In September 2003 a group of 21 theatres of color from around the United States convened in Yulee, Fla. Alarmed by new statistics that found, among other things, that theatres of color typically have the smallest budgets in the United States, the artistic directors in attendance addressed topics such as funding and educational outreach. The meeting and the statistics, both formulated by the Theatre Communications Group, constituted a benchmark for theatres of color. For the first time, these institutions were banding together to address their issues on a national scale.
Today many theatres of color are following suit. The Coalition of Theatres of Color, a group of 15 Latino and African-American theatres in New York, hosted a town hall meeting at Manhattan's Little Shubert Theatre May 18. Through the weekend of May 30, the Bear Arts Foundation, a new nonprofit grant and advocacy organization for theatres and writers of color based in San Diego, hosted a meeting in Columbus, Ohio, for writers and artistic directors nationwide. Looks Like Chicago, a group of four theatres of color founded by the Silk Road Theatre Project, will host a town hall meeting June 16 at the Chicago Cultural Center.
Few surveys exist on the state of theatres of color nationwide. According to the 2002 TCG report The Future of Theatres of Color, these companies occupy the two bottom rungs of the yearly budgetary ladder: less than $500,000 or between $500,000 and $1 million. However, the survey represents a sample of only 19 theatres of color across the United States; in New York City alone there are more than 30 Asian-American, African-American, and Latino theatres.
By banding together, theatres of color can address their issues as a political and cultural force, according to Woodie King Jr., the chair of the Coalition of Theatres of Color and artistic director of the 38-year-old New Federal Theatre in Harlem. The CTC was formed in 2004 by actor Ruby Dee and her husband, actor and activist Ossie Davis, to address issues of sustainability for New York theatres of color.
The May 18 town hall meeting attracted about 400 people. Many of the concerns raised at the Little Shubert echoed the concerns first expressed in 2003: a dearth of support from the media, grantors, and audiences. These factors culminate in a lack of funding, which makes it difficult to serve the community—not only through productions but through educational outreach for young performers and writers.
"People left with an understanding overall of what we require to sustain ourselves," said King. "Politicians are more conscious of us, audiences saw that they have to pay for tickets…and people from the funding world got a greater understanding of the grant applications in front of them."
As for tickets, King and other CTC members said one of their chief concerns is a lack of support from the audiences for whom these plays are produced. Lorna C. Hill, the artistic director of Ujima Theatre in Buffalo, N.Y., an African American–centered theatre, challenged her community at the town hall meeting: "I'm going to call out the African-American middle class. You are the ones who complain about the price of tickets. It's time to address what's going on with the black middle class. You support white theatre, but you wouldn't be caught dead in a black theatre." After she was finished, the audience at the Shubert delivered thunderous applause.
According to Sandra Foreman, co-founder of Bear Arts, a lack of support from audiences and funding institutions can deter companies from producing new work. Because many companies are dependent on ticket sales, they frequently have to cater to theatregoers who prefer familiar plays and musicals. This in turn can alienate emerging writers as well as those actors who are not interested in constantly performing in revivals. "You're looking at theatres that do not have the staffing to go through stacks of new scripts," said Foreman. "Not to mention that many of these theatres were formed in the '60s, so their audience might not like new work. It might be too risky."
The issues raised by the CTC and Bear Arts Foundation resonated for Nancy Cheryll Davis-Bellamy, artistic director of the Towne Street Theatre, a 15-year-old African-American theatre based in Los Angeles. According to Davis-Bellamy, inconsistent media coverage is the "Achilles' heel" of Towne Street Theatre. "We need press clips to send in with the grant applications," said Davis-Bellamy. "They're looking for the reviews, but people do not come to review our shows, or the reviews are far off from the reaction of our community audience. What makes our audience gasp in delight is 'histrionic' to a reviewer."
Though Towne Street is not officially part of a coalition, it has plans to collaborate with the nearby Robey Theatre in 2009 on a not-yet-titled play about Langston Hughes. Though the Robey also serves a mostly African-American audience, the overlap is a bonus, not a detriment, Davis-Bellamy said: "I don't see us as a competition at all. I see us both as being able to service the audience. Yes, we have the same audience in a lot of ways, but it's important to share resources."
The Silk Road Theatre Project, a Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, and Asian-American theatre based in Chicago, gets plenty of media attention, but according to Artistic Director Jamil Khoury, the concept of ethnic theatre can come with a stigma. "There is always the risk of being something community-based or ethnically specific, and somehow the quality becomes marginalized" in the media's mindset, Khoury said. "If big theatres decide to do something African American, they're heavily rewarded [with media coverage] for it, and those of us who are committed 24/7 to the cause are left grumbling and saying, 'What about us?' "
In 2006 Khoury co-founded a joint subscription program between the Silk Road Theatre Project and three other Chicago theatres: Congo Square Theatre, an African-American theatre; Teatro Vista, a Latino theatre; and Remy Bumppo, an Anglo theatre. The program, Looks Like Chicago, is an attempt to represent the city's diversity and attract audiences to all four genres. The June 16 town hall meeting, which is open to the public, will address the progress made and issues faced by the new collective.
Sharon Jensen, executive director of Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts, a New York–based group that advocates diversity, acknowledged that inequities between theatres of color and other theatres still exist but says the issue of funding is multifaceted. Jensen cited everything from the Internet age to the manners of the people in box offices in affecting ticket sales and funding. "It all comes down to this: In lean economic times, who gets the dollars, and based on what? And who's deciding about whom?" said Jensen. "All nonprofit theatre speaks to so many factors, including taste. Just because you're a theatre of color doesn't mean that the members of your ethnicity are going to like what you put up."
In 2007 the National Endowment for the Arts devoted $4.2 million in theatre grants under its Access to Artistic Excellence program. Of the individual projects that received funding, 72 percent had an ethnic theme, meaning Asian, Latino, African-American, or American Indian/Alaskan Native. However, of the individual institutions funded, only 21 percent had an ethnic identity.
Bill O'Brien, director of the NEA's theatre and musical theatre departments, said no quota exists to ensure affirmative action among grantees, but diversity is strictly implemented by an ethnically diverse panel that reviews applications. "For us, it's looking at the big balancing act in the broad sense of American theatre and plays," said O'Brien. "What we try to find is where these things can exist in ways that aren't at the expense of the other."
Nevertheless, Foreman said that for theatres of color to gain clout in the balancing act, collaboration within their communities is crucial. She referred to the recent proliferation of studies, conversations, and collectives as a "movement."
"Instead of knocking each other in the head for fundraising money," she said, "theatres of color are coming together to form a movement so that they can not only survive but thrive."