Making a Place for Black Theatre in Austin
illustrations by Robert Faires
In his speech, "The Ground on Which I Stand," the playwright articulates all that he believes is wrong with the relationships between African-Americans and the national theatrical framework: Black theatre is not funded. Black history is being assaulted. Critics are woefully ignorant of black theatrical forms. Pretty heady stuff for a magazine that usually reads like a gossip column.
The article was difficult to finish. I kept having to stop, equally angered by Wilson's accusations that a white theatre establishment was consciously keeping black theatre off America's stages and repelled by my own ignorance of black theatrical forms. I thought this was a battle in its mopping-up phase instead of an ongoing fight over cultural identity. Wilson's words threw me into a rage and a fit of embarrassment.
It made me open my eyes and look, not at the national scene, which somehow seems to have little impact on theatre in Texas, but at Austin, a city with a thriving arts community that, with dozens of performing arts groups, seems to welcome a wide range of voices. Or, perhaps, that is simply the way the surface looks to a white heterosexual female from the Northeast.
To get a more informed view, I sat down with three of our city's prominent black theatre artists: Boyd Vance, an actor and director for 20 years in Austin, now artistic director of the Progressive Arts Collective; Dr. Joni L. Jones, UT Speech Communication Assistant Professor, performance artist, and dramaturg for First Stage Productions' Shakin' the Mess Outta Misery; and Daniel Alexander Jones, Frontera@Hyde Park Theatre company member, director of Shakin' the Mess Outta Misery, and author of Blood:Shock:Boogie and the upcoming FronteraFest effort Ambient Love, in which Dr. Jones performs. Our starting point was Wilson's speech and the rebuttal by Robert Brustein, artistic director of American Repertory Theatre and New Republic theatre critic, published in a subsequent issue of American Theatre, but our real purpose was to talk about where black theatre is in this town and where it could be going. After two hours, we emerged from the Victory Grill into a bright November day and I had to figure out how to condense a massive amount of material into a relatively small space without skewing the thought behind the words, words that may not truly resonate with me because of the color of my culture. "I'm praying that we've been real careful in what we've said," remarked Vance at the end of the discussion. "Hopefully, it will cause thought and spiritual growth." Hopefully, we will all start to figure out all of the conflicting ideas we may have swimming around in our own suddenly full minds.
Austin Chronicle: Personally, why do you do
Joni Jones: I think it is part of my contribution to changing things. I think I have a certain set of tools and skills that I can share with other people and help them expand themselves. As cliché and trite as it is, I do theatre to make this a healthier place to live.
Daniel Jones: Every incarnate spirit has a purpose, and I decided that this is what I do. I couldn't do anything but this. And I agree wholeheartedly with what Joni said, that there must be work that impacts the world and we impact the world by impacting communities, by impacting one another on an individual level. Theatre, I think, is the perfect medium for doing that because it's a human medium. It does not have to involve technology, and it has the potential to create massive and powerful change within the individual, who then can affect the broader community.
AC: So how do you feel African-American theatre is being developed in Austin? Is it?
Boyd Vance: The thing that is interesting about August Wilson's speech is, in many ways, some of the denial that he talks about – how whites accepted the civil rights movement but ignored the black power movement, how there is work that we present for white people that is what white people want to see and then there is work that we do within our own houses – is really critical if you want to begin to discuss Austin theatre. The other part of it is, when you talk about the stuff that we do for ourselves, for our own houses, for us to play ourselves as black people, then really the civil rights movement and the black power movement, as it affects Austin, has made us confused about our own house.
JJ: I love it. We don't know what house we're in.
BV: Consequently, the problem is -- number one: If we want to pretend that everyone is equal here, on some level, and that everybody is the same, then to assert our self identities becomes very culturally negative for the general population.
Two, as African-American artists, because we are so busy trying to reach status quo and to be accepted by the general population, we have not learned how to communicate with each other as African-Americans. In order to achieve in the big world, we try to get there first and be the only one; we try to remain exotic because we figure if there aren't more of us around, then they are going to need me and need me only. But then, when it comes time to create our art together, we make high judgments on what we say to each other, how we say it, who we think we are when we say it, who does he think he is, in ways that we never would have called upon a white person. Being white gives you a certain amount of credentials that we will follow what you say. But being a black person, no matter what your age is or what your credentials are, we judge each other. Therefore, we cannot work together as a people because we have programmed ourselves not to be able to do that.
And that's problematic in talking about community and creating together because, somehow or another, I think black people need to acknowledge that Daniel Alexander Jones being a wonderful artist does not invalidate Boyd Vance as an artist. When we come to terms and say that, as black people, we are going to move forward. Somehow we've gotten confused, so that if I say Joni Jones is outstanding then that means that something is diminished in my reality.
