This is not a review of the film SELMA. However, I will say I saw it on Christmas Day when it was in limited release and let me put it this way—I had one of the best Christmas’ ever. Brilliantly acted, superbly directed. I dig Sister Ava DuVernay because she is a Black Woman, but also a young woman director who is unafraid to use all of the nuances that come with being a woman.
I also learned very quickly that she has two great parents and I see “Daddy’s Girl” written all over her face. Oprah Winfrey is another Daddy’s Girl. I know one when I see one—I was a Daddy’s Girl too. I love my late Mama to death because we had a lot of fun, but Dad was my playmate for life. I thought about my parents when I watched SELMA in the dark of that packed movie theatre on Christmas Day. They would have been so proud; and my tell-it-like-it-is Father would have been one of Ava’s biggest supporters. I can hear his loud mouth right now talking about how “Ava is one baaaaaad young sister!!”
For the first time we have a feature film about Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Selma March movement, but also a film where women are highly visible, as are so many other long forgotten foot soldiers. Yet, for a filmmaker to press ahead and make the kind of film that truly honors the Black and White women who made so many sacrifices for civil and human rights takes courage. For a Black woman filmmaker that courage often comes from the fact that in a male-dominated world, when a father approves of his daughter, when he encourages her and believes in her, she never, ever needs another man’s approval.
Mothers are extremely important too, and are always our confidantes and advisors; it is she who helps us navigate in a world full of possibilities and limitations. We watch our mothers make sacrifices and often we later wonder how she managed to make those sacrifices. Yet, our Dads’ support truly matters because sexism is alive and well, no matter how many men that love us try to downplay it. I am a Black woman and because my Dad supported me, I can handle blatant sexism and the occasional lukewarm support I get from some of the men I know and love. Most women know that only a minority of men can be our cheerleaders. Cheerleaders have to perform on the sidelines.
Ava and Oprah know whom their male and female cheerleaders are; an overwhelming majority of those cheerleaders has a pair of ovaries. I have several male cheerleaders, but every once in a while I hear that disinterest in their voices when the subject of the conversation changes from their problems or their work to a discussion about me and what is going on in my life and work. They do not mean me any harm. Yet, when I need to discuss me, I turn to my sister friends. So, in the spirit of that Sisterhood I am going on record as saying I am so very proud of Oprah Winfrey, who never fails to honor all of her people. I am so very proud of Black woman filmmaker and director Ava DuVernay for the exact same reason! My late parents loved Oprah…they did not live long enough to witness Ava…but I suspect they are watching from somewhere in the cosmos! Àṣé!
One of the best things about research is that no matter how long you do it, you always find something new. As a historian, and particularly one that focuses on theatre, I am always amazed at the rich theatrical heritage of my own native city Atlanta, Georgia and the tremendous role our Historically Black Colleges have played in nurturing that heritage. There are certainly more facts about this facet of the city than appear on this list, but below are my first five favorite facts:
1. The founder of Atlanta Life Insurance Company, the former slave Alonzo Herndon, had a wife that taught Drama and Speech to one of the first academic theatre groups at a historically Black college in the United States. An amazing thespian, Adrienne Elizabeth McNeill Herndon enjoyed a stellar reputation as an interpreter of Shakespeare. Married to Alonzo Herndon, she devoted much of her expertise to the students of *Atlanta University (then an undergraduate institution) in the late 19th century, helping to develop and found the Atlanta University Players (not to be confused with the Atlanta University Summer Theatre) and coaching it into an amazing group of actors that made its debut in 1895. However, Mrs. Herndon was a very fair complexioned woman. African American scholar Dr. W. E. B. DuBois had the best and most humorous story about her. Because of her acting abilities (and the fact that she was not always easily identifiable as Black), Thomas Dixon, a white racist playwright offered Mrs. Herndon a part in his play “The Klansman.” Writing in the NAACP’s Crisis magazine in 1927, W. E. B. DuBois noted that Dixon offered her a role in his play in “blissful ignorance of” her race.
