Monday, November 25, 2013

When Black Theater Gets it Right, It's a Halleljuah Moment!

Yesterday afternoon I witnessed the rebirth of a theater company that years ago gave me hope for Black theater in Dallas. Soul Rep Theatre's The Freedman's production made my heart palpitate throughout its run, from the careful selection of the vintage images to the choice of musical fabric, everything screamed "we are back and we ain't playing!" When I arrived in Dallas in 1980, the only Black theater in this town was being done on an amateur basis, albeit some of it very professionally presented. I heard that Dallas Minority Repertory Theater had folded and Afro-American Artist Alliance was struggling to maintain. Curtis King was presenting plays under the mantle of The Third World Players and an occasional one person production could be seen. So when Tisha Crear with Guinea Bennett, and Anyika McMillan launched Soul Nation, things began to look up for Black theater/performance art because we finally saw some young people who seemed committed to creating original work that had an African sensibility and that vowed to speak with authenticity. The demise of Soul Nation might have dealt another death blow to Black Theater in Dallas were it not for the rise of Soul Rep Theatre Company that Guinea and Anyika started and into which they pumped all their energy and spirit. I watched them struggle to mount full productions of their inspired writing and rejoiced when they made it to COP status with the Office of Cultural Affairs. It was a very sad day when they decided to shut it all down because they couldn't maintain the rigorous schedule on the limited budgets they always worked under. As a mother/artist however, I sympathized and empathized with my younger sisters when they chose to concentrate on raising their young families and securing their homesteads. Although I secretly prayed that they would make a comeback, I knew they had to do what they had to do. So this rebirth, this triumphant comeback is such a sweet full circle for me because I have always felt that theater is an essential art form for a people whose legacy has been rooted in the spoken word and performance. Black theater for me is so much more than entertainment but instead a confirmation of our existence as a communal people in a society that never much valued community. The writing in The Freedman's is poetic and profound. Keith Price, who can spit a rhyme as effectively as he can pen a verse, gives us powerful testimony to the everyday trauma experienced by the Black Male in America, the text written by Anyika's multi-talented husband Chris Herod. The soliloquy delivered so poignantly by Monique Ridge (an actor who I confess has always made me shake my head in amazement!) is nothing short of brilliant. And what can I say about Anyika McMillan-Herod that won't have you thinking she paid me to say it, but that her writing, performance and commitment to excellence is an inspiration to an elder who values these qualities more than any other in a Black artist. I applaud all the former and new members of Soul Rep Theatre Company and vow to support all their future efforts as I hope everyone who loves theater and Black community empowerment will do as well! Bravo, Ashe and Hallelujah! Photo credit: Mona Reeder/Dallas Morning News staff Photographer

Friday, November 22, 2013

Erasure & Omission: The New Racism (or is it new?)

