African American Repertory Theatre experiences new birth
By Taneasha White
The African American Repertory Theatre (AART), originally led by the artistic direction of Derome Scott Smith, was founded in 2000. It first went by the name Living Word Stage Company, and was later changed to the African American Repertory Theatre in 2010. Smith’s mentor and teacher, the late Ernie McClintock, planted the seed in Smiths’ mind to create an organization that would give space and a voice for Black actors and Black artists.
AART has gone through some hardships over the past several years. Fortunately, Iman Shabazz, another McClintock pupil, has decided to take the reins and steer African American Repertory Theatre back to success.
Shabazz said, “Ultimately, what we really wanted to see, then and now, was an opportunity for African actors to work; and not just actors, but African artists overall. We’ve got countless companies in the city that are doing amazing work, but there are very few that we can be engaged in within a larger context. Beyond that, we feel it is a responsibility of ours to be able to tell our own story. Creating the company was born out of those necessities.”
McClintock started a theatre of his own, the Afro American Repertory Theatre, in 1965. Smith found solace in McClintock’s teachings regarding Black theatre and the Black aesthetic, and wanted to do his part in spreading those words to his community.
Dr. Tawnya Pettiford-Wates, artistic director of The Conciliation Project said, “There has to be an authenticity, a focus on Black culture as told by Black people. That’s just a small kernel as to why we need a Black theatre in Richmond. Especially with Richmond’s rich history of having been the capital of the confederacy, and the segregation that is a part of that history here. We’re still fighting that in the arts’ arena.”
Theatre companies have used practices that some call cosmetic diversity. The effort takes different forms, but one of the most notable is called colorblind casting. This is casting an actor or two of color on stage within a traditionally “white show”, or producing a “black show” but having all creative direction come from non-people of color.
This type of cosmetic diversity does not provide the authenticity of Black expression from the Black aesthetic experience. It is believed to be a means for theatre companies to both remain in charge of production while simultaneously generating revenue.
Colorblind casting could take on the idea of “non-traditional” casting, which would be to hire a woman of color to play the lead in a show similar to Pride and Prejudice. Pride and Prejudice’s main character is Elizabeth Bennet and the story follows her as she deals with issues such as morality, manners, education, and upbringing in the countryside of England during the early 19th century. The “risky move” of putting a Black woman in the role of Elizabeth does not suffice as Black theatre or following the Black aesthetic, because the Black woman would essentially be playing a white character. The Black aesthetic requires that Black people tell their own stories, not someone else’s.
Pettiford-Wates speaks bluntly on the issue of diversity simply for the sake of diversity.
“[The Black aesthetic is] this idea of telling our story to our people, so that we are unapologetically Black. We are not trying to assuage any sort of white fragility, we aren’t embracing that. We are just telling the story from our own perspective, and the focus is actually the Black audience,” she said.
“These [theatre] companies don’t mind employing Black art, but won’t put us at the artistic head, and that is what the African American Repertory Theatre is going to do.”
Both Pettiford-Wates and Shabazz agree that the goal of AART has always been focused on providing a very necessary Black space for not only actors, but artists as a whole.
Shabazz stated that a large component of running a theatre company is the stabilization of infrastructure. Considering this proved as a previous stumbling block, he has decided to make infrastructure, in addition to fundraising, AART’s primary goal at the moment.
Shabazz hosted a mixer in the winter, gathering many of Richmond’s creative minds to speak about the Black Aesthetic and its importance to both theatre and their community.
The next event for AART is the Gala Evening of Stars on May 1, 2016. The Gala is being hosted in partnership with The Conciliation Project.
Taking place at the Grace Center Banquet Hall on 1302 Victor Street in Richmond, the event will showcase some of the Richmond metropolitan area’s finest actors, musicians, vocalists, dancers and spoken word artists. The goal is to give those in attendance a glimpse at what the city really has to offer, and what the African American Repertory Theatre plans to highlight in the future.
In addition to the showcase and great catered food from Catering by Blair, a silent auction, raffle, and gift basket giveaway are also planned for the evening.