Black Arts/West, Part 3 -- A History by Douglas Q. Barnett

  • By Douglas Q. Barnett
  • Posted 8/30/2001
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 3522

Douglas Q. Barnett (b. 1931) was the founder of Black Arts/West and instrumental in the development of theater in Seattle's African American community during the 1960s. Black Arts/West opened on April 1, 1969, and was directed by Barnett until his resignation on July 31, 1973. This is Part 3 of his five-part history of Black Arts/West during his era and the flowering of African American theater and dance during those turbulent years. A complete list of the 32 plays produced during this period is included at the end of Part 5.

Transition

"The Times They Are A Changing," wailed Bob Dylan in the turbulent sixties. It was an accurate reflection of a nation dealing with racial conflict, a swiftly changing moral climate, and the ever mounting toll of body bags from Vietnam wiping out a new generation of young Americans. The times caught up with Gene Keene and his Cirque Playhouse situated in the Central Area which saw a steep falloff in attendance from his predominately white clientele.

The reasons were threefold. Capitalizing on the vacant Playhouse left over from the 1962 World's Fair, Bagley Wright and his millionaire friends elicited a $1.00 a year lease from the City with the promise of establishing a professional theater. The result was the Seattle Repertory Theatre, an institution that presented classical plays in a revolving repertory. Secondly in 1965 Greg and Jean Falls established A Contemporary Theatre in lower Queen Anne producing an eclectic mix of contemporary fare. Both institutions drew patrons from the Cirque. Racial tensions escalated in the CD. There were riots. Assaults. Fire-bombings. "White flight" became a stampede from the CD to other areas of the city and the Eastside. Almost overnight the Jewish population disappeared. Twenty-third Avenue became the "Maginot Line" of the CD, with very few crossing it going east. When the Black Panthers moved their headquarters to a storefront right around the corner from The Cirque, Gene Keene found his theater in a no man's land, isolated ... and alone.

Gene decided to close the theater. [The Cirque Playhouse closed on February 16, 1969.] We leaped into the breach trying to convince CAMP of the viability of having our own venue in which to develop a small, but burgeoning arts program. The restrictions on rehearsals and sound were too much to bear. We also had to borrow chairs from the Catholic church next door, and perform on an unyielding concrete floor. The fear was that eventually we would be forced to perform in other spaces around town in a sporadic manner. The thought of becoming a “gypsy” operation was filled with foreboding. History is replete with theater troupes that atrophied and died for lack of a permanent performance facility.

With the thought of instant credibility in mind we mounted a cadre of small, but vociferous supporters to lobby CAMP with letters and phone calls in advocacy of obtaining the Cirque for our program. Under mounting community pressure, CAMP decided in the affirmative and contacted Gene Keene, who it turned out was in negotiations with a cable firm wanting the building for expansion purposes. The Central Area Citizens Committee, the governing board of CAMP, then exerted pressure on the cable company to reconsider its position based on “the needs of the community."

Catch 22

In protracted negotiations we were finally able to rent the theater. CAMP put up the first and last months' rent, but we would be responsible thereafter for rent and all expenses. While we celebrated the advent of our own space, it meant we would not be able to shape the program in the direction envisioned. The burden of meeting the rent, utility payments, and other incidentals was a crushing burden. Heretofore, we were exempted from that in working out of the CAMP firehouse, now we were expected to pay our own way. It also prevented us from our overall goal of developing a full-time year-round training academy in dance and drama. The plan was to eschew producing plays and concentrate on training, even though our productions were being embraced more and more by the community.

I determined that while our actors were brilliant at improvisation, and projected the reality of our own milieu flawlessly, that the finer elements of projection, sotto voce, movement, and characterization out of that milieu fell short. No matter how the numbers were crunched, they came up short tuition-wise for the training concept. In order to survive, we would have to continue as a producing entity.

Black Arts/West

We took occupancy of the theater on April 1, 1969 and named it Black Arts/West. We dispensed with the usual mission statement. Our avowed goal was to “Educate, Enlighten, and Entertain.” The joy of having one’s own theatre was muted by the responsibilities attendant to maintaining the facility. Since a lack of funds prevented us from hiring a janitor, the duties fell on me. During the first two years I was a virtual prisoner of the theater, coming in early in the morning, cleaning the bathrooms and dressing rooms prior to performances, and taking care of any other needs. Sometime in our second year, we tapped into a federal program providing jobs for low income residents and hired our first part time janitor -- one of our actors!

Our inaugural production in mid-May was a double bill of two one-act plays by Ed Bullins: The Electronic Nigger and A Son Come Home. It was buoyed by a guest star appearance of Otis Young, a Black actor known for his starring role in a TV series called The Outcasts, with Don Murray.