2. The Atlanta University Summer Theatre gave its first performance in the summer of 1934 and ran continually until 1977 making it the longest running Summer Stock Theatre in the United States. The Atlanta University Summer Theatre was made up of student and faculty actors & professors, visiting professors (and some local Atlanta actors) from *Atlanta University, Spelman College (all female), Morehouse College (all male), and later performers from *Clark College, and Morris Brown College. The Atlanta University Summer Theatre actors and directors performed five full-length plays over a six-week period, during June and July of each summer from 1934 through 1941 alone. The five-play, six week schedule was not completely abandoned until 1970 when the summer schedule was trimmed to three plays. (*Founded in 1865 Atlanta University was an undergraduate institution as was *Clark College, founded in 1869. During the school year 1929-1930, Atlanta University exclusively became a graduate school. In 1988, however, Atlanta University and Clark College merged and became Clark Atlanta University.)
3. One of the great scientific minds of our time was Morehouse College alumnus Dr. Samuel Nabrit, who earned a Ph.D. in Biology from Brown University in 1932. An accomplished Marine Biologist*, he taught at both Morehouse College and Atlanta University. In 1956, President Eisenhower appointed him to the National Board of the National Science Foundation and he served as Special Ambassador to Niger under President John F. Kennedy. (A biography and obituary on Dr. Samuel Nabrit in the New York Times.) Less well known is that Nabrit was a regular actor performing with the Atlanta University Summer Theatre when he taught at Morehouse College and Atlanta University during the 1930s. (Sidebar: *Marine Biology was the original academic major of actor Samuel L. Jackson, when he was a student at Morehouse College.)
4. A few weeks before her nineteenth birthday, Black Theatre legend (and then Howard University student) Shauneille Perry spent her summer in Atlanta and appeared as the character “Anias” in Alexander Dumas’ “Camille” during the 15th season (1948) of the Atlanta University Summer Theatre, directed by Owen Dodson. Shauneille Perry is one of the first Black women to direct an Off-Broadway play and has a long list of credits for both the stage and the screen. The United States Congress honored Perry in 2011 for her lengthy and prolific career as an actor, playwright and screenwriter.
5. The amazing and rather colorful director-actor-lighting and technical designer Dr. John McLinn Ross, both acted in plays and directed for the Atlanta University Summer Theatre during the 1930s. Like his colleagues who managed and directed the Atlanta University Summer Theatre (the principle director during the 1930s was Anne M. Cooke, a Spelman professor, along with Owen Dodson), he studied at Yale University’s School of Drama. Yet, Ross has the distinction of being the first Black person to receive the Master of Fine Arts degree in Acting, Directing, and Technical Directing from the Yale School of Drama in 1935, only four years after Yale graduated the first MFA graduates in Drama. Atlanta-based photographer & cultural chronicler Susan Ross is the great niece of Dr. John McLinn Ross.
There were four little Black girls whose lives were snuffed out on Sunday morning, September 15, 1963 when a bomb planted by racist White terrorists exploded in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. They were, Denise McNair who was the youngest at age 11, Carol Robertson aged 14, Cynthia Wesley** aged 14 (**Real and Birth name is “CYNTHIA MORRIS”), and Addie Mae Collins was aged 14. When that bomb went off, most Black Birmingham citizens and most Black Americans forgot about the “March on Washington,” held a mere eighteen days earlier on August 28. Not long after the blast, all hell broke loose. The New York Times headline on the following day read (click here for article): “Birmingham Bomb Kills 4 Negro Girls in Church; Riots Flare; 2 Boys Slain.“
Birmingham, then nicknamed “Bombingham,” had an ugly history it would take decades to live down. A middle class neighborhood in the city had suffered so many bombings that it was nicknamed “Dynamite Hill,” because angry Whites bombed homes to stop Black people from moving into the area. Dynamite Hill was the neighborhood that honed and developed future Phi Beta Kappa scholar, radical activist, and author Angela Davis. Yet, that is a story for another essay. There are those of us, however, who think the story of what and who we lost on that fateful Sunday morning deserves its place in all the national narratives of American history. I am one of those people; so is actor and activist Erich McMillan-McCall.
