July 18, 2006

Theater talk: Networking in African-American theater is more than putting on a show

The Black Theatre Network conference: features many noted theater professionals, including Paul Tazewell. Tazewell designed costumers for the Broadway musical “The Color Purple,” which includes the dance sequence pictured here.“I’m never going to do this again.” Lundeana Thomas recalls making this pronouncement in 1988 after organizing her first conference for the newly formed Black Theatre Network, which took place in Atlanta.At the time, Ethel Pitts Walker, the organization’s founding director and a San Jose State University professor, challenged Thomas’ declaration. And she was right. This year, Thomas has not only organized the conference but also worked to bring it to Louisville for the first time.The conference opens next Thursday and runs over five days. More than 50 theater artists, academic professionals and arts administrators will offer performances, lectures, acting workshops and auditions for professional work, for the benefit of more than 200 attendees from the United States, Canada, Europe and Africa. Also on the schedule is a round-table discussion with representatives from several Louisville theater groups.The theme is “A Celebration of Ritual and Design,” which will focus the conference on theater design and other technical aspects of the art form for the first time, says Greg Horton, the organization’s current president and an assistant professor at North Carolina A&T University.He and Thomas, who directs The University of Louisville’s African-American theater program, worked together to include several luminaries of American theater, including Paul Tazewell, who was nominated for a Tony award for his costume design in the Broadway musicals “The Color Purple” and “Bring in ‘Da Noise, Bring in ‘Da Funk.” Tazewell also designed costumes for acclaimed productions of “A Raisin in the Sun,” “Caroline or Change,” “Elaine Stritch at Liberty” and “Def Poetry Jam,” and worked in Louisville, designing costumes for Actors Theatre’s 1991 production of “King Lear.” Ruth E. Carter, who will speak at the conference banquet next Friday, was nominated for Academy awards for work in Steven Spielberg’s “Amistad” and Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X.”Tazewell accepted his invitation to give the conference’s keynote speech because there are so few venues to talk about the opportunities in design for African-American theater, and for African Americans who want to design. “It’s a rarity to discuss designers of color because there are so few,” he says.Carlyle Brown: whose work has appeared in Actors Theatre of Louisville's Humana Festival of New American Plays, also will speak.Thomas says the organization helps foster understanding of African-American history among theater and academic professionals, as well as students, by showing how that history has been represented through sound and image and academic work examining African-American theater.“You find this history embedded here in Louisville,” Thomas says, explaining that T.D. Rice, a white actor known for creating the blackface form of comedy in the early 1800s, did so after visiting Louisville and mimicking an African American he saw dance and sing a song ending with the chorus: “Weel about and turn about and do jis so. Eb’ry time I weel about I jump Jim Crow.”This history led the organization to include a panel next Thursday afternoon, which will “roast” Rice and discuss the effect of minstrelsy on African-American theater. Among the panelists is Carlyle Brown, who founded the Minneapolis-based Carlyle Brown & Company and penned “Pure Confidence,” a play presented during Actors Theatre of Louisville’s 2005 Humana Festival of New American Plays. “We’ll look at the question, ‘If T.D. Rice were here today, what would we say to him?’” he says, adding that he plans to offer some provocative ideas in his presentation.This will be Brown’s first time at a Black Theatre Network conference, but not his first time in Kentucky. He attended Kentucky State University before transferring to New York University, and he’s visited Louisville several times to work with ATL and the planned Kentucky Center for African-American Heritage. He’s written two scripts for the heritage center, focusing on the Walnut Street clubs and the history of the black church in Kentucky.He sees African-American theater as a vehicle for change, not only within the African-American and white communities but in the community at large, because it prompts more discussion after the curtains have closed.Photo by Elizabeth Kramer: Lundeana Thomas, director of U of L's African-American theater program, led efforts to bring the conference to Louisville.Even local leaders believe the conference can encourage dialogue and a greater awareness of African-American theater in Louisville. State Rep. Darryl Owens, D-Louisville, who in 2001 urged Thomas to propose holding the conference here, hopes it helps young African Americans see all of the opportunities available in theater and imagine how they can contribute to the local arts scene. “The arts are just so important to our community and to our development,” he says.C’lest Lanier, director of the Kentucky Center for African-American Heritage, echoes those ideas about the conference, which she plans to attend. She hopes to tap into the talent there and find people who can help with programming at the Kentucky Center for African-American Heritage.But over Thomas’s busy days to bring top theater professionals to town and make sure they connect with the community, she hasn’t lost sight of her goals as a representative of the University of Louisville. “Our job as educators is to teach students so that they realize that this is a global world,” she says. “We need to be preparing students for the globe and not just for Kentucky.” For a detailed schedule of the conference, visit www.blacktheatrenetwork.org. Contact the writer at ekramer@leoweekly.com.