Saving Black Theater

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  • African-American theater groups from New England to Texas will unite Monday with one voice to call attention their plight and raise funds for support, presenting James Baldwin’s Amen Corner, all on the same night.

    This is the second year for Project 1 Voice, launched in 2010 by New York-based stage actor Erich McMillan-McCall. In the first Project 1 Voice production of Trouble in Mind in 2011, 18 theater companies participated. This year, 25 theaters are participating, McMillan-McCall said.

    “This is a day of solidarity. It’s about bringing voices together to preserve the legacy and tradition of black theater and the black playwright,” McMillan-McCall told BlackAmericaweb.com.
     
    “Project 1 Voice is part fund raising, part audience development, part raising awareness,” McMillan-McCall said. “Each year they (African-American theaters) are dwindling on our watch.”

    He came up with the idea of doing one play across the country on one day, a couple of years ago after returning from a touring production of Dirty Dancin’ and finding it difficult to land other roles.

    “I was unemployed. There was a lack of work, and I wasn’t the only black actor facing that problem,” he said. “Instead of just complaining, I wanted to do something about it. I started calling theater companies across the country. Most of them didn’t know me from Adam. But I told them about my idea. Eighteen said yes.”

    The survival and support of black theater in America is imperative, McMillan-McCall says. “We are the ones who can best tell our stories,” he said.

    While black actors and playwrights have gained prominence in mainstream theater, African-American theater fuels Broadway and it tells America the African-American story, said Marcia Pendleton, founder of Walk Tall Girl Production and a specialist in marketing black theater in New York.

    “Without black theater, you would not have stars such as Samuel L. Jackson and Denzel Washington. They all came out of black theater,” Pendleton told BlackAmericaweb.com.

    She is working with the New York production that will be directed by Walter Dallas, artist in residence at the University of Maryland and a close friend of James Baldwin before his passing in 1987.

    “It’s fitting for Project One Voice to present The Amen Corner this year, which marks the 25th year of Baldwin’s passing,” Dallas said. The play captures a picture of African-American life and is told through Baldwin’s unique style of eloquence and culture. It will be presented with a star-filled cast in the Lynch Auditorium at John Jay College.

    “Everyone is donating everything for this production,” Dallas told BlackAmericaWeb.com. Money raised through the production will go to benefit several African-American theater groups in the New York area, he said.

    The 65-year-old Dallas has worked with both African-American and mainstream theater groups.

    When he worked with Centerstage in Baltimore, if there was a shortfall in the budget, the board members sitting around the table would pull out their checkbooks and immediately raise what was needed.

    “You would see them pull out the check books and say, ‘you gave $20,000 last time, I’ll do the same,’” he said. “Before you know it, they would have the funds.”

    African-American theater companies typically do not have that same kind of deep pocket support, Dallas said.

    “Theater presents magic, and it takes a lot of money to make that magic happen,” Dallas said. “The cost of an admission ticket does not cover the cost of putting on a full production.”

    Although many of the African-American theaters across the country face financial troubles from time to time, Dallas said he is encouraged by the new voices that continue to emerge in theater and in spoken word.

    “We are challenged, but I don’t think we are anywhere near dying,” Dallas said.  “We may lose two or three in a year. But  as long as that youthful blood is there, our story will be told. It will be preserved.”
     

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