By Ruby Samuels
The National Black Theater may be small in both reputation and stature compared to the Broadway giants a few miles to its south, but NBT has an important role to play on a national stage that is crowded by white people who constantly hire each other.
When you walk into NBT there is a subtle smell of incense; a purple crystal ball; wooden African sculptures; inspirational signs saying “Be The Light”; several pictures people and places from across the spectrum of the global African diaspora.
Located in the middle of Harlem- on 125th street and 5th avenue- NBT is just blocks from both the historic Apollo Theater (where Duke Ellington and Sam Cooke once played) and Sylvia’s, a famous soul food restaurant that was opened in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement and was used as the setting of Spike Lee’s movie, Jungle Fever.
Everywhere, both inside the building and throughout the neighborhood, feels like a museum of tribute to African American culture and history.
The core mission of the NBT, as stated on its website, aligns with this atmosphere of cultural expression:
- To produce transformational theater that helps to shift the inaccuracy around African Americans’ cultural identity by telling authentic stories of Black lifestyle;
- To use theater arts as a means to educate, enrich, entertain, empower & inform the national conscience around current social issues impacting our communities;
- To provide a safe space for artists of color to articulate the complexity, beauty & artistic excellence intrinsic in how we experience the world in the domain of acting, directing, producing, designing, play writing and entrepreneurial autonomy.
According to a 2017 analysis by PlayBill, African American actors are cast in 17 percent of all roles. In light of this statistic, and to use Viola Davis’s words from her acceptance speech after becoming the first woman of color to win best actress in a drama series at the 2015 Emmys: “the only thing that separates women [and men] of color from anyone else is opportunity.”
Institutions like NBT create the necessary space and resources for 1) African American actors, directors and playwrights to do their thing, 2) a stage for authentic depictions of the black experience to be performed, pondered and discussed and 3) a venue for an African American audience to see their own worldview validated and given dignity in a way that mainstream theater and film does not usually offer.
Onscreen and onstage narratives often exist for people to experience, through a relatable character, their own “worst possible outcome scenario” in a way that makes their personal reality seem either funny, manageable, shared, or all of the above. If black children grow up seeing mostly white actors in their favorite movies, with the occasional black actor placed in either hoodlum or stereotyped character roles, then they cannot have the same validating and moralizing experience that many white children have.
Black movies and plays like Fences, Do The Right Thing, Precious, and The Butler are all good examples of black actors being allowed into Hollywood, but even those movies do not provide an adequately relatable narrative for black kids in New York to relate to and feel represented by. NBT attempts to offer those relatable narratives that are missing from mainstream media.
On a visit to the NBT this past Sunday, I saw a workshop play called
“Manhood.” The play, which was crafted from script to stage by Dennis A. Allen during the 18 month “I Am Soul- Playwright Residency Program,” portrays a YouTube famous fitness trainer grappling with his own masculinity as a black man with a more financially successful, black wife.
His story is not told in terms of racial tensions between himself and the white people in his life- a plot structure that is often used to talk about race in America. But even without white people, “Mahood” is still about race. The play explores the tensions and dynamics that may be unique to the African American experience of gender, friendship, career, drugs, family and strangers– nuances of experience that white Americans may never be able to detect or see a need for.
“Manhood” ended its run on February 12th, but the National Black Theater has plays and art exhibits running all year long. In fact, NBT has produced over 300 original theater productions since its founding in 1968, and continues to pump them out. The theater is just over a mile from Columbia University’s campus and tickets are often no more that $20, so get your friends together and visit NBT for your next study break.