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