By Timothy Rawles, October 2020 Issue.
Whether it be love or loss, the theater is a place to watch characters go through conflicts and struggles, much like our own, and hopefully come out the other side with a better understanding.
But what if that experience is a specific one? One that explores a community you aren’t familiar with but could be if you took the time to learn about it. For 50 years, the Black Theatre Troupe has done just that; provide a space for African American entertainers to tell their stories and hopefully connect with people outside the community.
David Hemphill is the Executive Director of the Black Theatre Troupe in Phoenix. It is a well-respected organization which was founded in 1970 by Helen Katherine Mason, who saw a need to not only give African Americans an outlet to express their experiences, but also to build a cultural bridge for those seeking knowledge about diversity.
The saying goes, "The more things change, the more they stay the same,” and in 2020 that was truer than ever after the killing of George Floyd, an African American man, by white police officers. This set off riots and protests; some peaceful, some violent, across the nation.
Hemphill recalls that this was the type of unrest which led to the founding of the Black Theatre Troupe five decades ago.
“One of the biggest things that hasn’t changed that really shocked us — so to say — our theater troupe started as a parks and recreation department program to head off the worst of the riots that were going on around the country during the late sixties,” he says. “So, in ’69 — Phoenix gets everything late — so in ’69 it looked like everything was going to get very, very bad in terms of racial unrest here in the Valley. It didn’t get that bad because there aren’t that many African American people in the state of Arizona. So as a means to head off the worst of it, The Black Theater Troupe was started.”
The company was established on the foundation of activism. “Mason was with the parks and recreation department at the time and she got a meeting room in one of the housing projects,” Hemphill explains. “She told all the residents of the neighborhood to write a poem or write a song or do a dance, ‘come in and let’s talk about how you feel about the racial situation in Phoenix.’ So that’s how the troupe was started.”
Fifty years later and the country is again in a turbulent state. The Floyd murder set into motion a dialogue that polarized the population. You either understand the meaning of Black Lives Matter, or you don’t. Those that don’t are either racist or choose to not understand.
Hemphill says it’s discouraging. “But it is very, very great for us in the sense of when we were founded, we were able to show that art could bridge cultures, that we could help the city heal by telling the stories that people weren’t aware of and showing prejudice on stage and showing why the African American communities around the country were upset.”
These stories were told through social justice and racial unrest works. “We were able to show through those pieces, and help heal the community, and make those in the majority aware of some things they may not have been aware of in terms of people of color.”
“We are at that point again today, and we are hoping that we can do the same in terms of bridging those divisions in all of those things that have divided communities and all those things people are talking — raising their voices to be heard — about now. We’re hoping we can do the same as we did when we were founded.”
During its half-century many famous and influential African American writers and actors have come through the theater, sadly many have passed.
“There were a lot of great playwrights that came out of that school. Woodie King, the great director at the Negro Ensemble Company, he would try plays out here. One of them was Goin’ a Buffalo, and Ceremonies in Dark Old Men, those old shows like that. There were a lot of them that were tried out here because black theaters were a new thing so-to-say in the late ‘60s early ‘70s.”
When it comes down to it, in order to bridge the cultural divide, people from outside the community need to show up. And that’s something Hemphill says the troupe tried to do early on. Those efforts seem to have worked.
“We had to build those audiences,” he says. “We had to get them in the theater so they could see the stories and understand the stories, and most importantly they were able to see that stories are universal; all families have a gay family member, all families go through economic trouble, it’s not just particular to the African American experience. So, once we were able to get them to do that to see the universality of our stories, we were able to build those audiences, and now audiences are 35 percent non-African American.”
Hopefully, those audiences will come away with something more than what they came in with. They may be nervous at first, but it gets them pondering and that leads to conversations. Those conversations are important, especially now.
“Being able to get them into the theater and showing them works provoking them to think deeply and then go back out into the community and act upon those beliefs and say, ‘well, I never thought about that in terms of African Americans. I wonder if my neighbor feels the same way or I wonder if my co-worker has gone through something like that, or has a family member experienced that kind of circumstance in their life,” Hemphill says. “So, that’s one of the fortunate things. That has been easier to do because there are so few African Americans here in Phoenix that, weird enough, the non-African American theater-goers felt ‘safe’ — so to speak — going to a theater where there were, uh… where there were other non-African Americans.”
For now, The Black Theatre Troupe's 2020-2021 50th anniversary season is on hold because of COVID-19. This season the line-up includes: Sistas the Musical, Sunset Baby, Black Nativity, A Soldier’s Play, and Ain’t Misbehavin’.
Despite the delay Hemphill says he is hopeful that the doors will open sometime soon. “It’s up in the air. Everybody’s kinda shootin’ for January though.”
The theater has changed in the last 50 years, but that’s good news, says Hemphill.
“One of the most important things is that we’ve grown immensely,” he says. “We have a great national reputation. We have a lovely new theater — all of those things, operationally and artistically. We are very, very glad — it’s wonderful those changes have happened.”