Calling in Black: The Trials and Tribulations of Producing Black Theatre

Jefferson School African American Heritage Center’s Charlottesville Players Guild was revived due to a desire of Black artists to tell their stories, to have a place to be their true and authentic selves, to grow as artists. We are committed to doing all of that work, no matter how painful it may be. It is an endeavor that takes time, talent and treasure to make happen. 

Doing theatre is hard. There are so many things that the regular audience member doesn’t think about when they come to see a performance, that must be attended to. The list seems to be never-ending. This is true for any type of live performance. Beyond rehearsal, there is set, props, lights, costumes, promotion, venue, time away from family, personalities, tough conversations and then you have the pressures of real life entering into that artistic space every single minute. Black theater has a whole host of added pressures that no one thinks about. The pressures of being Black in Amerikkka inevitably leaks into every endeavor we choose to be a part of. That includes artistic ones and it should.

Theatre is only successful when we bring those everyday experiences to it and let that feed the work to make it real. Using those experiences to enhance the work we do is what can truly make our experiences real to an audience member no matter their culture or experience. It is through connection to the plight of a character that we can see ourselves in people who do not look like us. This is how we begin to learn to empathize. For Black theatre, this is especially important as our experience is oftentimes misunderstood, misrepresented, lied about or even changed to create a narrative more palatable to the larger audience. 

Black people are forever battling to make their voices heard and their experiences valid. It has been our lot since the Civil War on a major scale, and long before that on the plantations, reservations and within the minds of anyone not Black. When a Black artist undertakes a project, there are considerations that most other artists don’t have to consider. If you’re doing a project in which a character is battling mental illness, it forces you to look at the ways Black people’s trauma has been disproportionately dealt with. It may bring up things for you, realizing that you have trauma not previously realized. If you’re interacting with a character that was raped, you could lose yourself in the facts about how often Black women are raped and no one is brought to justice. How Black women are the least likely to report. If that is also part of your life experience, it can re-traumatize you. If you are stepping into a Black space for the first time after spending your entire career as an artist having to defend yourself constantly from white colleagues who don’t understand your view and will never try to, it can mean that you see attack where there is none. It can result in you traumatizing yourself because you are so ready to defend against an attack that you become paralyzed and unable to move forward with the task at hand.

Being in a Black space doesn’t mean that we still won’t have to deal with someone being anti-Black either. The way we have been taught to think about ourselves, within a white supremacist cishet focused society, can initiate actions that belittle or block other Black folk from growth and agency. Black folk have a saying, “All skin folk ain’t kinfolk.” Any of us can fall prey to it, without realizing we are feeding into a stereotype or allowing an anti-Black situation to continue. 

So I’m going to amend my earlier statement. Doing theatre is hard, but doing Black theatre can break you. It can literally put you in a position to believe you should not be an artist. It can make you question why you do things in the first place because it’s obvious that no one is listening, no one cares and all the hard work and emotional heavy lifting you had to do simply to show up is futile. This society spends almost every minute of every day telling Black people that they are not good enough, smart enough, capable enough, trustworthy enough, talented enough. Black theatre aims to dispel all of those posits and pose other thoughts in their place. It aims to say to a society that devalues or exploits Black skin that not only did we create the basis for everything you enjoy in your life, but we have been the only sect of culture in the world that has continually survived the repeated attempts at spiritual, intellectual, financial and physical genocide. As Maya Angelou said it, “….and still like dust, we rise.”

Why am I talking about this? What’s the point? The importance of this conversation is rooted in the lack of agency Black people feel in their everyday lives to speak their truth, to tell their story, to say, “Something isn’t right.” As Black folk, we are taught to handle our problems on our own. We are taught to rely on ourselves because no one is going to help us and more to the point no one cares about your feelings. Even inside a Black space, it’s hard to let go of that attitude. It’s hard to point out that another Black person is being anti-Black. It’s a relearning that takes a long time and that some of us may never achieve because this society isn’t set up recognize the issue. Inside a Black space, we give each other the benefit of the doubt, because we inherently know the struggles we all deal with outside that door. This also brings to light the importance of supporting one another. We must show up for our own in ways we don’t for anyone else if we are to survive and thrive in a society that has told us time and time again that they have no place for us. That means with your dollar, your voice, your presence, your praise, your thoughts and prayers. We have to start valuing us before anyone else. Or no one will value us at all. 

If you believe in the mission and can offer any of those to our mission, we are grateful. We will follow Ms. Angelou’s advice. And with your help, we will rise.

Published by Leslie M Scott-Jones

Leslie M. Scott-Jones has been writing since her teens. The world premiere of her play “Desire Moments” was part of the 2014 Capital Fringe Festival. She has several titles on Amazon and Book Ends is her first full length novel. She is a black southern woman from Virginia, with all that that entails. She is involved in community theatre, on stage and behind the scenes. She is a mother of two and enjoys her very large and sometimes crazy family.

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