NATIONAL BLACK THEATRE Interview with Sade Lythcott and Jonatan McCrory
Founded by visionary Dr. Barbara Ann Teer in 1968, National Black Theatre (NBT) is a nationally recognized cultural and educational institution. Dr. Teer pioneered “the healing art of Black theatre as an instrument for wholeness in urban communities where entrepreneurial artists of African descent live and work.” In 1983, Dr. Teer expanded the vision of NBT by purchasing a 64,000-square-foot building on 125th Street and Fifth Avenue (renamed “National Black Theatre Way” by local law in 1994). This was the first revenue-generating Black arts complex in the country, an innovative arrangement through which for-profit businesses who shared NBT’s spiritual and aesthetic values rented retail space to subsidize the arts. Out of her vision, NBT houses the largest collection of Nigerian New Sacred Art in the Western hemisphere and is considered the authentic representation of a model whose time has come. Throughout its rich history, NBT has maintained a strong commitment to creating a space in which new and underrepresented voices can be brought to the forefront to provide unique and diverse perspectives on the myriad critical issues of equity and social justice that affect our nation today. During the past 50 years, NBT has produced over 300 original works, toured globally and launched international extensions, like the National Black Theatre of Sweden. NBT is supported by grants from the Ford Foundation, New York Community Trust, Howard Gilman Foundation, Jerome Foundation, Andrew Mellon Foundation, City Council of New York, City of New York Department of Cultural Affairs, Columbia Service Society and private donations. Visit www.nationalblacktheatre.org and follow NBT on Facebook (@NationalBlackTheatre), Twitter @NatBlackTheatre, and Instagram @NatBlackTheatre.
Together both Jonathan and Sade head up the enormous responsibility of the National Black Theatre (NBT). No small task. I had the pleasure of interviewing artistic director Jonathan McCrory and executive director Sade Lythcott through a zoom meeting. I was continually impressed with their unassuming presence and dedication to their work. Here are two genuine artists who have constructed their lives to serve their community, give voice to emerging artists, create a vision for equality, and Black empowerment through the arts.
INCLUSION / Dog whistle
Performing Arts Companies across Canada and the United States are just now beginning to acknowledge their history of inequity. We keep hearing this word “inclusion” in the conversation. If inclusion means just casting Black actors in white roles, nothing is accomplished. In your words, what has to happen?
With the idea of creating space for inclusion there are a couple of assumptions that have to be made at the table.
One is this problematic notion inside American theatre of going to other peoples tables instead of creating a table for yourself. One that acknowledges our own indigenous practice. We have been brainwashed to believe we have to go outside of ourselves in order to find something that is worthy, or profound, or some kind of resonance of truth, or “quote unquote” excellent, which is an oppressive word in itself.
The false notion of integration: that it provides this great opportunity to lead to one healed society. But from my vantage point, what is the cost of that integration?
I remember stories form my grandmother, around when things were segregated, how she worked and built with the neighbourhood, the doctor, the psychiatrist, the farmer. How they were able to coalition together their abundance of opportunities to learn from each other to be able to not have this classism. Not to romanticize it. It wasn’t perfect. There are a lot of issues around it, but when we start to think about integrating people, what are we integrating people into?
Have we acknowledged the scars, issues that an integrated space has had. Are we willing to create a space that decentralizes the capitalistic white gaze of oppression. If we are not willing to have those conversations, it can easily become hurtful, and can create, the new buzz word, anti-black spaces. Instead of creating a holistic space that brings everyone to the table. A table that allows everyone to have a place in the seat.
The terms equity, inclusion, diversity for people of color have become dog whistles for agendas and are not about healing or creating safe spaces. In the case of inclusion, often times it is a dog whistle for erasure. This idea of integration is really more a part of yes, if we can speak around equity, then inclusion makes sense. But inclusion without equity, is an invitation for erasure. Because those spaces are not equitable and therefor they are not safe. The other thing to think about when we talk about these terms, also inherently as a dog whistle, is centring whiteness. Diversity in service of what? Inclusion in service of what?
If the American theatre field has been shaped by a white gaze, then again, we are in in a conversation around our labour in service to, as opposed, to having conversations around the sharing of power and dismantling of structural bias, oppression and racism.
In general, what the American theatre feels and what we need to do is stop and pause. We are all using the same language, but, we are defining the words very differently. We think we are on the same page. We think we are on the same front lines. But until we define these words, and the direction we should be moving, we are in fact stumbling in different directions. We have an opportunity to say “hey I am using this word you are using this word”. But, is it actually the same thing? And that is reflective of the values that we want to see in the world. The values we want to see moving forward. Yes to inclusion, but, yes to equity at the root of it.
I AM SOUL
I AM SOUL – Playwrights Residency Program is the only program in the country that is dedicated to Black playwrights, whose work demonstrates exceptional artistic merit and excellence in the theatrical field, with a commitment to a production.
