Black Arts/West, Part 4 -- A History by Douglas Q. Barnett

  • By Douglas Q. Barnett
  • Posted 8/30/2001
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 3523

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 4 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.

Dream on Monkey Mountain

Our greatest success in the early years was our 1971 production of Derek Walcott's Dream On Monkey Mountain directed by Jason Bernard. I had seen it the year before at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, with Jason Bernard in it. The performances were uninspired and the potential of the play unrealized. But the language and structure of the play were mesmerizing and in time we were successful in obtaining the production rights. Jason was hungry to direct the show, and once the rights were obtained, he eagerly signed on.

There followed six weeks of agony in orchestrating 15 actors, four musicians, and 10 dancers into a homogenous whole. There were defections, temper fits, and arguments galore as performers tried to adjust to the withering, uncompromising demands of Jason Bernard! Director!

There were stops and starts with Jason threatening to quit after several key performers never showed for a Saturday rehearsal. Consideration was given to canceling the production, but we plowed on and everything meshed at the last moment. It was our first large-scale production, and music under Floyd Standifer, dance choreography under Dumisani, and the direction of Jason flowed together as one, almost seamlessly.

The critics raved and justifiably so. Alexander Conley III gave an incredible performance as the lead character, Makak, and was aided by outstanding performances by Charles Canada, Robert Livingston, Sara Jackson, and Jerry Brewer. The legs were good on this one, running at 85 percent capacity for the run.

National Exposure

The year 1971 was by far our most successful season, a benchmark in the development of Black Arts/West. A seed had been planted during a 1969 visit to New York, when I witnessed Gilbert Moses’s spectacular production of Slave Ship at the New Riverside church. Gilbert was a co-founder of the Free Southern Theatre, and had directed several episodes of Roots. Woodie King introduced me to Gilbert and we talked directing, but his plate was full with stage commitments and an opportunity to direct a film in Hollywood. Surprisingly, Gilbert called a year later and we settled on an actors’ workshop for the summer of 1971.

Additionally, Allie Woods Jr., a charter member of the Negro Ensemble Company, was directing a show for ACT Theatre here in Seattle. We contracted with him to direct our opening production of the 1971-72 season, Peter Weiss's blistering indictment of apartheid and colonialism, Song Of The Lusitanian Bogey.

This did not happen out of a void. It happened because of two events the previous year. An interview was given the year previous with Cathy Castillo of the Associated Press who heaped acclaim on our program. More importantly, it was picked up by more than 100 newspapers across the country, giving us national exposure.

We were inundated with calls from institutions and individuals nationwide, asking the magic questions of how did we do it? Would we come to their cities and explain the who, what, where, and how of our program? They also contacted Model Cities with similar questions and congratulated them for helping to spawn a successful arts venture for young people. We were basking in the glow of nationwide appreciation, and accordingly, Model Cities loosened their purse strings. They struck a change order, increasing our budget to $67,000 for the season. That and other grants made it possible for us to hire professional directors at the going rate.

And we had struck gold with three of the very best in their field. Jason had led off with a superb production of Dream and now summer was fast upon us with Gilbert Moses.

Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death

Our relationship did not begin well after Moses cut the workshop short the first week, returning to New York. Everyone was upset, mostly the actors. In an office conference, he revealed that he would be directing a Broadway show in the fall called Ain't Supposed To Die A Natural Death by Melvin Van Peebles. He pulled a sheaf of papers from his bag and dumped them on the table.

"Here it is, man. Just a bunch of poems 15 or 20 I think. I'm supposed to make a play out of it. Van Peebles came to me after I'd obligated to you. Now they want me back in The Apple for auditions, costumes, lighting, and the tech stuff. So I have to split sometimes. But I really see this workshop as an opportunity to find the spine in this thing. Once I do that, I can work out a secondary sub-structure, story line... Dress it up, you know. Do that A to Z thang. So if we can work out something with me going to the Apple sometime ...."

The poem titles were exotic. "Put A Spell On You," "I Ain't No Astronaut," "Three Boxes of Longs...Please," and "Lilly Done The Zampoughi Every Time I..." The titles alone excited me. Gilbert and I sat down to work out a revised contract to account for his periodic absences.

It was a rough seven weeks but we made it. On a hot, humid night in August 1971, we gave birth to Ain't Supposed To Die A Natural Death some two months prior to its Broadway opening. Gilbert had molded the poems into a story of street life in the "hood," with an eclectic cast of characters. It mirrored perfectly the problems endemic to Blacks in America.

We gave three free performances for the community, each of which was jam-packed and 100 percent black! The audience response was nothing less than incredible. It appeared that we had turned the corner in trying to attract a majority black audience. Because Gilbert used the workshop to structure the poems and the story line, we expected a credit in the Broadway production. It didn't happen, but we took pride in the fact that it was born here! The Broadway production garnered numerous accolades, not the least of which was a Tony nomination for Gilbert's direction.

Then we opened the 1971/72 season with Bogey by Peter Weiss. It was directed by Allie Woods Jr. It was a very energetic, physical production, and one could see our cadre of young actors developing in many ways under the demands of professional direction. It was a timely production with events from South Africa dominating the headlines, but the audience response was tepid.

