Saturday, January 15, 2011
The Martin Luther King Prize - how about it?
Monday is the day we honor one of the greatest leaders of our civil rights movement, so it seems only appropriate to pause for a moment to note in sadness (as it seems no one else has done) the apparent passing of Boston's African-American Theatre Festival, which ran from 2001-2009, the last year or two in the glittering Calderwood Pavilion at the BCA. Another loss to the local African-American theatre community was the recent death of Jim Spruill, Boston University professor and founder of the New African Company, who with his wife Lynda Patton (who also passed not so long ago) inspired a generation of theatre artists of color. (There will be a memorial for Spruill at the Black Box Theatre on February 12.)
Of course there are always new faces and voices of color to be seen and heard in Boston (I just became aware of such a new performance group, the New Urban Theatre Lab, or, appealingly enough, the "NUTLab"). But it's troubling that the African-American Theatre Festival, probably the highest-profile showcase for local performers - and especially local writers - of color, should have vanished so quickly, and without apparently any local protest or comment. It seems that instead of committing to our own community, our "diversity" programming has turned more and more of late to pre-sold hits from New York, like Ruined, or Neighbors (which its producers, Company One, would very much like to prevent me from seeing; see tweet at right). And as I've written before, we hear a lot about the ravages of racism in places like South Africa, or the antebellum South, or the Congo - but never right here in Boston, even though we have quite the fraught racial history. Yet to us, it seems, racism always happens somewhere else. Plus I'm increasingly disturbed by imported writers like Branden Jacobs-Jenkins and Young Jean Lee, who seem dedicated to caricatures of race as a focus of their work; the careers of these writers, you get the impression, depend more on sustaining racism as a cultural trope than actually fighting it on the ground.
At any rate, it's clear to me that one way for theatre artists of any color to make a difference is to connect with their own community - to tell its story. Yet I can't remember the last time I saw a play about our own racial issues on a major local stage. So I'd like to make a modest proposal to our colleges, theatres, and foundations - how about a prize, or a grant, or a commission to an artist of color for a play about Boston? With a production guaranteed? There are so many theatrical episodes in our past - from the slow creation of the "color lines" that still criss-cross the city to the shocking riots over busing in Charlestown - that there's almost a surfeit of material available. And we certainly do not suffer from a dearth of talented writers. So how about it? Maybe we could call it the Jim Spruill and Lynda Patton Prize. Or maybe the Martin Luther King Prize.