DJ: Again, I am a relative outsider to the Austin community. I first came here in '94, in the summertime, and was a summertime person. I moved here this May. And also being from the Northeast, I come from a completely different background. So not only did I enter a city that I did not know, I also entered a Southern culture that I knew only by virtue of having Southern roots in my family. I didn't grow up in the South and there is a whole other thing to actually living in that environment. It's been a trip on a number of different levels for me as a person.
The thing about Austin spiritually for me has been that I have been blessed to come into contact with so many black artists. It's been a phenomenon to me. As my homey-ace Shay Youngblood says, "There's a rung on the ladder for each of us." I've never had the concept that one and one and one should fight because there's no reason for it. And there's really room for all of us to do our work. I came here and got to work with Zell [Miller], Cynthia Taylor-Edwards, and then I met Sharon Bridgforth and root wy'mn and began to see Sonja Parks' work and got to meet Dr. Jones, having heard about her before. Having a sense that there was a real strong tradition, if not necessarily of a broad-based black theatre based here, certainly a tradition of artists who had a commitment to a community, a commitment to developing art.
I was like, "Wow. This is a move." Having lived here longer, I see that, like every community, there are difficulties in communication and difficulties because there are only so many people who are going to put down a dollar and buy a ticket to see a show. You need them to come see your show because you have to support your show, but then if they go to your show and they don't go to his show [pointing to Vance], then it's "Who does he think he is?" and "Who does she think she is?" That type of thing is in the soil, the soil of our oppression, and we are made to chase after crumbs. When we really all deserve our own cake. As artists in general in America, artists right now are made to do that, too, so when you add [being black] – we're sort of living under a double construct here, of having to deal with being black artists and artists in the larger American context, both of whom are marginalized. So we're double marginalized and trying to make a meal. That isn't going to happen too easily.
But I think the positive thing that I've noticed is that there is an effort on the part of many people to take the risk to put their hand back out again, to extend a hand to try to form community and to try to form the basis for work. Certainly, I think that some of the work that's happening here is of an extremely high quality. I look at root wy'mn, and root wy'mn is certainly on the vanguard of a type of theatre happening in this nation, and that's just one example. I'm sure that in all of the work we are doing, I know you are a national artist, Boyd, and I'm sure that your work has impacted across the country. And I know, Joni, that your work as a scholar and an artist – there are not people doing what you're doing. This is a type of thing that is important about Austin. There are people here who are doing something unique in the larger framework. At the same time, also in the framework of black theatre. There is something to be cherished here in Austin.
The problem is, as with everywhere else, when it comes to dealing with mainstream black theatres, and then dealing with the critical discourse, you run into the sort of trendy multicultural thing, where it does become about "Do you cast a black actor or do you do one black show or do you invite black artists into a dialog with your institution that is going to change the nature of what your institution is at its core?" And, of any solutions, that is very rare.
The critical discourse, too, I've found to be very frustrating because of the cultural imperialist and ignorant assessment of work here on the part of all black artists that I've read in these newspapers. It infuriates me. That people are so reductive in terms of what their views of what black culture is and so completely unschooled in the form and aesthetic journey that black art has taken in the last 25-30 years. Unless you fall down on the ground and call to Jesus, you're not doing a black play.
There are certainly avant-garde forms that are parallel to the form in music, in art, in politics even, that are present in the development of our theatre. It bothers me only because we as artists who see mainstream white theatre, who are supposed to comment upon mainstream white theatre on panels, on boards, on granting panels, are supposed to know the latest and most current development in avant-garde work and performance art. And you can't visit my house and tell me what it means. Do your own homework.
I'm tired of being a teacher or instructor as well as an artist with intelligent, well-versed artists and/or theatres. Do your own work. And if you're going to invite me in the house, or Boyd or Joni in the house, you better be prepared for us to be in the house. We are going to move the furniture. Definitely. In addition to the fact that we are going to do our own work.
BV: It's very important – we need black directors, black designers, and black technical people, that work has to be created, and what is happening right now is that unless we create the work ourselves, we're not getting the work. Frontera may be doing that, but the real deal is that in the house in which some of this stuff is being produced, all black people are the artists that are being hired. There's been a nomadic tradition in Austin, where we go from one theatre to another. How can we begin to develop community? Because that's the way we're going to access the community in other ways.