The I Am Soul Residency germinated seven years ago with the desire and need to give a Black artist leadership to unleash their soul on paper. To be given the keys to commit to creation and to produce it. It is an 18 month program.
The first playwright in residence was Mfonsio Udofia. You start well, you know the beginning very well, and the end will not trouble you. For our first playwright, we chose very well. She is a very beautiful, talented, smart and now accomplished writer, at this juncture in her career. She was just emerging when we chose her. We gave her an eighteen month residency to create her piece titled “Her Portmanteau.” Here was an actress who wanted to anchor her cultural heritage. The play was written in 30 per cent Edibio which is one of the languages spoken in Nigeria. She had never had the opportunity to do this before, and that was the desire to create a piece in her native tongue of Edibio. She actually challenged us. “Why would I use the colonizers tongue?” “How can I write from my soul in order to actually say my voice and really pin it and not really be able to release it?”
If you go to the opera you don’t know anything that is being said and yet we will pay $200 for a ticket and expect to be engaged the whole time.
Through the rigour and beauty of that partnership and the vision that Sade and I both had of what the NBT can and will be for the American Theatre, we invested into this program. Seven years later we have this roster of very accomplished and beautiful playwrights who have created important work in American Theatre. Writers who have pushed the notion of how Black Bodies can be represented. What does it mean to invest in independent playwrights? And to push the notion of what does Black Liberation look like inside the theatrical form.
We have now evolved from one to three playwrights. This year we just awarded three playwrights the residency. And because of that program it launched a ripple effect of a larger three pronged program. The I Am Soul residency was the first. It was the first, but it launched the Soul Series Lab and from there we created a program for directors. The Soul Directing program is an 18 month program to help emerging to mid career Black directors to be given a substantial opportunity in New York city to be able to hone and sharpen their skills. Also the Soul Producing program, which is a ten month residence for a Black producer to be able to own the idea and space of being a cultural producer.
Understanding that many Black and Brown people do not see themselves as producers, as they harness and hone the western idea that you need to have the financial resources. However, producing, as we all know, is a wide spectrum of net working, of vision, and being able to create teams, and being able to imagine actually. We like to call it cultural producing. Being able to train the next wave of cultural producers, understanding that the Black experience is a wealth capital that many people build off of. That wealth capital is something that many Black and Brown people have connectivity to. So why not that be the lens of which you produce from?
There is a famous poem by Maya Angelou called “The Mask”. The Mask is this poem around how Black people have to wear a mask. We also mask our pain, our experience, in order to be delightful in all of the spaces by which we occupy. Lab stands for Liberating Artistic Bravery. The idea that in this critical junction of emerging and mid career Black artists we would invite them to take off their masks. And what radical imagination looks like when you actually feel safe and when you actually don’t feel like your very presence does not have to be performative. It is an invitation that Black people do not often get to have. It is also an invitation that when we do get that, we are having a conversation about what resources we have to sacrifice in order to live that safely. So we wanted to do this grand experiment in the vein of a laboratory, this incredible experiment of what it would look like to decentralize the white gaze. What would it look like to create a safe and sacred space while inviting them to take the mask off? That is why it is such a unique residence.
BECOMING ARTISTIC DIRECTOR
In my junior year of high school the chair of the department asked “What do you want to be when you grow up Jonathan?” I knew I wanted to go to NYU to study musical theatre. I ultimately wanted to run a theatre in Harlem that had their own space and as the director, help build my artistic birthright that I felt robbed from. At that time, there wasn’t a space that felt like me, not as a Black person, but my kind of contemporary at the time, my spry naiveté. I wanted to help build that. I got here because I seeded it at a very young age. I had been asking the universe, knowing or unknowing, to work to, inspire to, that goal.
In a practical sense, beyond the gumbo ya-ya spiritualness of it all, I went to NYU. I studied musical theatre, all the aspects, lighting, set design. I was a dancer, singer, performer and also a writer. At NYU, I really focused on the performative aspects of my craft and I started the Movement Theatre Company that is still around today. I started to have the conversation around being in leadership as the singular visionary leader, and what that means. Then I started a production company called HARLEM9. All these were collaborative. It was not just me, it was in collaboration with other folks.
I never really centered myself as an artist, for the most part, I centered myself as a community organizer with art as the centered piece. I look back at these years, at how I was not necessarily booking myself as the director, even then. I was the marketing manager for Movement Theatre. For HARLEM9, I did the technical background stuff.
Then I was blessed to have the opportunity and have friends who wanted to centre me, and they produced Blacken The Bubble with a mutual friend of both Sade and myself. She was the godmother to Sade and I adopted her as my godmother.
It was our friend who said “I don’t know, but the universe is telling me , (gumbo yaya re-entering), that you and Sade need to meet. Is it ok if I make the connection?” I said, “yeah sure I would love to meet Sade”.
