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    Posted March 19, 2008

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Western Region Presents Stories of Black Theatre

By Nancy Daly
Chair, Western EEOC

In the glorious setting of the California African American Museum, the Western Region Equal Employment Opportunity Committee celebrated Black History Month by presenting A Heritage Worth Celebrating: Stories of Black Theatre from the Early 20th Century Until Today. The event was held on March 3, 2008 at the Museum and attended by about 50 members. A pre-panel reception kicked off the evening.

Panelists included Obba Babatunde (Dreamgirls, Golden Boy, Chicago), Tonya Pinkins (Jelly's Last Jam, Caroline or Change), Keith David (Seven Guitars, Joe Turner's Come and Gone), John Wesley (Blues for an Alabama Sky, Jitney), and Anita Dashiell-Sparks (University of Southern California Professor of Theatre). Art James (The Amen Corner, Cat on A Hot Tin Roof) moderated.

It was a riveting evening, filled with lively discussions and heartfelt stories of trials and triumphs. Several questions were raised: What is Black theatre? Is Black theatre defined as written specifically for Black actors or does it become Black theatre when Black actors play roles that are traditionally thought of as white? Keith David stated, "Theatre is the one place that we as human beings have to reflect ourselves. Throughout history, Black actors had to create their own theatres. We had to bring it to the community." As Mr. Wesley pointed out, "We had to find a way to make the Constitution work for us, and we had to do the same with the theatre." It was mentioned that there used to be over 400 Black theatres, now there are only 60. At the same time, as Ms. Pinkins noted, there are outstanding Black artists, such as Lloyd Richards and George C. Wolfe, who have become artistic directors of the Yale Repertory company and the Public Theater, respectively. Ms. Sparks recalled having attended the National Black Theatre convention in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. She noted that there was a great spirit of camaraderie, community and synergy-"a wonderful common knowledge of history. We are paying homage to our ancestors who have paved the way for us to be here."

Mr. Babatunde inspired his fellow artists with his compassionate wisdom: "Theatre is the exemplification of life-how it is expressed. It is our job as artists to inspire, encourage, potentially save a life. The great thing about being an artist is that you can go anywhere on this planet and ask where the artistic community is and find a home. We are citizens of the world."

It was asked of the panelists: "How do you define success?" Keith David answered: "Fame is what they give you; success is what you give yourself." John Wesley added that "success is discovering who you are, and then everyone else will get you, too." Mr. Babatunde shared a story of how a very simple random act of kindness-he graciously found a seat in the wings for a young lady who couldn't get a ticket to see his show-led to her securing for him an audition and a subsequent booking of a film 20 years later. "Define for yourself what success is. If you don't know what you've got, you won't know when you have it."

In addition to the triumphs, there were many obstacles discussed as well. Ms. Sparks recounted having been ostracized by a British cast on Broadway for being "an interesting choice for the role." Ms. Pinkins shared how an Equity Rep went to bat for her in an out-of-town contract negotiation. The producer had maneuvered into not paying her per diem, nor providing her with housing as they were contractually obligated to do. The Equity Rep refused to allow Ms. Pinkins to perform until the contract was amended correctly for the extension of the run and the entire amount of per diem was paid retroactively.

Many members of the panel have been active in fundraisers for Equity Fights AIDS, both on Broadway and in regional theatres across the country. They all agreed that Equity was in the forefront of providing service to the community and protecting the actors, not only for their contractual rights, but throughout the rehearsal and run as well.

In her closing remarks, Western Regional Director Susan Wallace asked, "How can we create a truly level playing field where skill and talent are the only relevant considerations? Perhaps it's a conversation for our next event." And, as Mr. Babatunde noted, "If you're just working for a job, you have stopped being an artist. Nurture your craft; nurture yourselves." For the audience, being in the presence of such talented and gracious artists, it was an evening that not only sparked one's creativity, it nourished one's soul.





 
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