On November 26, 2020, about a dozen family members and friends of Black theater pioneer Douglas Q. Barnett gather to celebrate the naming of Douglas Q. Barnett Street, a one-block honorary designation at 34th Avenue E and E Union Street in Seattle. The site is the former location of Black Arts/West Theatre, an independent Black performing arts theater founded by Barnett in 1969. Barnett, born on June 14, 1931, began his career working for the U.S. Postal Service before turning to acting and then devoting his time to the arts, where he worked to advance the careers of African American actors and the future of Black theater. While serving as artistic director of Black Arts/West, a post he held until 1973, Barnett produced or directed socially relevant plays, including some he wrote himself. He was the company manager for the national tour of the Tony award-winning play, "The River Niger," managed the Geva Theatre in Rochester, New York, and worked for the Seattle Arts Commission. Barnett died in Seattle on October 22, 2019.
Theater as Social Change
Black Arts/West Theatre was housed in the former Cirque Playhouse in the Madrona neighborhood of Seattle. "The area had been a predominantly Black neighborhood before gentrification -- original home to the Seattle chapter of the Black Panther Party and current home of The Facts newspaper, founded in 1961 to serve the Black community. The nearby park was named for former Madrona resident Al Larkins, an acclaimed jazz musician, music teacher and pillar of the community in the 1950s to 1970s" (Davis). Today  the original theatre site is occupied by a glass shop.
Black Arts/West evolved out of the Central Area Motivation Program (CAMP), part of the 1960s Model Cities program, during an era when much of the nation was consumed by the civil rights movement. Barnett described the theater's inception this way: "Black Arts/West was Seattle's first black theatre, eventually became a nationally known entity across the United States. Evolving out of the Civil Rights-Black Power movements of the 1960s … Black Arts/West functioned as a three component program: theatre, dance, and an art gallery displaying the work of local and national artists. As a division of the Central Area Motivation Program, an anti-poverty agency, it was charged with getting young people involved and learning the necessary skills to survive and flourish in society" (BlackPast). To represent the theater's purpose, Barnett selected three verbs: Educate, Enlighten, Entertain.
CAMP provided funding to rent the space initially but Barnett had to assume subsequent rent, utilities, and other monthly costs. Meeting these expenses on a shoestring budget meant that Barnett had to give up his dream of operating a full-time training academy for young actors and dancers. "In order to survive, we would have to continue as a producing entity" ("Black Arts/West, Part 1"). Early audiences were about 70 percent white, but Barnett worked to increase the theater's visibility, occasionally staging free community performances to attract Black theater goers. The tactic succeeded.
Community Activist Roots
Douglas Quinton Barnett (1931-2019) was a third-generation Seattleite. He was the son of Katherine Veile Conna (1890-1971), daughter of African American pioneer and political activist John N. Conna, and Powell Samuel Barnett (1883-1971), a man of many talents. Born in Brazil, Indiana, Powell Barnett moved with his family to Roslyn, Washington, at the age of 5 when his father, a former slave, was recruited to work in the coal mines. As a teenager, Powell himself worked in the mines before moving to Seattle in 1906 to take on construction jobs.
Powell Barnett contributed in a myriad of ways to his community. He was the first president of the Leschi Improvement Council in 1967 and organized the East Madison YMCA, serving as chairman of its board. As a sousaphone player, he was the first Black person to join the Musicians Union Local 76. A gifted baseball player, Barnett established a semipro baseball umpires association and was its executive secretary from 1944-1961. He was a clerk for state Sen. Frank Connor and retired at the age of 71 as a maintenance man at the King County Courthouse. In 1969, a 4.4-acre park on Martin Luther King Jr. Way, formerly a running track for Garfield High School, was named in his honor.
Douglas Barnett worked for 18 years at the U.S. Postal Service before leaving to pursue his first love, the theater. He started three theaters; one of those, New Group Theater, became Black Arts/West in 1969. He married Earline Montgomery and the couple had six children before divorcing.
Producer, Actor, Playwright
Barnett founded Black Arts/West on April 1, 1969, and remained its artistic director until 1973. The theater remained in operation until 1980 under its second artistic director Buddy Butler, and then the team of Tee Dennard and Doug Johnson.
During his tenure, Barnett actively pursued funding for new works and sought to expand opportunities for Black performers. Anthony Hill, associate professor emeritus of theater at Ohio State University, called him a "risk taker, but he acted like he knew what he was doing, and he was a leader. He had a vision few people had" ("A Vision …").
Black Arts/West staged about 100 plays, and many of its actors went on to become well-known stage or screen actors, arts educators, or administrators. Educator Hill had performed with Black Arts/West while a student at the University of Washington. Film and stage actor Tee Dennard, later the theater's artistic co-director, had no acting experience when he arrived in Seattle. "I came out here on a bet -- on an audition. And I got the part" ("CHS Pics"). Dennard went on to enjoy a successful acting career, appearing in "An Officer and a Gentleman," "Black Widow," and other films.
An art gallery in the lobby of Black Arts/West was created in response to community feedback. "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" ("Black Arts/West, Part 1").
Barnett Leaves Black Arts/West
After disagreements with CAMP program administrators, Barnett tendered his resignation on July 31, 1973. He became manager for The Negro Ensemble Company's national tour of the Tony-award winning play "The River Niger" in 1973-1974. He worked for the Seattle Arts Commission and the Geva Theatre in Rochester, New York, and then returned to the post office, where he worked until his retirement in 1997.
As an actor, Barnett appeared on stage in more than 30 plays, not only at Black Arts/West, but also at ACT, Ensemble Theatre, and Seattle Repertory Theatre. He produced about 40 plays, directed a handful, and wrote two. Some of his productions included "Dream on Monkey Mountain," "Viet Rock," and "Ebony Wood." With Anthony Hill, he wrote The Historical Dictionary of African American Theater, a comprehensive look at two centuries of Black theater containing more than 600 entries.
In 1993, in a nod to Barnett's impact on the Black theater community, Kibibi Monié founded the Nu Black Arts West Theatre, considered the oldest African American community-based theater in the Pacific Northwest. Monié was an actress and instructor with the original Black Arts/West Theatre from 1974 to 1980 and was a key player in asking the city to recognize Barnett and his contributions by naming the block in his honor.
Barnett died on October 22, 2019, at the age of 88 from kidney failure. He was survived by four of his children, Victoria, Eric, Douglas Jr., and Maisha, as well as his longtime companion Carol Beach. Two children predeceased him: Joy Ward and Marcus Barnett.