Sade was not able to see the show that I directed but we met afterwards and we have not left each other’s side since then. It is a kind of partnership that is rare to find, but when you do find it, God bless you! When you do find it, the universe is really telling you that you have found a kinship that is answering your life’s calling. I found my partner to complete some really ambitious work. My partner to help complete what has been really heavy on my heart. So hopefully we will get there, and when my work is done and I have transitioned to the next generation, to who I have become, I can feel that kind of accomplishment. It is quite beautiful our partnership, the trust we have for one another, the dance which we have occupied.
I got here from speaking it into existence, from being rigorous in my approach, but also from being present. I had to create the we space and that is what I have had to consistently do. How to learn to be more of the team rather than the singular I.
Hands Up is a a powerful set of monologues by seven Black playwrights that explore their feelings about the well-being of Black people in a culture of institutional profiling. Jonathan directed Hands Up in 2015.
Hands Up is very near to our hearts. It was a milestone moment. The New Black Fest had been creating these commissioned time sensitive works and NBT actually invested in a production of it and not a reading of it. “Facing Our Truth” was a response to the murder of Trevon Martin and the response to the murder of Mike Brown was the creation of “Hands Up”. We also did a response to the measure of Black and Brown women, ‘UN-TAMED: Hair Body Attitude”, and we produced all three of those. We were the first to produce those works in America as a full production and not as a reading.
Hands Up was in a time and space where we needed collective healing and memory and community. And what was quite beautiful about it was that we were able to merge some of Dr. Teer’s and NBT’s pedagogy around healing and liberation and utilizing the discomfort as a tool for evolution and transformation to really help centre the very charged and very problematic conversation around Black men and police violence. How that erasure effects our psyche and our well being. The show, few were able to produce, allowed for some brilliant male Black actors to come into a space and share their heart through the writing of some very beautiful playwrights. Then to invite the community to have a conversation together after experiencing the work. It was quite moving and it was a short run. It could have gone longer. It toured to the Museum of Moving Images and we went to the National Black Theatre Festival in Winston Salem in North Carolina. Now published in book form, and the artwork on the cover of the published book, was created by the National Black Theatre.
BLUEPRINT AS OPPOSED TO A SHADOW
Sade on following the legacy of her mother, Dr Barabra Ann Teer. It was Dr. Teer who founded the NBT in 1968.
There is no easy answer to that because a duality really exists for me, here. It was incredibly challenging to take on the mantle of the National Black Theatre and yet NBT was the space that I grew up in, and so it was also simultaneously the natural progression of what would happen to the theatre.
I think there is something that young people, you know this millennial generation, the concept that people talk about, which is impostor syndrome. The idea that we show up and try to fill shoes or try to emulate what our perception of leadership should be, or in my case, my perception of what my mother’s vision would be. I seamlessly did that. I was working in fashion, and I seamlessly did it from an industry that wasn’t theatre. I was not very good. I was not good because there was this looming shadow and I was trying to be as big as the shadow of Dr. Teer. But everybody knows the shadow always looms. She was a visionary and a maverick.
When my mum passed away there was an incredible outpouring of support, and grief. One of her friends, and friend to her core, her sister, was Maya Angelou. When auntie Maya heard of her passing, she wrote a poem to be read at my mums funeral. I will read it to you very quickly. This kind of sums up how I felt about the shoes I had to fill.
Auntie Maya says, “Barbara Ann Teer, unique; original; an artist in Life; and an artist at living life…she lit up the screen, the stage or anywhere she chose to be. There is not nor can there be another Barbara Ann Teer and no one can follow her or step in her footprints and fill them. The world is paled by her absence and the company of us who cared for her are weakened by her departure.” It goes on and on and on and it is quite beautiful.
A poem that spoke of my Mum and in the poem she mentions that no one can follow in her footsteps. Can you imagine filling those footsteps? Maya Angelou says don’t even try! It was very rough. It was the reflection of what auntie Maya said after her passing. I revisited her obituary and what I realized was I had to set myself free from trying to fill the footsteps of my mother. Because I couldn’t do it. But, what I could do was bring all of me, put all of my unique gifts, my unique perspective, my ability to distill in the intimate ways in which I knew her to be. What her vision for the theatre to be. I realized I had to set myself free. And this is really advice for everybody.
I partnered with the most genius person I could find and that person was Jonathan. So we began to build back better the blueprint that was Dr. Teers vision for her people, her community and the National Black Theatre. So all the offerings that you see are seated and rooted in the vision of Dr. Teer but with Jonathan and my kind of collaborative creative perspective on those things. Yes, it is challenging. Yes, they are mighty footsteps. But now I can look at those footsteps as a blueprint as opposed to a shadow. I can look at it as ancestral wisdom as opposed to an anvil of weight that keeps me from my own purpose, mission, and contribution.
