African Continuum Theatre Company's Thembi Duncan is one of the Symposium's organizers.
On March 1, the University of Maryland's School of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies will host the 1st Annual Black Theatre Symposium: a day of panel discussions, workshops and performances exploring the past, present and future of Black Theatre.
Symposium organizers Thembi Duncan (producing artistic director, African Continuum Theatre Company) and Scot Reese (professor, University of Maryland) say the event stemmed from the concern that here we are, in this city with a population that's nearly 50 percent African American, and yet African Continuum is the only full-time, professional black theater company.
The famed African-American sociologist, historian, author and civil-rights activist W.E.B. DuBois once called for a Black Theater that was "by us, for us, near us, and about us." And Duncan says a goal of the Symposium is to take that description and apply it to the Black Theater of today.
"We want to really investigate what our personal connection is to black theater," she explains. "We're seeing lot's more opportunities now... where a lot of main stream theaters are performing work by black playwrights, [and] are hiring black directors and black actors. And so the question becomes: what is black theater? If some of those elements — 'for us, by us, about us, near us' — are missing, is it still black theater?
"We don't expect at the end of this symposium to have some sort of magic solution to some societal or racial problem," she continues. "This is about us coming together, having a conversation and listening to each other."
Reese says the Symposium will also explore how black theatre fits in to the framework of our nation's history and culture.
"We kind of know [black theatre's history] from the '50s and '60s onward," he says. "But [we go] back to the first published play by William Wells Brown [in] the late 19th century. Then we go in to the early 20th century with Angelina Grimke that wrote 'Rachel.' And then you get into the 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s with Lorraine Hansberry. And then a little bit later we get the Alice Childress, we get the Charles Gordones."
The 1970s brought social satire, Reese says, with "Day of Absence" by Douglas Turner Ward. Then in the 1980s, August Wilson entered the scene.
"And it kind of exploded," Reese says. "In that time you also had Susan Lori Parks and Lynn Nottage and Cheryl West and there was so much womanism and feminism going on at that time. And [as for] the newer voices, you have the documentary theater that came in with Anna Deavere Smith."
The Symposium will focus on a number of aspects of black theatre, including theater for young audiences, musical theater and design.
"And that's very exciting because we always seem to have trouble finding the next generation of designers of color," Reese says. "There are so few people being represented. So hopefully a panel like this [will show] people from colleges and high schools that, 'Oh, I can be doing that!'"
Reese and Duncan say they expect this annual Symposium to get even bigger over the next few years. For now, Duncan says this year's event will be an extraordinary experience "for people who are interested in learning more about black theater in general," as well as "people who are already practitioners and want to make connections, or maybe want to learn about some aspect of black theater that maybe [they] just haven't touched on."
The key, she says, is to keep the conversation about black theatre going.
"When we stop talking about it," she says, "that's when we're lost."
[Music: "Snap Crackle" by Roy Haynes from Out of the Afternoon]