Black Arts/West, Part 5 -- A History by Douglas Q. Barnett

  • By Douglas Q. Barnett
  • Posted 8/30/2001
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 3524

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 5 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.

Sunbath

I took some vacation time and drove down to Big Sur country. Drove the cliffs on Highway 101 at 60 mph and almost went over. Ended up at the Monterey Jazz Festival. Laid in the sand digging the great Carmen MacRae. Then the new kid on the block, John Handy, with a quartet featuring violinist Michael White. Closed my eyes and began to think while John and Michael laid out chords and twisted arpeggios into lyric sonatas in the blinding sun. I decided that 10 years of blood, sweat, family sacrifice, and hard work would not go down the drain! We were this close to the dream. It could still happen, but only if submission was the order of the day.

The pursuit of an independent Black Arts/ West came to an end. I decided to swallow my pride for the good of the program. At the same time, I resolved that if changes did not change dramatically, I would step down as Project Director. I notified the director of CAMP of my decision to abandon an independent course for Black Arts/West, and things went on from there.

Then unexpectedly, Lorna Richards, head of our dance component resigned to accept a position at Queens College in New York. The person hired to replace her was not up to snuff. Turmoil reigned in the dance division, and she was replaced.

Eventually we hired an administrative type, but with close monitoring, the dance division continued to thrive because of our outstanding dance faculty. Over the years, Ahmed Dumbuya, Pam Schick, Edna Daigre, and Bill Monroe, all outstanding instructors, had been involved in teaching our students. And an NEA grant allowed us to bring in Raymond Sawyer for a summer workshop.

Francine Major arrived and began implementation of the actor training program. Simultaneously Jason Bernard started rehearsals for The Harangues, two one-act plays by Joe Walker. Jason did his usual fine work in producing a taut, tightly woven, highly realized production. To fill the void between Harangues and MacDaddy, Francine performed her own one-act play, Evolution Of A Sister.

Rafic Bey and Buddy Butler were due in shortly for MacDaddy, and we still had not received budget approval from CAMP. MacDaddy was the largest production we'd attempted since Dream On Monkey Mountain. It was a large cast, costumed, "spectacle" play with music requiring a small music ensemble. It was the centerpiece of the season, so a meeting was arranged with the Director of CAMP to expedite matters. It was always our intention to hire Floyd Standifer for the job. He had handled the musical chores in Dream and done a magnificent job. He had played for years with Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Quincy Jones, and others before returning to his home town of Seattle.

However, at the meeting with the CAMP Director, her first question was "Who are you hiring for musical director? When Floyd's name passed my lips, she countered with "There are other musicians around who are just as qualified if not more so."

Art v. Patronage

The dye was cast. For the next few minutes we sparred verbally. There was no dance around the Maypole. No parsing of words. Everything was down front! We disagreed vehemently. She denigrated my choice and said it was her business to make sure the money was "spread around," that it was federal money that belongs to all of us. I stated that her observations would be considered and I would get back to her.

As I reached the door, her chilling statement was, "Just make the right decision, and we can resolve this right now." I turned and stared at her. She stared right back. I didn't care for her and she certainly didn't like me. She was determined to instill a system of patronage and cronyism, even if it meant coercing and blackmailing her own department heads. It was obvious then that it was her way or no way. We would have to capitulate in order to produce MacDaddy. We did so.

Rafic's Bag

We were in the middle of the season. I vowed that it would be my last. Rafic and Buddy arrived and we went head first, pell mell into MacDaddy. MacDaddy was a sprawling epic journey that encompassed elements of African ritual, Haitian voodoo, and centered around the effect of drugs in the community as manifested in the pivotal figure of Scag, played brilliantly by Robert Livingston. The show was a success despite the lackadaisical efforts of the musical director I was forced to hire. The musical director even hired the CAMP director's husband. The musicians were continually late, slow to master the score, late on cues, and were prone to drinking.

But one night, a fuming Rafic Bey took the director outside for a "woodshed chat." From that night on the group was never late and the music, though never fully realized, improved greatly. Rafic and Buddy did a lot of things to rally community interest in the show. We had our best pre-sell ever, and the walkup traffic was enormous. It opened to great acclaim from our audiences, but the critics were lukewarm.