BLACK LIVES MATTER
I think that our very existence is the affirmation that Black Lives Matter for us. Black Lives Matter is a part of every breathe of the work that we do both on stage and in the community. In a very kind of African sensibility we don’t separate the front line movement from the work that we do. Our approach to all of the work is that it is revolutionary. It is Black Liberation Matters, Black Healing Matters, Black Theatre Matters, Black Trans Lives Matter. We create and paint holistic opportunities for Black lives to matter in all ways.
DECIPHER THE NOISE
On the Responsibilities of leadership and these enormous roles representing the National Black Theatre. Do you feel pressure in these unprecedented times?
There is a huge pressure. That pressure is real. It is sensitivity to the minutiae that makes the pressure actually show up. For me, the grand gestures that show up around equality, the grand gestures that show up around wanting change; those are not actually effective to me. The pressure is around being present to the minutiae of those grand gestures. If you want change, what does change mean at a microscopic level?
Even though we are in this covid land and we are all saying white supremacy must go; we are still working in the time of capitalism and that is the pressure we have to meet. That robs us of the sensibility of being able to create more humane structures. We want to know the solution.
The thing that covid 19 has created, is that it has forced many of us to sit with discomfort. If we see the silver lining in all of this, it may actually allow us to come out different, versus a kind of standard practice. I think the pressure we are feeling could be a pressure to be normal again. How do we hang out again? What does it mean to do our work that we did before covid 19? If we so choose the beautiful invitation to not allow that pressure to rule us and to sit with the uncomfortable nature, then something new could possibly happen.
In taking on the mantle of NBT. Personally I do feel a tremendous pressure to be a good daughter and to continue my Mum’s legacy. I am super committed that her life and her legacy not be in vain and that is something I wake up to everyday.
We are in very dangerous times for obvious reasons. Activism has become in so many ways performative. So if there is pressure, it is around meeting this moment where you have so many eyes focused on you with an integrity that centres our full humanity in every space. Because the performative aspect and the times we are living in, where anyone can be an activist by just posting something. It really robs people who have been on the front lines and have been for a long time. How do we decipher the noise from the real work?
I feel pressure to continue to fight through the performative noise, to centre and present the real work. I feel the pressure for accountability, because with the performative aspect of the Facebook posts, there is no real accountability to what the results of our activism and our resistance is. When white folks pick up the mantle of Black Lives Matter we say yes to the ally ship. But ally ship balanced with a full perspective of when this dies down, the retaliation happens in our communities.
So there is a sense of accountability for whole humanity not just parts of humanity. I feel a tremendous amount of pressure to be there to pick up the pieces when the noise dies down but the movement continues.
THE PENDING ELECTION
In some ways America is tracking so close to the founding fathers actual values, not what they penned, but their notion of capitalism. Their notion of the second amendment. In some ways this movement is very rooted in the founding spirit of oppression and genocide of America. In some ways, we are totally derailed in terms of progress. So it feels we are moving closer and closer to binaries as opposed to an amalgamation of what American is supposed to be, which is a melting pot and diversity. Obviously we know what four more years of Trump will produce. That is a road in which people are frightened of. The current occupant of the white house has unearthed a population of America that existed before him, but has been emboldened by him. My challenge is, I don’t think we have the privilege of having nuanced conversation around what leadership should be, because we are singularly focused on getting the occupant out.
I as a Black woman and mother am curious as to what happens next. These voices have unearthed and this energy has been unleashed. We are dying in the street and we have to be singularly focused on getting him out? But what next?
Very few people are having healing conversations and this country, our country, is bleeding in so many different ways, which is why it feels so dangerous. A bandage is not a solution to this gaping wound. It would not dissuade or even in may ways challenge the movement to get this occupant out.
I do and am deeply concerned about what happens day 2. If we win day 1; what happens day 2 day 3 and day 4? Can we begin to have a nuanced conversation around the future we want to build as opposed to singularly focussing on the occupant of the white house. We need to create sustainable solutions to be a way out. If anything saddens me or keep me up at night, I worry yes about the election, and yes about voting, but I am so deeply concerned about this country that I love; day 1 day 2 day 3 and so on.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
NBT continues to work through the devastating impact of Covid 19 with a series or original commissioned and digitally devised theatrical works. A quote from the website:
“This fall is a powerful moment for NBT to empower the artists who help us innovate and imagine a different and new future. We have been bombarded with the unfortunate fatal and uncomfortable truth that the system we have been accustomed to is not working. Amplifying a ‘salve’ is what NBT has been known to do for the last fifty-two years, so let us build the future, NOW! The next generation is waiting, watching, and ready. They are counting on us to make a difference.”
– Jonathan McCrory, Artistic Director
You can visit the website at www.nationalblacktheatre.org
Twitter at NatBlackTheatre