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Theater: Panel discusses the future of African-American theater in Pittsburgh

Some hope to see Pittsburgh's own "professional black theater company"

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Even though he's won an Obie Award and an NAACP Image Award (among others), you have likely never heard of Woodie King Jr. He helped found the acclaimed New Federal Theatre in New York City and he's called the "Godfather of Black Theater." Yet despite his prolific Broadway credits, you probably couldn't picture him, or name one play he's produced.

And that is part of the problem faced by black theater -- stage plays written by black playwrights, produced by black companies and performed for mostly black audiences.

His own obscurity aside, Mr. King is concerned about the future of African-American theater as a whole. And thanks to an invitation from Kuntu Repertory Theatre, King joined a panel of speakers on Sat., Jan. 5, to discuss the prospects for their art-form.

Bearing the somewhat anxious title "What is the Future of Black Theatre in Pittsburgh?" the panel seemed to have at least one strike against it from the outset: its duration. The meeting was scheduled to last from 2 to 6 p.m. -- four full hours of discussion, set in the same dimly lit auditorium in which Kuntu stages its plays. However important the topic, it was hard to imagine many people spending their Saturday afternoon driving to the former Masonic Temple in Oakland and listening to artists talk about their problems with funding.

Yet, people came. At the meeting's start, the audience including 30 people (counting a videographer and some support staff). The eight-person panel was outspoken. There was Nathan James, Pittsburgh-born actor and veteran of The Wire. ("It's great to see people from the younger generation here," James said, "because we are the future of theater in Pittsburgh.") Mark Southers, the creator of Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre, offered some rays of optimism. ("I see us as becoming a more national presence. I see Pittsburgh as having a Renaissance.") Joyce Meggerson-Moore, chairwoman of New Horizon Theatre, vocalized some hopes .("I'd like to see funding coming in, but on a consistent basis, not per project.") Dr. Vernell A. Lillie, Pitt professor and acclaimed founder of Kuntu, questioned the panel's use of the phrase "chitlin circuit" to describe a more popular, less highbrow style of black theater. ("Change that word! Don't call it the chitlin circuit! Some of the greatest musicians and artists came out of the chitlin circuit. Duke Ellington came from there!")

And then there was King himself, who offered some of the day's most fiery sentiments. ("Whites want to control the American theater. ... [W]hite people have all the money.")

The first half of the meeting ran late, and participants seemed eager for the hors d'oeuvres table. By then the crowd had grown to more than 40 people, including such local notables as sculptor-poet Vanessa German and former city councilor Sala Udin.

For the second half of the meeting, some practical statements came from Tiffany Ellis, a Pittsburgh native who now works as a marketing consultant in New York City. "We are selling art, black art," she said. "And you are going to use a different methodology than [you would use] to sell Coca-Cola. Understanding your brand affects everything else you do administratively. We need to think about tactics and strategy being used globally." And what does the brand offer? "What black theater offers is more of a philosophy and state of mind."

By the end, the meeting had reached some ideological consensus: Black theater attendance is low, and has to be improved; market research is a vital next step; African Americans should do more to support the art that represents them; black theater needs to tap into endowments; and the New Pittsburgh Courier needs its own theater critic -- too many white critics in this town.

The town meeting seemed to satisfy everyone involved. Even Christopher Rawson, theater critic for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, weighed in. ("I'd like to see a professional black theater company," he said.) King may not have the notoriety he deserves, but the panel was well applauded.

By the end, the audience had grown to 57 people.

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