DJ: On some level, until "white America" – it is a generalization and I don't like to make them – until America as a whole deals with the experience of slavery and what it did in this country and how it is still as present with us today as air, we are never going to move forward in our dialog. Never. It has been tried and tried and tried again to bring that to the forefront. Brustein liked Martin Luther King because Martin Luther King said it nice. He tried to bring it to the forefront. And there were other people who didn't say it nice, who said it with as much vigor and truth as they could muster, who brought this discussion to the table. It's there. And it's got to be dealt with. I think that until that discussion happens, in all aspects of our work, we are never going to move forward. That's why you have to have your own, because as long as you stay in that relationship of being in one way or another subject to the whims of someone who is producing, your work is not going to have a certain degree of efficacy. You're not going to have the impact that you need to have within your own community. Hopefully, there can be new models. I think there are. There are people doing their own work, who are more or less institutions. With younger generations who are sick of the same old system trying to find new language, to build a new machine and throw the old one out. But nonetheless, those discussions have to happen. Certainly within my relationship with Frontera – we talk real. It's not pretty all of the time. There are times when racism rears its head and has to be called out. Those things have to happen. But if we continue to play in this kind of model, as Abby Lincoln said, they keep us around because they need us to bring the jazz, then there's always that, for lack of a better word and I mean this in the scientific sense, parasitic relationship between the dominant and the quote-unquote subcultures of this country. Once you suck a thing dry, you have to go on to the next thing. Period.
JJ: Throw that chicken bone away.
BV: And then what happens is we have to watch where they throw the bone because we have to put the meat back on the bone.
BV: And rebuild the community. That's what some of this is about. Austin is a very different place. And I would say, again, it's a cultural hotbed and many things can happen here. But, I imagine, 20 years from now it's going to be really different. Somehow we, as black people, have to rebuild and get people to come out and really know the power of theatre, the power of African-American theatre. And how to do that without financial resources and our mentality right now.
JJ: One of the things I need to say, and I'm not even sure who sparked the comment – I know that this analogy is not perfect, but I return to it a lot because I think, for me, there are some things I need to explore in it. Feminism has managed to get institutional support. It has managed to be in our academies. It's a word that people use and have some sense of what they mean when they use it. And perhaps behind closed doors, men may be saying, "I wish those women would shut up." But men are not writing that. They're not bodacious enough to go out there and say, "Will women please stop complaining, you got the right to vote, will you shut up and have some babies?" I think there is something huge about the fact that this white man [Brustein] can say, "Black people, can you please just get over it? The slave quarters have been razed. Can you get over it?"
The hook-up I'm trying to make between feminism, and I don't know what hook to put on it, and blackness, is that I think that because of heterosexuality men and women have been forced into a dialog. Their needs are going to propel them. They've got to have some kind of conversation around gender and sex. I think it's really very healthy. But since black people and white people do not have a vested interest in one another, we don't have to do anything together. We don't have to. White folks aren't forced, then, to examine themselves as white people. Men have been forced to examine themselves as men, and what it means to be male. White people are not pushed to that. They've been pushed, but they won't do it. They won't hold up the mirror.
BV: Another part of this is that the way we have culturally progressed as black people, we may not be forced to look at ourselves culturally either. As long as we can run to the white person, as long as we can find a sort of cultural security in dependence, unless we feel culturally compelled, if we have a sense of community and really want to know.
You asked us why we do this. When we have a sense of why we do this, then we will come together. But as black people in general, we don't necessarily have a need. Artists don't have to pay attention to my work. But in the old days, we were a community because of the way the lines were drawn by the powers that be. Since those lines have dropped, it's become a very muddy issue. We don't know what house we're in.
DJ: And who took our sugar out of our house and is serving it with coffee over there. That's one of those cultural forms and ideas, like Brustein is saying; the idea that is signified, I think, by his text is that there is some sort of smorgasbord or beautiful laid-out table culturally that you can just pick and choose from. Everybody can just take some and share. But you've got to know when you eat that you have to eat it with this bread because that's the way this has been done for 1,500 years. Unless you eat these things together, you don't get the full protein. There are traditions. There are lines. There are contexts. There are rituals. There are motifs that belong to the cultural aspect you are taking. And unless you have a honest and earnest dialogue with the culture or the cultures inside the culture, you're transgressing something huge. And that transgression is the thing that rubs me the wrong way as an artist. When I go to a play and see an altar in a play that doesn't have a concept linking it to the reality that the altar comes out of, and I just see the altar, I'm like, "Wait a minute. Do you all know what you're doing?" Not that you can't use the altar, but if you're going to use the altar, know what the altar is there for. Do your homework.
Shakin' the Mess Outta Misery runs through Feb 8 at The Public Domain. Ambient Love Rites will be performed in Frontera Fest Feb 4 & 5 at Hyde Park Theatre. The ProArts Collective photo exhibit BlackStage: African-Americans in Central Texas Theatre 1975-1995, opens at the Austin History Center Jan 31.