The author Paul Carter Harrison had come out for the opening and was astonished by the alternate ending(s) devised by Rafic. One was affirmative showing the community winning the drug war by pulling audience members out on the floor for an up-tempo dance number.

The other ending showed a community ravaged by drugs. The actors took Alka-Seltzer tablets with them for the final scene. On a light cue they slipped the tablets into their mouths, and on a surge of dirge like music, tried to escape. Some ran into the audience, arms outstretched, crying for help. Others crawled on the floor toward the audience. Still others twisted in agony as the drug took effect. Then on a musical cue, they died, frozen in place, with white foam/saliva dripping from their mouths.

The audience sat stunned in silence. Was the play over? Does it end like this? There must be more coming! After the initial shock, members of the audience walked out cautiously, over fallen and frozen, still standing bodies in the aisles. A deathly silence accompanied their departure from the theater. They would file out quietly into the night air as if they’d stumbled across a late night funeral.

It resulted in many inquiries from subscribers and patrons as to how the play ended because their friends had seen it on a different night. Unequivocally, it was the most shocking ending to a play I ever witnessed.

Strategies

As we plunged into rehearsals for J.e. Franklin's Black Girl, my deep throat source at Model Cities informed me of changing priorities from D.C. dictated by Richard Nixon and his "benign neglect" policy. Model Cities new mantra was keyed to two words, "multiculturalism" and "diversity." Our funding would now be keyed percentage-wise into how many participants were of different ethnic persuasions.

This despite the fact that a third of our dance faculty was white, one fourth of the dance students were of mixed lineage, we used white actors in white roles, most of our vendors were white, and my secretary at the time was white! Even our audience at that time was 50 percent white.

At that point a decision had to be made whether to stand and fight, or just go through the motions, since my decision to leave was irrevocable. It was complicated by the fact that our season overlapped the fiscal year, and our newly inaugurated training program hadn’t found its legs yet. I felt impelled to fight, since whoever succeeded me would then have the resources needed to continue the program we had started. We made sure that our supporters packed the series of Model Cities meetings on funding. Then a letter/postcard blitz was started. But again my deep throat source informed me that Model Cities was not playing by the book this time, and that our lonely hope was through the City Council, which has the final say in who gets federal money from the City.

So we set up meetings with each and every City Council person. We bombarded them with informational packets outlining the positive and successful aspects of the program. Some were receptive, some noncommittal, some wildly enthusiastic, and some didn't care. In June, on a hot, sweltering night, the Seattle City Council held a meeting to sign off on Model Cities projects for the upcoming fiscal year. The meeting was jam-packed with representatives from programs across the city. Our supporters were there en masse and spoke eloquently on our behalf. The meeting was chaired by Councilman John Miller, a strong advocate of the arts and a Black Arts/West supporter. He skillfully manipulated the meeting, providing full advantage to a wide array of speakers, while making sure we could parry any thrust in our direction.

A Mother's Song

But the most significant testimony came from a black woman I did not know. She was 40 or so, plainly dressed, with deep lines from a hard life etched across her face. All Council testimony is taped, and I was so moved by it I requested a copy of it afterward, which is as follows:

"Ah'm here tonight cuz my daughter asked me to. She be 12 years old now, crazy 'bout dancin. Be watchin it on TV'n such for years, allas sayin, 'That's what I wanna do mama! You think I can do that?' Humph! I tol her, be puttin those thoughts out yo mind, chile. Go to school and get you a education. And then she heard 'bout Black Arts/West 'n they be offerin' trainin' in dancin' and didn't turn nobody down. Pestered me so, got off early one day, went up an spoke to a Miz Richards. Real nice lady who runs the program. She gone now, but I 'splained to Miz Richards that I be a single mother and cain't be 'fording more than I be turnin' out. Next thing ah know Miz Richards say she have some kinda scholarship that would pay for her classes and them tutu's and slippers. Rinda Mae jes brightened up somethin' terrible. Her school marks went up, she clean up her room' 'thout me tellin' her to. She be jes like a dif'frent chile. She say it cuz of discipline Miz Richards be teachin her. Don't rightly know what that means, but she say Miz Richards say, it mean doing thin's over and over till you get it right, an that discipline will set you free, cuz once you do somethin' over and over till it's right, you free to do anything you set yo mind to. Now Rinda Mae be talkin' 'bout becomin a lawyer or doctor. This program be like a Godsend cuz my daughter done changed so much. She be like a flower done bloomed 'fore spring. An I don't know everything yawl be talkin 'bout, cuz I be jes a single working mother, but I surely do wish yawl keep this program goin' cuz It really do work. Ah thank yawl kindly for hearin me."