On Saturday evening of November 9, I learned just how easy it is for your personal history to be revised simply by the omission of your name from a narrative by someone in a position to do so. When Peter Doroschenko chose not to include me in the 35 year history of D-Art/Dallas Contemporary history, he effectively erased a part of my personal history in Dallas Texas. When I first learned of this erasure I was a bit hurt but after a few days of reflection, I moved from hurt to outrage! My outrage was based on several factors not the least of which was how dare this man come to "my town" and make a decision not to acknowledge something I worked hard to acquire i.e. a legacy of helping Dallas artists in a city that doesn't particularly value them. So some context for those who don't know my history in the visual arts in Dallas. In 1986, when Patricia Meadows asked me to leave my position as Supervisor of Community Arts Development at the Division of Cultural Affairs (Jerry Allen had not yet turned it into a Department) to assume the Executive Director position at D'Art Visual Arts Center (it had not yet been rebranded as D-Art) she didn't consider what a major shift in the Dallas arts narrative this invitation represented. Dallas had never had an African American lead a non-ethnic specific arts institution, male or female. The fact that Patricia didn't even consider this is a testament to her character but the fact that this was a major shift was not lost on me. As someone who had to, in 1977, kick the door down at the Connecticut Commission on the Arts to enter the arts administration field in something other than a designated "ethnic specific" position, I was no stranger to the latent racism that existed in the American arts world. I was well prepared for it having gone to art schools where I was often only one of a handful of Black students, often creating in a hostile environment. I knew that all eyes would be on me as I worked to move D'Art to another level of service to Dallas visual artists. I realize now that Patricia's selection marked a shift in not only the direction that this institution that Mary Ward,Judy Hearst and she had birthed, but a shift in how race in the Dallas arts community would play out. My presence at D-Art meant some major changes were going to happen around race because heretofore, the organization was pretty much all white and largely comprised of hobbyists. I knew that I not only had to attract the visual art professionals but I was also going to have to introduce Dallas to the many visual artists of color. I am proud to say that I was the first in Dallas to show Hung Lui's work, now internationally acclaimed, to showcase Barsamian and Dennis Gonzalez installations, Letitia Huerta's gorgeous paintings, Lahib Jaddo's provocative work and Jean Lacy's renderings for her St. Luke UMC windows, to name a few of the ethnic artists I presented.
I also introduced performance art to D-Art commissioning artists like Laney Yarber & Philip Lamb's X-Static, a work that even today has few rivals. So my contribution to the narrative of D-Art/Dallas Contemporary is by no means minor. In fact, if I hadn't moved the D-Art needle far over to the professional level, there would be no Dallas Contemporary! If this situation were an isolated incident caused by a stupid man who didn't think anyone would notice, I might let it go. But having the time to think about it, I know this is not the case. A number of years ago my friend Martha Jackson-Jarvis, nationally known artist in DC, recounted a story that mirrored mine. She was sitting in an audience at a conference listening to a white woman art historian give a lecture on a groundbreaking exhibition that Martha had curated and was in, only to witness her role not mentioned nor her worked showcased. She told me it was "like watching myself being erased from my own history!". The practice of erasing Black accomplishments is nothing new. It's been the nature of our historical exclusion since we arrived on these shores. What is new is whites in today's world of technology and social media thinking they can get away with it. Peter must have realized that 1. I would get wind of this omission and 2. I wouldn't be silent about my outrage on being omitted. Surely, if nothing else, I have gained a reputation in this town as someone who never backs down from saying what's right, no matter the consequences. But what would he know of what this town knows since he's invested so little time here! But I digress... I wish I could say this is the first time anyone has pulled this kind of crap but unfortunately it isn't. A while back, I commissioned artist Dave Herman to create an exhibition that explored his Gullah roots. He created "Etched in the Eyes" one of the most moving and beautiful body of photographs I've ever seen. A few years later, he was asked to remount the show at Brookhaven College and to my surprise and chagrin, David Newman the curator of the gallery program there, was representing David as an artist that he "discovered" and there was no mention of South Dallas Cultural Center as the commissioner of the exhibit anywhere in the material written up on it. I hit the roof and made sure he knew I didn't appreciate the omission of my institution in Dave's bio nor the inference that Newman had "discovered" him. So fast forward to this year and I experience the same kind of omission when I read Letitia Huckaby's exhibition record online at Liliana Bloch's new gallery website and no where is it mentioned that she showed in the Arthello Beck Gallery at the South Dallas Cultural Center, oh by the way, the first place to show her work as a solo artist. When I asked Liliana in an email why we were omitted, she never answered me but instead asked Letitia to respond. Of course Letitia was appalled that this had been done and in no way condoned it but to date, it still remains a MIA entry. Only if you drill into Letitia's CV link can you see South Dallas Cultural Center mentioned. What's interesting about this is that any artist knows that solo shows are far more significant in one's career than group shows. What's also interesting is that Hung Lui still lists South Dallas Cultural Center and D-Art on her gallery's website even though given how long ago these shows were, I wouldn't fault her if she dropped them now! The erasure or omission of African American accomplishments from American History is legendary. The omission of my Dallas history is beginning to follow this same legend. The difference is I don't plan to go silently into night, bemoaning this slight! Before DART Director of PR Sue Bauman retired, she made it her business to set the record straight about how the DART Art Program came into being and I am forever grateful to her for giving me credit for its design. It's not hard to change the narrative of any organization or institution after the people who know the real story are gone. Lucky for me I have an incredible personal archive that chronicles the work I've done both as an administrator and as an artist because the one thing I know for sure is that if Black people don't tell their own story, it likely will be erased from the American narrative. As we prepare for the Facing Race National Conference 2014, let this be a lesson in how Dallas needs to face race because although I am tired of talking about it, I will never tire of fighting against racism. A luta continua...