A Conversation on Black Theater in Boston

By Bridgit Brown

June 23, 2012

The Theatre Communications Group (TCG) is a national organization founded in 1961 to facilitate communication among professional, community and university theatres. Model The Movement, TCG’s national conference, took place in Boston last  weekend and over 980 people attended this highly anticipated event focusing on transforming theatre into a movement for the digital age. Before the conference, Akiba Abaka, Producing Director of Up You Mighty Race Company and Barbara Lewis, Director of The William Monroe Trotter Institute for the Study of Black Culture, spoke to us about their involvement in the conference.

Akiba Abaka                                    Barbara Lewis
Producing Director                         Director
Up You Mighty Race Company      The Trotter Inst., UMass, Boston

Q. What is your involvement in the conference?

Akiba Abaka: I am a member of the Host Committee, which is comprised of theatre leaders. I was also selected for the Young Leaders of Color Program, which is a professional development program that TCG runs during the conference for theatre leaders of color. Young Leaders of Color is for people under 40 who are making strides in theatre. There are four people from Boston who were selected. You had to be nominated and then you had to apply for it. The purpose of the program is to provide professional development and opportunities for leaders of color in the field. It’s TCG's way of encouraging development in the realm of theatre. It's their way of encouraging and developing theatre administrators because the reality is that there aren't a lot of people of color acting as administrators. We're on stage, but we don’t have leadership positions. We aren't necessarily running the stage. So this is TCG's way of balancing that and increasing diversity. They provide different workshops and lectures that are dedicated to the young leaders of color throughout the conference.

Barbara Lewis: The relationship between TCG and black folks is good but reflective of the cultural community between black and white in terms of how we are sometimes marginalized and I think it's important to go. I plan to go. Benny Ambush is having a session on intergenerational leaders of color, which I think is very interesting. He indicated in his write up that it is more of an internal conversation for folks who self identify as people of color. I think there are some specific needs that black people in theatre have and for one thing it is very difficult for us to grow and sustain a relationship with the audience. There might be five or six theatre companies in Boston that are black and they have sporadic seasons. I think it would be really good if we can have a consistent presence. For me, it's kind of a strange conundrum. We have enormous talent here. There are people who are really committed, but in terms of the black theatre companies themselves, they are not as established as they could be.

I was at a cultural panel recently and one of the speakers was [National Museum of Afro-American Artist’s Director] Barry Gaither and one of the things that he said that really caught my attention was that Boston is city of high and low in terms of cultural organizations: either you are at the bottom, struggling to get out of the barrel or you at the top and there is very little middle. I think that is true and the middle is sort of where we almost don’t exist. That’s what I'm interested in, finding ways to get us from the bottom to, at least, the middle. How do we do that? I'm not exactly sure yet, but that's what I'm struggling with and I think that a lot of companies here are struggling with that. We have to get taller, we have to get stronger, we have to have more of a presence than we do even though, individually, there are pockets of great creativity and innovation, but how do we connect it all so that there is a really a force?

Q. What do you expect to gain from the TCG conference?

Akiba Abaka: TCG's conferences are always very helpful. This will be the third conference of theirs that I have attended. The conference has been helpful for me in the way of understanding the overall ecology of the field. At the conference there are workshops and discussions on everything from education to marketing to production. You're also networking with a very diverse group of people and theatres that have budgets from $25,000 to 25 million. There are people there who are where you are and where you aspire to be. Everyone is accessible. When I think about TCG in general, I think access. I think that they do make a serious effort to make theatre accessible to all people no matter the background. The conference reflects that, all of these people coming together and sharing what they know. One of the things I like about the conference is that a serious superstar or a theatre vendor in a very small part of America who had something really valuable to share about how they have been successful in their corner of the world may lead workshops. Also, TCG has a lot of programs, grants, and development programs that reflect a willingness to increase diversity in all areas.

Barbara Lewis: It's thrilling that TCG is here because it offers us an opportunity, but I'm choosing to look at it as a smorgasbord board and a place where I go and choose what is important to me and what's useful to me at this particular time. I want to get connections and new information. I want to be inspired. The ultimate goal is to get a glimmer of the direction in which to move to being a participant in this effort that some of us are making to raise our cultural capital.


About the Author
Bridgit Brown Bridgit Brown
Bridgit Brown is a graduate of the MFA program in Creative Writing at Emerson College ('98). She was a Fulbright Lecturing and Research Scholar in Cote d'Ivoire, West Africa, and her writing has appeared in the Boston Globe, Boston Herald, Bay State Banner, Color Magazine, BasicBlack.org: Black Perspectives Now, Colorlines of Architecture, Exhale Magazine, Ibbetson Street Magazine, and Somerville Review.


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