Son stole the show in a beautifully realized production directed by Bea Winde, a black actress with the Seattle Rep, before a sold-out house. The play featured Sara Jackson in her return to the stage after 30 years. She was one of the original participants of the Seattle Federal Theatre project during the 1930s. More than 30 years later, a mother with three children, she still had that theatrical fire in the belly and gave an outstanding performance. She continued to serve as a mentor to many of the young (and not so young) people in the program. We made a decision to use professional actors or directors to direct as many of our shows as possible.

Our problem was to find the money to pay them. We did this by developing two separate touring groups. One was named The Soul Search Players. This was an interracial troupe that performed The Man Nobody Saw, a play written by a white playwright about race relations. It was performed at white churches and other venues in white neighborhoods that feared going into the CD.

The other troupe was composed of Hill, Conley, Garrett, and Livingston, with whom we'd developed Minstrel and Days of Thunder. Whenever things got tight we'd combine the two shows, update them with current headlines, and perform them under the rubric of Thunder. At $300 to $400 per performance it paid many a light bill. With Thunder, we hit the University Circuit, playing Washington State University, Oregon State University, University of Oregon, Williamette, Reed, and University of British Columbia.

A Black Aesthetic

By late 1969 another anti-poverty program, Model Cities, was in place. Seattle was one of 10 pilot cities chosen and the Seattle Model Cities program effectively became the financial controller and monitor of CAMP's programs. CAMP was simply a conduit to an end. Unlike before, Model Cities guidelines provided money for arts programs and we jumped at the opportunity.

A longstanding desire for an art gallery surfaced in community focus groups and since we had the only arts facility in the area, Model Cities approached us with the concept of establishing a gallery in our lobby area. In hard bargaining, we were able to obtain a grant for the gallery, and enough money to provide a salary for Ms. Richards who also assumed the duties of curator. The first event in the new gallery was a group show featuring local minority artists. Later Ms. Richards was successful in negotiating a traveling exhibit with Samella Lewis of the Los Angeles County Museum. The shows were augmented by an audio tape put together in an attempt to enhance the visual images the audience would see. The effect was a total immersion into a Black aesthetic from the time one entered the front door. Coltrane, Ella, Duke, Monk, and Miles invaded your mind on one level, while the conceptual images of Black art/life infused itself on another. Surprisingly, it was very effective. It set the mood and tone for whatever production was playing.

During the day, young people of all ages could be seen in the lobby witnessing work reflective of their own heritage. Security was our only concern, but proved to be a non-issue.

The Race for Ducats

Several items are worth noting at this time. The National Endowment For The Arts was created in 1965 and its budget grew incrementally every year. The Seattle Municipal Arts Commission was renamed the Seattle Arts ComMission, given additional money a beefed up staff, and broader powers in order to be eligible for NEA funds. The reason being that local state, county, and city arts agencies functioned as pipelines for arts groups. There was a madness to it all as arts groups, large and small, scrambled to get their share of the NEA's larghesse.

The Seattle Arts Commission or SAC as we called it, adopted a quantitative funding formula tilted toward resident performing arts institutions like the Seattle Opera, Rep, the Symphony, and Museum. It essentially guarantees their getting the largest share of the pie, with smaller groups getting the crumbs or left out. The fact that PONCHO, and the Corporate Council for the Arts utilize the same basic formula is not coincidental. It is a “system” that virtually guarantees the continued perpetuation of Euro-American culture in this country.

It was incumbent upon me to learn the grantsmanship game, which I did from a friend of mine, Greg Falls of ACT Theatre. He tipped me off to things like funding cycles, priorities, and the like. Dr. Falls had befriended me from the start, even giving the theater some surplus lights to use. He enlightened me with names of key players from various agencies and foundations who funded theater programs. This help was key in obtaining grants and funding through the years.

Peter Donnelly, Managing Producer at the Seattle Rep magnanimously donated some much needed lighting equipment to us. The Rep also performed a benefit performance of Jean Genet’s The Blacks, with all proceeds going to our program as we started that first year in our facility. So there was interaction between the haves, and the have-nots, and we were the better for it.

The First Four Years

After our premiere production in May 1969, through August 1973, we produced some 32 plays. Each one had its own raison d’etre, its own milieu and story, its own success or failure, and each was an adventure on its own. We had our share of bombs, but each was a small step forward in achieving our goal of becoming a year round professional training and producing institution.

The most significant events of the first four years were:

      1) Escalation of Model Cities funding

2) The benefit of national exposure

3) The CAMP leadership merry-go-round

4) Internal politics

5) Significant productions

The Turntable Oligarchy

One constant in the first four years was the continual leadership change of CAMP. I was interviewed for the job by Walter Hundley, the first CAMP director. By the time I started a month later, he was Director of Model Cities and Harold Whitehead was head of CAMP. He left a year and a half later, followed by Chuck Hodges and R. Y. Woodhouse respectively. This lack of continuity in upper management was a confusing and disruptive element in the development of Black Arts/West. Each had his or her own agenda and policy changes were mercurial in nature; here one day, gone the next. Gene Keene used to tell me, “There ain’t no room for democracy in the theater, ‘Bubee.’ Ya gotta be a dictator to make the thing work.” While I did not consider myself a dictator, the institution of a singular vision is essential in shaping a theater. Needless to say, there were many conflicts between CAMP’s ever changing policies, and our avowed mission to establish a professional producing and training institution.