My friend, Erich is the founder of Project1Voice, an organization devoted to preserving Black theatre companies and our important historical legacies. I should add that not only is he a multitalented performance artist with credits on Broadway, national stages, and television, he is also a visionary. I say he is a visionary, however, with a very important acknowledgement of the type of communities that both of us grew up in as children. Black women, he emphasizes, were at the center of these communities. Yet, in several of our usual marathon-long telephone conversations, he has lamented that he is bothered by how Black women’s voices are not only muted or unacknowledged in the historical narratives, but also on the stage, and in the arts.
Erich and I are products of a time when to be young and Black and living in the American South did not necessarily mean that everywhere you went there was danger; what it tended to mean was the Black community in which you grew up was supportive, filled with a great deal of love and encouragement. There were threats to our wellbeing, to be sure. Yet, those threats largely came from outside the neighborhoods where we lived. As much as some very sympathetic White liberal folks and some younger Black Americans have erroneously assumed otherwise, our Black parents and elders made sure we had normal childhoods with school, church, piano lessons, baseball games, concerts, plays, parties, and family picnics. They did all of this for us in spite of the racism and the perpetual threat of (and often real) racial violence that characterized much of life for us during the 1960s and 1970s. Erich understands this type of upbringing.
His proactive approach, that provides greater visibility to financially struggling Black theatre companies while engaging educational, civic, and political organizations in this collective struggle for artistic, political, educational, economic, and historical viability is not exactly a new way of doing things. The Black community that I grew up in was filled with folks who could sing, dance, act, organize, who taught school, practiced medicine, ran businesses, and helped elect Black people to political office—This is what we were/are. I loved this Black community, and the activism and the theatre it produced. I still live in the neighborhood my family moved to when I was around the age of eleven. It has not entirely lost those same qualities that it had during my childhood. However, I fear that these types of communities become more rare with each passing decade. At the same time, I am gratified and encouraged by Erich’s embrace of the old collaborative efforts of our neighborhoods and organizations that we remember about our childhoods; and his insistence that those qualities can be modified and used to great affect in the information age. I hope this is the beginning of a new trend.
Sunday, September 15, 2013, is the 50th anniversary of one of our worst tragedies. On this date, Project1Voice, in collaboration with Howard University, African Continuum Theatre Company, the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts will present a reading of the play “Four Little Girls,” written by Christina Ham, directed by Phylicia Rashad. It will stream live online at 6:00 PM EST via the Kennedy Center’s website.
Targeted toward young audiences, this will be one of those wonderful opportunities to sit down in front of your computer screens with your children and your friends to watch this important piece of theatre and history—Free of Charge. You should also check for viewing parties around the country. Additionally, over thirty Black theatre companies around this nation will be presenting “Four Little Girls” simultaneously on the fiftieth anniversary of this national tragedy.
Erich and I both remember neighborhoods where middle class and working class Black families looked out for each other and each other’s children. These facts, however, are precisely why the slaughter of Denise McNair, Carol Robertson, Cynthia Wesley** (**born as “Cynthia Morris,” but cited in the historiography and in most news reports as “Cynthia Wesley“) and Addie Mae Collins was so devastating to Birmingham’s Black community and other Black communities throughout the nation. The reading of this play is not only a way to honor these dead children, but to also recall and remember the kind of stable and warm neighborhoods where all of them and us grew up. Let us honor these little girls by going home again. Peace.
** Shortly after this blog was published, I, Leslye Joy Allen, was contacted by Fate Morris, the brother of the young girl commonly known in historical and news records as “Cynthia Wesley.” Fate Morris insisted that his sister’s real name is “CYNTHIA DIANE MORRIS,” and that authorities recorded her name incorrectly the day of the explosion. Mr. Morris also informed me that he has decided to accept the Congressional Medal for his sister. Originally he and Sarah Collins Rudolph (sister of Addie Mae Collins) had declined this medal. Please read the following article about the survivors of this tragedy: “Survivor of ’63 Bombing Seeks Funds”**
Please join Project1Voice‘s commemoration of the lives of these four little girls:
Last month, I had the good fortune to sit down with, break bread with, and drink good wine a couple of times with award-winning playwright, Black Theatre expert, and educator Paul Carter Harrison. I have to thank fellow scholar R. Candy Tate for turning what was supposed to be our first meeting (to trade academic notes and talk shop) into a meeting where we added yet another spirited scholar to the mix. This was one of those rare opportunities we graduate students receive where we can converse with someone who is, arguably, one of the first artists to seriously study Black Theatre and create a scholarly canon that tells us what Black Theatre is and what it is not.
