By Leslye Joy Allen Historian, Educator, Theatre and Jazz Advocate & Consultant, Ph.D. Candidate
Copyright © 2014 by Leslye Joy Allen. All Rights Reserved.
Several months ago I heard Black British film director Steve McQueen (not the now-deceased White actor), say that art did not change anything. I clutched my chest as if I was surely having a massive heart attack at what must be blasphemy. Later, I figured out what McQueen meant. Art alters and suspends that space in your head where your creativity and out-of-the-box thinking is located, and then YOU might be able to change yourself or your situation or your mind. Art is the match or spark, which lights the fire in the potential change agent—YOU!
Now, history has taught us that my brothers and sisters, Black Americans, have, at least since the early twentieth century worked diligently to create art—paintings and sculpture, music and dance, or theatre—that they imbued with the herculean task of changing the way the rest of the world looks at us, and how we look at ourselves. Too often, the belief is that an artistic representation of us, once seen or experienced, will alter the way others think of us. This is why so many of my brothers and sisters can hyperventilate until they burst into a sweat (or burst a blood vessel) about a film or television characterization of us that is a pathetic and insulting stereotype or caricature of us that strays far from the truth. Typically, what happens next is a mad search for the most exceptional among us.
This February, 2014, I have been guilty of what WE historians call “chronicling.” Chronicling is posting basic information about a person or event, often in date order, which we think, or believe to be of “historical significance,” whatever that means. For Black folks, Black History Month reeks of an unsavory type of history that I, and others, also call “Great Man/Great Woman” history, or “Unsung Man/Unsung Woman” history. I call it unsavory because it never really satisfies—It is the history of our people whom we see (or have been taught to see), as exceptional, or the exception to the rule. I am also as guilty of it as anybody else. Yet, this month, February 2014, in many of my Facebook and Twitter posts, I deliberately focused on Black people that have contributed to or participated in theatre. I did not do this to simply cast a light on Black folks in the theatre that I think everyone should know about. It was also designed to cast a light on Black theatre itself, something Black folks, those who were theatre professionals and those who were not, used to participate in on a regular basis as a matter of ritual, as a matter of teaching and learning, as a matter of lifting the spirit.
It did not matter whether the person(s) had talent or not, theatre was what WE did for each other and for ourselves. In the early days of the twentieth century, theatre had not yet become the rather parochial profession as some folks think of it today, but rather it remained an essential exercise in the communal rituals we always participated in as a people. After all, nobody said you needed talent to recite an Easter Speech or to memorize and recite a poem, did they? Mama, Daddy, Grandma and Grandpa all thought you “did good” up there on that stage even if you would never, ever be able to act or sing your way out of a jar, to say nothing of survive an audition. I say all of this to make a few simple points…
Take one moment and forget about “Great Man/Great Woman History.” Forget about “Unsung Man/Unsung Woman History,” and begin to look at your mothers, fathers, grandparents and others who belong to so many generations before you as the “multi-talented,” “multi-hat-wearing,” “multi-title-holding,” “multi-I’m-going-to-get-this-done-if-it-kills-me” people that they were. When you do this, you will begin to measure greatness not by accolades and plaques, but by how well something they did served them, saved them and you, and whether it is or is not possible for you to emulate them. Then you will find out everything you ever needed to know that never went into a History Book or on the cover of a magazine or in a documentary about our/your people. You will then find that match or spark that ignites you—the change agent! Ashé!