A mother braids her daughter’s hair. An artist strives to rise above tokenization. A college student stands on the edge of a building, looking down.
These are just a few of the characters and situations explored in Black Lives, Black Words, an event held this February that showcased Black student theater artists at Northwestern. Twenty students were involved in writing, directing, producing and acting in seven 10-minute plays that highlighted the abundance of narratives, perspectives and personalities that characterize the Black experience. They explored the question: Do Black lives matter today?
Several participants say the event was unique because it created a space for Black theater artists to work and execute art together. “A space where people are actively interested and actively listening to what you have to say, and wanting you to say it, is really big in making you think that your art is worthy,” says Communication senior Mary Ann Anane, who co-produced the event and wrote one of the plays.
Theatre Lecturer Aaron Todd Douglas, who proposed and sponsored the event, says Black Lives, Black Words, created that important space for a number of participants. “They felt safe enough and free enough to say what they needed to say, propriety, political correctness or whatever be damned,” Douglas says. “It felt like they needed to speak from a very personal place.”
Black theater artists say it’s rare for them to work in an all-Black space.
"It falls into this expectation that Black artists will then do the Black thing and want to be in the Black show and want the Black parts.”
- Kori Alston
“You’ll see that the need for people of color in different shows basically spreads us out,” Communication sophomore Ziare Paul-Emile says, who acted in two of the plays. “Having the chance to be in a room with every person of color … was just so great, and one of the best feelings ever.”
For 40 years, the designated space for Black student theater artists was the African-American Theater Ensemble (AATE), a student theater board that produced plays, readings, shows and ceremonies by and for Black playwrights, students and communities. Today it is no longer in operation.
“[AATE] opened up this really unique space for this authentic portrayal of raw and uninhibited Blackness in the arts,” says Leila Pree, a 2012 graduate and the last president of AATE. “We were bigger than just theater in terms of the work that we were doing, and so I think it really served [as a] way to educate the broader community on some of the experiences within the Black community.”
In the absence of AATE, students say, it is unclear what are the best options for promoting active diversity within the student theater community and how they can be implemented without resorting to tokenization.
It is unclear when and why AATE disbanded. Few current students know much about it, though it dissolved less than five years ago. But the dissolution probably had something to do with the number of Black students at Northwestern at the time. The group was so small, according to Pree, that members each played a number of different production and artistic roles for each show.
Among students and faculty, there is some interest in reviving the board or creating a new Black theater board in its place. “I think we’re in a position now where it’s doable,” Douglas says. “The interest is there.”
Pree would like to see a return of the board as well. “I very much support them becoming a presence on campus because I think it’s a voice and a perspective that’s been missed for all these years,” she says. “It’s a disservice to the community for it not to be there.”
But others worry filling that desire with a new board would produce complacency among non-Black students. “My fear is that people would think, ‘Well, there you go, there’s a Black board, there’s something for you now,” says Robert Cunningham, a Communication junior who acted in Black Lives, Black Words. “That’s not the goal of it at all.”
Some say it may also pressure Black artists to focus only on Black art. “At the end of the day, not all Black theater artists want to be producing specifically Black theater art,” says Communication junior Kori Alston, who wrote and performed in Black Lives, Black Words. “It falls into this expectation that Black artists will then do the Black thing and want to be in the Black show and want the Black parts.”
Theater artists say no one solution exists to solve the many complex issues Black theater artists have to navigate. On one hand, student theater boards and the Wirtz Center for Performing Arts, which produces mostly graduate and faculty work, may not produce enough plays by Black playwrights or featuring Black actors. On the other, there aren’t enough Black actors to fill the roles in primarily Black plays.
“It becomes this chicken and the egg thing. You can’t put something on the schedule unless you have the numbers. We don’t have the numbers, so we’re not attracting enough students because we don’t have that programming,” Douglas says.
This also forces Black actors to mostly play Black characters and not get a chance to take non-race-specific roles. Cunningham feels his options are limited since he is often needed for specific roles. “I want to do something besides just playing a Black person,” he says.
The fact that race so strongly informs casting decisions can be restricting, and, in some ways, tokenizing. “First of all, we’re humans. You know? We’re people. The difference is our skin tones, but otherwise we do the same things everyone else does,” Paul-Emile says.
The challenge is to provide opportunities without pigeonholing. “Ideally, there would be a balance between Black art and art that Black people can also participate in,” says sophomore theater major Amira Danan, who also wrote for and performed in Black Lives, Black Words.
Many artists expressed that this balance would require far more input from Black students.
“Inclusion…[is] an action of actually trying to bring people into the fold,” Anane says. “And when you bring them into the fold, don’t just say, ‘Hey, you’re there’ but, ‘Hey, you’re there, and what do you think?’”
Students say that it would also help to have more Black artists in positions of power within the student theater community. “We need to ... create space for all types of Black participation in theater,” Alston says. “We will have the people to cast and we will be casting them responsibly if Black people are doing the casting and producing and the directing as well.”
A number of productions this year have focused on providing platforms for Black student artists. About a month before Black Lives, Black Words, another major student work written and performed by Black theater artists premiered. These Days, by junior theater major Allie Woodson, explored what it means to be a Black woman. This month, the Wirtz Center presents Stick Fly, by Northwestern alum Lydia R. Diamond, which will feature five Black characters and discuss the intersection of race and privilege.
Just as the many playwrights, actors and directors who worked on Black Lives, Black Words hoped, senior theater lecturer Laura Schellhardt, who coordinated the event along with Douglas, says they plan to turn it into an annual event. “We can continue to work with the next generation of students,” she says. “We would really love to branch out and see how many people we can get involved and how many places we can pull writers from.”
Two months after Black Lives, Black Words, the event’s significance is clear. “Seeing how multifaceted we are, how many opinions we have, was just a beautiful experience,” says Bryana Barry, a junior in the School of Communication who co-produced the event and performed in one of the plays. “I have never been prouder of something that I’ve worked on this campus than that.”
Alston also recognizes the significance of the event. “The mere multitude of Black writers that got to be heard in one night was revolutionary for the theater community here,” he says. “To be able to stand up together and all sound our voices at the same time I think was impossible to ignore.”