There was a moment of silence and then the council chambers erupted in a standing ovation of applause. Handkerchiefs flashed, people cried, flashbulbs popped as she returned to her seat.

The night was ours. In a unanimous vote, the City Council restored our funding to the previous year's level. In the hullabaloo after the vote I looked up to find myself eyeball to eyeball with the director of Model Cities. He gave me a rather wan smile and a half-assed mock salute as if to say, "You won this time, but wait till next year." I saluted back, snappingly, knowing I would not return. The battle had been won. There was great pride in knowing that our budget for the upcoming fiscal year would exceed $100,000.

Cristo Redentor

Black Girl opened to mixed reviews and I settled into a funk. Suddenly there were no long range decisions to be made. What would our seasonal theme be? A mix of drama and comedy? A musical? Maybe a religious play. Bring back an oldie? What directors would be available? Should we continue the round of alternate funding sources? By my own design, I had become irrelevant.

I looked at all the unread scripts that lay on the floor around the desk, remembering the last visit to New York when there were so many playwrights, so many scripts that a new suitcase was purchased to transport them back to Seattle! How my perception that Black people did not write was smashed so completely. The playwrights are out there. They just need a venue.

Now there was no need to read one or two scripts per night as per my protocol. I thought back over the last four years. Of all the trials and tribulations we'd endured. Of almost being shot by the police when a publicity stunt at Le Mirabeau restaurant went seriously awry. At staying up all night at the theater with buckets and pans when the gutters clogged up in a torrential downpour threatening to cancel the next night's performance. At a most delightful chat with Alan Schneider (he of Beckett/Albee fame) who walked in unannounced one Saturday morning, introduced himself, and then said, "I'll bet the roof leaks, right?" He was a most charming man, here on a Ford Foundation assignment dealing with the Seattle Rep. and ACT theater. But as he said “I’m here to see the big boys, but I really like to see theaters that are really doing stuff. Any Black theatre that does a minstrel show must know something I don’t or they're on another planet. But you look normal to me.” I assured him I was. As we spoke, I gave him a tour of the theater, then locked up. Then we repaired to the corner café where we talked about the inimitable American Theater for three hours!

And I thought of the eyes of the prisoners when we performed for them. There was hardly a dry one. People we’d never met before, bonding out of the sheer joy of seeing their own kind from the outside. A total love experience that transcended anything I’d ever seen. And, of course the young people who came through the program. There was a sense of pride in knowing that we provided them with some of the tools needed to succeed in life like discipline, never settling for less, setting goals and achieving them, working with others in pursuit of a common goal, escaping tunnel vision and looking at the big picture. And in whatever one does, pursuing it with all due diligence with one's best effort. Because as my father used to say, “If you're going to do it, do it right Buster. If you don’t intend to do it the right way, don’t do it.”

I was not in a position to make long range decisions, but before offering my resignation, I did make a short term decision to ensure that the theater getting off to a strong, solid footing for the fall season.

The decision was made to open the season with Lorraine Hansberry's play To Be Young, Gifted, and Black. Negotiations with Allie Woods Jr. to direct the play went smoothly. Contracts were let and signed off by all involved including the director of CAMP.

On July 1, 1973, I tendered my resignation effective July 31, 1973. I fully expected the position to be opened up locally, if not nationally. To my knowledge it never was. Then rumors surfaced that Buddy Butler would be offered the job. I assumed that I would be consulted prior to any announcement as to my successor. But I was not. In mid-July I was informed that Mr. Butler would be succeeding me.