A word here about CAMP. As an anti-poverty agency, they were charged with developing programs to benefit the community. If these programs were deemed successful using the barometer of community involvement, and financial viability, they were to be spun off to operate on their own. The Odessa Brown Clinic still operating today is an example. They were allowed to spin off from CAMP in the early seventies. Black Arts/West was never afforded that opportunity, despite meeting each and every criteria set forth.

After moving into the theater, we produced eight plays per year over the next four years. The first year was a make or break survival enterprise in which we scratched for money to pay the rent and other expenses. We did this primarily by income derived from the touring groups, The Soul Search Players, and The New Group Theatre. The New Group had been incorporated as a non-profit 501c3 entity with a functioning board composed of Beverly Christie, Dolores McGough, Dorothy Broxon, Jacqueline Henney, Roberta Byrd Barr, Anne Gerber, and myself. The reality was that New Group Theatre had more money and assets from prior touring than Black Arts/West had when it started functioning.

The problem of serving two masters was unworkable and at CAMP's behest we sold all assets to them because they saw no reason to split any derived income. Thus, sometime in 1970, the New Group Theatre ceased to function as a working entity and was dissolved. The productions mounted during the balance of 1969/70 were mostly one acts like Dutchman, Poor Willie, and The Street-Corner.

Black, White, and Green

Ironically, when we first started, our audience was about 70 percent white. The blacks who did attend were doctors, lawyers, architects, professors, and upper management types. It became apparent that I had misjudged the Raisin experience, and that part of our mission would have to include some type of educational outreach effort to attract the man on the street -- the janitor, the housekeeper, the bus driver. In short, ordinary people of ordinary means.

We saw the Black church as the best avenue to reach this audience, but were constantly rebuffed by the major churches in the area, despite the fact that we offered to perform for free. They felt we were an instrument of the devil, and wanted script and veto control which of course was refused. They also saw us as a threat, because to many Black people, the church IS their theater.

Historically, the record shows that theater in the Western sense has always occupied a small niche in Black culture. Conversely, theater has always been a part of the Anglo-Saxon tradition, going back centuries ago. We were bucking almost two centuries of cultural tradition in trying to build a Black audience. It was like pulling teeth with a pair of pliers.

Ultimately we were criticized by Black militants because of the complexion of our audience. However they failed to realize that Black is Black, White is White, and money is green! Over the years our audience did become Blacker, sometimes 100 percent so, but our core group of white patrons never deserted us.

The Prison Outreach Program

One item that never received any press, but which we carried out with a great degree of pride and zeal, was our prison outreach program. In 1971 and 1972, we were able to perform for the prisoners at both McNeil Island [Federal Penitentiary] and Monroe State Reformatory.

Walla Walla lived up to its reputation as one of the toughest prisons in the country by ignoring our requests to perform there. But performances at both McNeil and Monroe were joyous, heartfelt celebrations of the human spirit, reuniting with many from our community. One of the inmates at McNeil Island was so affected by the performances, that he studied acting in prison, exchanged correspondence with us, and upon release, joined Black Arts/West in our training program. He eventually performed in several productions. From a personal standpoint, I look upon the Prison Outreach Program as the greatest achievement in Black Arts/West's 11 years of operation.

Papa B on the D Train

Sometime in 1970 we arranged a four-city trip over seven days in search of money, directors, and scripts, not necessarily in that order.

1)Los Angeles: See Jason Bernard in production of Derek Walcott’s allegorical masterpiece, Dream On Monkey Mountain. Production did not jell. Impressed with writing. Make mental note to follow up. On to Washington D.C.

2)Meet with Vantile Whitfield at National Endowment For The Arts. Present proposal for $20,000 from Expansion Arts. Talk shop. Meet Robert Hooks at D.C. Black Rep. Tour John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts. To New York.

3)To New Federal Theatre to see Woodie King Jr. who informs as to N.Y. theater scene. See Big Time Buck White, and El Hajj Malik. Touch base with authors’ agents. Present proposals to the Ford and Rockefeller foundations. Do the museum thing at Met, Brooklyn, Whitney, and Studio in Harlem. Contact Derek Walcott’s English agent. Lay the seed. Interview 12 directors over three days. Word out on hotel I stay. Ambushed by playwrights, actors, directors. Hotel officials not happy. Deluged with calls and scripts. Purchase suitcase to schlep them home. Next up, Chicago.

4)See Ed Bullin’s play In New England Winter. Meet with Hoyt Fuller at Johnson Publications re: space for article on BA/W in Black World. Big argument, then capitulation if I write.

5) Back to Seattle. Sleep for two days!

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