However, I deliberately did not ask Paul about his many books (The Drama of Nommo or Black Theatre: Ritual Performance in the African Diaspora). Among the many things we discussed was his frustration and anger about what he considered to be some younger playwrights, actors, and directors’ pandering to the tastes of White audiences; and an unfortunate dumbing-down of theatre, television and film in an effort to appeal to audiences of all races for the sole benefit of entertainment just for entertainment’s sake. He was not ambiguous at all; he was livid. He saw a disturbing trend where some Black performers decided to cater to what White producers and audiences—even well-meaning White folks—wanted them to appear to be on stage. No more martyred Black folks, he said. Exactly how many times must everything WE do be a response to some other group of people?Exactly how many times must we be characterized as long-suffering and stoic or, for that matter, be the super baadaass Black man who always manages to rush in and save the day? He made his point.
He saw this pandering as something that, while it might be quite commercially satisfying, stifled Black creativity and stunted artistic risk-taking while it simultaneously applauded and rewarded the mundane, the ordinary. He noted that this lack of vision, this lack of adventurousness, would eventually cause a lot of artists to hit a commercial brick wall. He did not bite his tongue about the fact that certain Black stereotypes and certain Black archetypes had become the norm in film, on TV, and on the stage. While Paul is a part of my larger ongoing research, which will not be discussed here, he did make me think about not only why artistic and scholarly risk-taking is necessary for growth, but also why stereotypes are particularly dangerous.
After our two marathon conversations, I thought about how people on both sides of the political and racial aisle, so to speak, hold onto and cling to certain images and ideas about Black people. I have to honestly wonder whether, WE Black folks have any real friends who actually know US; that is, friends outside of our own racial/ethnic group. I am not kidding; I mean this. Aside from the racist who assumes that at any given moment I will be spitting out watermelon seeds or that I have bred babies like rabbits, there are also those White folks that go to other extremes. They are so hell bent on proving that they are notracist that they see beauty and goodness in everything and everybody that is Black—and that is a fallacy as well. Blackness and Black people become a fetish. One of the first things that makes us, Black folks, human is our ability to be great or weak, right or wrong, smart or dumb, honest or dishonest. Any belief, sentiment, or romanticism that strips us of the full range of human expression denies us our humanity, no matter how flattering those beliefs and sentiments might be. It is dangerous to hold onto those kinds of extremes and expectations.
Only a few days after my meeting and hanging out with Paul, one of my History students, a young White male, told me about this funny video he saw. According to this student, someone filmed security personnel in a department store. In the video, all of the security personnel were following all the Black customers assuming that the Black customers would be the customers who would shoplift. However, while security was following all the Black customers, White shoplifters were stealing everything they could get their hands on. Both my student and I laughed, but the humor quickly faded when we began to consider what really happens when someone makes assumptions based solely and purely on race, or I should say, on racism. Now, anyone with half a brain knows that people of all races and ethnicities steal for a variety of reasons. Nevertheless, this video—that I have never seen, by the way—said something else about misconceptions based solely on race.
When people buy into any stereotype it does something more than degrade and devalue the victim of the stereotype, it tells everyone else exactly who they need to victimize or who they need to “not look like” or “not behave like” in order to get away with whatever they are attempting to get away with. I am not going to say anything about Trayvon Martin, this time. However, for all of those frightened and paranoid White folks (and Black folks) who live in gated communities in Florida and elsewhere, I have only one thing to say: Beware of respectable looking young White males who may be walking through your neighborhoods.
While I am sure most of these young White men will not be planning to commit any crime or do anyone any harm, one of them might have decided that since he did not look a certain way that he could get away with certain things. When you buy into and believe those old models and old beliefs, eventually, someone figures out that all they have to do is make sure they do not fit the model. After that, they can get away with anything! And for those folks who might be feeling guilty for believing the worst stereotypes about Black people, the last thing you need to do is stop for some poor Black guy on the side of the road at midnight, just to prove a point.
