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Where to see African-American artists and the black experience on stage
Over the past few years, many high-profile NYC theatres have been making a noticeable effort to spotlight African-American artists, both on stage and behind the scenes—see the rise of playwrights such as Jeremy O. Harris, Donja R. Love, Ngozi Anyanwu and Jackie Sibblies Drury, to name a handful. But some companies have been dedicated to championing black theatre-makers for decades, in fact, two troupes have been around for half a century.
As a black playwright and director myself, I'm well aware that there are more than five black theatres in the five boroughs. For further reading, see HowlRound's comprehensive list of black theatres in NYC and beyond, and BroadwayBlack, a news source about African-American stage artists.
1. National Black Theatre
2031 Fifth Avenue at 125th Street in Harlem
Founded in 1968 by the late actor-dancer Barbara Ann Teer and now run by her daughter Sade Lythcott, NBT is a venerable Harlem institution with a mission to create a new African-American canon outside of the white mainstream, and to heal and uplift the black community through the performing arts. NBT has produced hundreds of shows over its five-decade history, and continues to develop and showcase new work by young writers of color, particularly women. Its I Am a Soul Playwright Residency Program includes Mfoniso Udofia among its alumnae, and Dominique Morisseau and Jocelyn Bioh presented early works at NBT. Recent seasons demonstrate the theatre hasn't lost its edge, with 2018's The Peculiar Patriot and 2017's Kill Move Paradise confronting racism past and present head-on.
2. New Federal Theatre
Castillo Theatre, 543 West 42nd Street between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues in Midtown West
NFT was established in 1970 by producer and director Woodie King Jr. Its moniker is an homage to the Depression-era Federal Theatre Project, which created opportunities for thousands of stage professionals, many of them black. Throughout its tenure, NFT has produced both new and classic texts. Ntozake Shange developed her groundbreaking work for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf with NFT's support, and Morgan Freeman, Phylicia Rashad and Chadwick Boseman are some of the stars who have appeared in its productions. Since 2007, the troupe has partnered with Castillo Theatre to mount shows, and although the output has slowed somewhat, recent productions such as Freight: The Five Incarnations of Abel Green and 2018's Harriet's Return: Based Upon the Legendary Life of Harriet Tubman have been well-received.
Since 1999, CTH has infused Shakespeare, the ancient Greeks, and 20th-century masters such as Beckett and Genet with an African-American flavor. The company almost folded when its original founders departed. But producing artistic director Ty Jones -- a veteran CTH actor who won an Obie for his turn in the troupe's production of The Blacks: A Clown Show Harlem -- rescued the company from the brink and expanded its scope, developing new work with contemporary playwrights of color, and adding new traditions such as free summer theatre in Marcus Garvey Park and an annual holiday show. CTH's take on classics is quite contemporary. Casting is gender and color-blind, and politics are always present, like its post-apocalyptic Afropunk Antigone, which referenced the Black Lives Matter movement.
4. Harlem Repertory Theatre
The Tato Laviera Theatre and the Experimental Black Box Theatre in the Harlem Prep Charter School, 240 East 123rd Street at Second Avenue in East Harlem
Former Broadway performer Keith Lee Grant founded HRT in 2004 to bring affordable professional theatre to the neighborhood. The multicultural company takes the term repertory seriously, running multiple shows at once on its two stages, often over many years. While Grant tends to favor well-known crowd-pleasers, he also revives more obscure shows like Jamaica, an all-black musical that hadn't been seen in New York since it closed on Broadway 60 years ago. You can currently catch that Harold Arlen-E.Y. Harburg tuner along with a one-hour staging of The Wizard of Oz, A Raisin in the Sun and In the Heights, which has been running since 2016!
5. The Fire This Time Festival
The Kraine Theater, 85 East 4th Street between Bowery and Second Avenue in the East Village
TFTT is an annual festival, not a theatre company. However, since its 2010 founding, this event has helped launch the careers of a slew of hot young black playwrights, including Jiréh Breon Holder, James Anthony Tyler and Marcus Gardley. The fest's name is a nod to James Baldwin's seminal book The Fire Next Time, and its goal is to support the next generation of black playwrights as they explore their diverse and ever-evolving culture. Every January, in collaboration with Horse Trade Theater Group, TFTT presents a program of 10-minute plays along with readings of longer ones.
Regina Robbins is a writer, director, native New Yorker and Jeopardy! champion. She has worked with several NYC-based theatre companies and is currently a Core Company Member with Everyday Inferno Theatre.
Top image: Alexandria King and Ava McCoy in Classical Theatre of Harlem's Antigone. Photo by Richard Termine.
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