The remaining time was spent assisting my successor in order to make the transition as smooth as possible. Being a lame duck was not a pleasant experience. It was interesting and also hurtful to see how many allegiances changed so swiftly. But we survived and at about 4:00 on July 31, 1973, I jumped into my little yellow Mustang, and peeled rubber. I was history.

Black Arts/West Productions As Remembered by Douglas Q. Barnett, Founder/Director, 1969-1973

Note: This list was put together 30 years after the fact. It is culled from incomplete records and personal recollection. The list is definitive in terms of the plays produced. With some exceptions it does not necessarily reflect the order, or in some cases the year, the play was produced.

1) A Son Come Home/1969 (Author, Ed Bullins; Director, Beatrice Winde)

2) The Electronic Nigger/1969 (Author, Ed Bullins; Director, Beatrice Winde)

3) Da Minstrel Show/1969 (Author, Doug Barnett; Director, Doug Barnett)

4) Days Of Thunder, Nights of Violence (Author, Doug Barnett; Director Doug Barnett)

5) Guerrilla Warfare/1969 (Author, K. Curtis Lyle; Director, Doug Barnett)

6) The Man Nobody Saw/1969 (Author, unknown; Director, Kathy Lambert)

7) Dutchman/1969 (Author, LeRoi Jones/aka Amiri Baraka; Director, Doug Barnett)

8) Black Power Every Hour/1969 (Poetry adapted by Ana V. Thorne; Director, Ana V. Thorne)

9) The 1st Militant Preacher/1969 (Author, Ben Caldwell; Director, Jason Bernard)

10) Wine In the Wilderness/1970 (Author, Alice Childress; Director, Ana V. Thorne)

11) The Devil @ Otis Redding/1970 (Author, Ben Caldwell; Director unknown)

12) Days Of Thunder, Nights Of Violence (Author, Doug Barnett; Director, Doug Barnett)

13) The StreetCorner/1970 (Author, Richard Wesley; Director, Robert Livingston)

14) The Thieves/1970 (Author Charles(Oyamo)Gordon; Director, Robert Livingston)

15) Big Time Buck White/1970 (Author, Joseph Dolan Tuotti; Director, Doug Barnett)

16) Big Nose Mary Is Dead/1970 (Author, Barry Pritchard; Director, Alvin Sanders)

17) You Gon Let Me Take You Out Tonight, Baby?/1970 (Author, Ed Bullins; Director, Robert Livingston)

18) Three Acts In A Restaurant/1970 (Author, Aaron Dumas; Director Aaron Dumas)

19) Epitaph To A Coagulated Trinity/1970 (Author, Gylan Kain; Director, Doug Barnett)

20) Slave Ship/1971 (Author, LeRoi Jones/aka Amiri Baraka; Director, Beatrice Winde)

21) Black Girl/1971 (Author, J. e. Franklin; Director, Ana V. Thorne)

22) Dream On Monkey Mountain/1971 (Author, Derek Walcott; Director, Jason Bernard)

23) Ain't Supposed To Die A Natural Death/1971 (Author, Melvin Van Peebles; Director, Gilbert Moses)

24) Song Of The Lusitanian Bogey/1971 (Author, Peter Weiss; Director, Allie Woods Jr.)

25) In The WineTime/1971 (Author, Ed Bullins; Director, Jason Bernard)

26) Poor Willie/1971 (Author, Aaron Dumas; Director Aaron Dumas)

27) The Harangues/1972 (Author, Joseph A. Walker; Director, Jason Bernard)

28) Evolution Of A Sister/1972 (Author, Francine A. Major; Director, Francine A. Major)

29) Street Sounds/1972 (Author, Ed Bullins; Director, Allie Woods Jr.)

30) Ace Boon Coon/1972 (Author, Richard Wesley; Director, Jeff Tucker)

31) The Great MacDaddy/1973 (Author, Paul Carter Harrison; Director, Rafic Bey)

32) Black Girl/1973 (Author, J. e. Franklin; Director, Buddy Butler)


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