Next up was El Hajj Malik by N.R. Davidson, a story of Malcom X in musical ensemble form. I had seen Malik at Woodie King's New Federal Theatre in New York, the year previous under the direction of Damon Kenyatta, and engaged him to reprise it here. There was trouble from the start. The litany of problems began with Kenyatta’s refusal to work with our resident stage manager because he was white; his usage of a novice to stage manage; and lastly, eviscerating Davidson’s script to reflect his own politics.

We wanted to fire him, but CAMP demurred, citing the possibility of legal action. "We don't want a lawsuit," they cried. So we made it work by birddogging the novice stage manager, and cleaning up after his considerable mistakes. Thereafter our contracts were more specific in terms of script cuts and personnel. From now on they would use our people or else!

Art v. Bureaucracy

On the surface, things seemed to be okay. But a certain amount of disenchantment with CAMP was beginning to set in. Back in the 1971/72 season, the prestigious Rockefeller Foundation contacted us. They’d heard about us and after our initial conversation, it was obvious they knew a lot more about us than we knew about them. Up to a point! We were like two boxers feeling each other out in the first round.

Plans were made to visit them on my next excursion to the "Apple." Our proposal to them centered on the actor training program, and over the next several months we engaged in an intense colloquy resulting in a proposal that included a technical training program and some overhead costs. We were talking a ballpark figure of $50,000.

But it all unraveled when they started dealing with our parent agency, CAMP. First CAMP had to be convinced that sending internal financial and documentary records would not violate Federal laws. Then the records sent were in such a format as to be undecipherable. Many were missing or misplaced. Rockefeller called and asked me to intercede and expedite the flow of information needed to make the deal happen. But CAMP informed us they were not in a position to concentrate their efforts on one component at the expense of other programs they oversaw. They expressed indifference at the prestige factor in Black Arts/West receiving a Rockefeller grant. It would have been a tremendous validation of the theater, but it was not to be.

Shortly after they started dealing with CAMP, the cordial phone talks with Rockefeller took on an edgier tone. Two weeks later we received a tersely worded one paragraph letter of declination.

A month later, Rockefeller sent us a letter asking if we were interested in applying for a Playwright-In-Residence grant, for a total grant sum of $3500. This we did rather haphazardly and three weeks later, received an award letter (with check) for the Playwright program. We initiated the playwright program with an open call for scripts from Washington writers. Aaron Dumas was chosen as our first Playwright-In-Residence. But there was a lingering discontent left from the Rockefeller fiasco, and it planted in me a serious doubt concerning our continued relationship with CAMP.

Not long after this feculent episode, the third director of CAMP resigned. We stepped into the breach with the idea of spinning off from CAMP and becoming an independent entity. We met with the Director of Model Cities, who outlined specific conditions to be met in order to be funded directly. We set up a non-profit, 501 (c)3 organization composed of doctors, lawyers, professors, educators, and middle management professionals. A noted CPA firm agreed to monitor finances pro bono, and the pre-eminent bank in the area would oversee all financial transactions.

The Brass Ring

When the Director of Model Cities saw the outstanding team we'd assembled -- some of whom he socialized with -- he readily agreed to fund us as a separate entity beginning with the new fiscal year. Things were going well. Allie Woods had directed a stirring summer workshop production of Ed Bullin's, Street Sounds. Jason Bernard agreed to direct Joe Walker's The Harangues.

Then Gil Moses called and told me to check out a script by Paul Carter Harrison called The Great MacDaddy. We were off on our now annual money/script trip to Washington D.C. and New York. In D.C. we laid a proposal on Vantile Whitfield, head of Expansion Arts at the NEA. They had funded us at $15,000 the previous year, and things looked good.

Then to New York where 12 interviews had been set up. For the first time we had enough money to hire two full-time staff members. The idea was to finally implement the training program as originally envisioned. The three people we hired were all experienced, young, brash, and filled with the kind of panache and brio that New York seems to instill. They were Francine Major, Rafic Bey, and Buddy Butler. Francine would implement and oversee the actor training program. Rafic Bey would direct MacDaddy assuming we could get the rights. And Mr. Butler was hired in the dual capacity of resident stage manager and to teach classes in lighting design.

Novella Nelson, a top assistant to Joe Papp at the Public Theatre, graciously provided me a script of The Great McDaddy. Woodie King Jr., the great guru of Black Theater, arranged dinner with the author, Paul Carter Harrison, at Boomer’s down in Greenwich Vil- lage. Over a great feast of brook trout, and the hard driving jazz of Woodie Shaw, we sealed the deal for McDaddy. I returned to Seattle in a very upbeat mood. Everything we envisioned was starting to take shape.

A Dream Deferred

I returned to a rude awakening. During the week of scrambling for scripts, money, and personnel back east, CAMP had hired a new director. On my desk was a letter from the Director of Model Cities saying they had been "premature" in their acquiescence, that this was an "internal matter" between us and CAMP and needed to be worked out "in house."

Secondly, I was summoned to the office of the new Director of CAMP. She informed me in very explicit terms of the danger of pursuing this any further. She said Black Arts/West was a factor in her taking the CAMP position, and she was not going to lose it. That Black Arts/West was still a department of CAMP, that I was an employee of CAMP, and could be fired for the action I was pursuing. She strongly suggested I take a few days off to "adjust my attitude."

So I did.

To go to Part 5, click Browse to Next Essay, below.


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