The majority of us Black people work hard, pay our bills, take care of our homes and lawns, and never ever hurt anyone, but that does not mean that all Black people are saints. If we could just let these old models and old beliefs go, we could proceed in this world based just on facts rather than assumptions. Now, I have a Black elder statesman of Theatre and a young White male student to thank for raising the level of the discussion.
For the record, I am a historian and contrary to popular belief, historians are not social scientists. History belongs in the category of the Humanities, as in the phrase “Arts and Humanities.” Art and artists tell stories and so do historians. We just do it in different ways.
Historians analyze and interpret the past. We ask “why” something happened and we ask “how” something happened.
There are as many different angles and answers to those “how” and “why” questions as there are historians. Performance art also does this because no two performances are ever the same; and audience members often see and interpret the same story or song in a hundred different ways.
Yet, I digress.
What I really want to share is a particular story, a story about a little girl who sat in an audience and gave me the best lesson about what the arts, particularly theatre, does for an audience.
I have always been fond of Langston Hughes’ Black Nativity. Many theatre companies in Atlanta have performed this holiday classic over many decades.
I recall seeing many performances of it by Jomandi Productions and many other local Black theatre companies. In recent years, many directors and playwrights have produced their own version of the “Nativity.”
There was yet another re-imagining of this annual story conceived, written, and choreographed by Patdro Harris as part of Kenny Leon’s True Colors Theatre Company’s annual Christmas offering that played in December of 2011 at the beautiful Southwest Arts Center.
Yet, a couple of years ago, I witnessed Black Nativity for perhaps the eighth or ninth time. This time, however, I sat behind a little girl who could not have been any older than five or six years old. I watched her and nostalgically recalled that my first theatre experience occurred on a visit to New York when I was four and a half years old—I saw Sammy Davis, Jr. in Golden Boy. However, the little girl watching Black Nativity did more than bring up fond childhood memories for me.
Sitting in the dark at the Southwest Arts Center, preparing myself for True Colors Theatre Company’s version of Black Nativity, I watched this child’s face break out in a wide—missing-tooth—grin as the music, dance, and dialogue began.
She watched the show with wonder, that kind of childhood wonder where everything is brand new. After the show was over, while I chatted with some folks in the lobby, I watched and heard this child make a dozen comments and ask nearly as many questions:
“Mama, I sure did have a good time.”
“Mama, was the baby Jesus a real baby or was it a doll?”
“Mama what do actors do to make themselves look old?” “
What does “nativity” mean?
How can the same person pretend to be two different people?
The questions and comments from this child kept coming. Yet that is what the arts do—art always triggers the imagination. So I often wonder why some legislators do not realize that part of the reason why schools have difficulty raising students’ Math and Science scores is partially due to the fact that there has been a systematic de-emphasis and de-funding of the Arts and the Humanities.
Being able to memorize and regurgitate information is not a clear example of scholastic aptitude; being able to creatively think one’s way through or out of a problem is an explicit illustration of genuine intelligence. If you think Albert Einstein created his theory of relativity based only on what his science and math teachers taught him, you are dead wrong.
“I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination,” Einstein said.
If you think George Washington Carver did not understand the importance of creativity, think again. Carver emphasized that, “Since new developments are the products of a creative mind, we must therefore stimulate and encourage that type of mind in every way possible.” It is not likely Einstein or Carver would have become the geniuses that they were without a genuine respect for the arts.
That little girl I listened to asking questions in the lobby of the Southwest Arts Center would never have asked the kind of questions she asked her mother had her mother decided not to take her to see a play or a musical.
Black Nativity had stoked her young imagination. When you stoke children’s imaginations, they ask intelligent questions; and when this kind of inquisitiveness is encouraged, they tend to grow up to be adults who ask intelligent questions. When you have adults who know the right questions to ask, you tend to get a community that will demand and possibly get better public policy on everything from city services to health care to education.
So, do your community, yourself, and your children one favor. Take yourself, your children or a child to see a play, a Jazz concert, a ballet, and/or an art exhibit. Now there is no guarantee that you or any child that you expose to the arts will become the next Einstein or Carver, or even a great performance artist. Yet, why not give them a shot at being any or all of the above.