic in a Black company admitting it's a "COMMUNITY Theatre"!
Not only does Our Place concentrate on Black plays and Black performers, that Black Audience is really important. When I see plays, the sprinkling of Black faces in the audiences with me is, well, minimal. Black people probably get their entertainment kicks from television and music, and they may not feel welcome enough in expensive Broadway-house seats to get bitten by the live-theaer bug.
Shows like "The Wiz" could change that, and get a few more of them over to the BCA and the Tremont Theatres where admission is bearable and performances are excellent. We can hope, at least.
When I finally found the theater-space where "Fences" was being performed out at UMass Boston, I thought "community theatre" all over again. But the audience was only half-full, probably due to the long T-trip it took to get there.
Still, the cast had seven Black faces, and August Wilson's play was full of types a Black audience would find familiar --- just as I did. So in a sense, I found myself musing that this was that Other Kind of typical community theatre fare --- an artistically meaty show that would stretch and satisfy both the actors and the members of the audience. As such, I thought this second production of a very new company was on a high community-theatre level: the cast understood the show, they settled comfortably into their characters, and while I saw nothing exceptionally brilliant, I was nothing exceptionally embarrassing. For such a big cast in a company's second production, that is much higher praise than it sounds.
My complaint, though, is that it was just in the wrong place. It should have transferred to Roxbury Community College, where I and the many people in the area could have found and appreciated it's discovery of interesting Black characters being themselves.
After seeing "Jesus Hopped The 'A' Train" at the BCA, I stuck around, listening to Kay Bourne and David Wheeler talking about the show (He'd seen it in London), and then listened to them talk with Vincent Ernest Siders, who proudly noted in his bio that he "is the newly appointed Artistic Director of New African Company, and he looks forward to continuing in its long tradition of integrity, education, community service and expression of spirit."
I heard David Wheeler explain that, back when we were both a Lot younger and he Was The Theatre Company of Boston, he and actor Gus Johnson brought someone named James Spruill to Boston to found that company, with which they did a production of "Benito Cerreno" with a script by Robert Lowell. I remember New African doing "El Hajj Malik" and other plays as well back then, and maybe a play by Ed Bullins at The Elma Lewis School, and recently one or two productions in the Boston Marathon.
Jim Spruill is a huge legend in Boston, and may still be a tenured, tough teacher in the B.U. Theatre Department. I'm very glad he's passed the baton to a tall, stringy, brilliant young actor who wants to Get things Done. Break A Leg Vincent Siders!
So I expect there soon will be THREE Black-oriented theatrical companies bringing their works to life here in Boston. That means a lot more Black actors finding work here, and a lot more Black faces in their audiences.
And I have a dream.
I dream that all three of these companies will unite, divide up the canon, and do every one of August Wilson's cycle of plays, in chronological order, down at Roxbury Community College where I can see them all with a two-staion ride on the orange Line.
And you can see them too.
What a dream...... !