Black Arts/West, Part 1 -- A History by Douglas Q. Barnett

  • By Douglas Q. Barnett
  • Posted 8/20/2002
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 3921

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 1 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 of Part 5.

Genesis

It all started when I saw a notice in the paper announcing auditions for "A Raisin In The Sun" being produced by Gene Keene at his Cirque Playhouse. The year was 1961. I had seen the movie version of Raisin with Sydney Poitier and said to myself, "I can do that!" despite the fact that I had no training or experience in theater! Little did I know.

A dude named Greg Morris landed the key role of Walter Lee. He was young, handsome, and had a deep, rasping baritone voice. Women swooned over him. He had just graduated from the University of Iowa with a degree in drama, and had left a wife and baby back in Iowa, ready to join him when he got established in Hollywood. He had run out of money in Seattle and was working at the Golden Lion, an upscale restaurant at Seattle's Olympic Hotel, as an Egyptian waiter -- with turban!

Me, I had landed the smallest part in the show, that of Bobo, on stage for all of five minutes. That production of Raisin in the Sun, with Greg Morris and Roberta Byrd Barr was the biggest success ever for the Cirque. It ran for six months going from three performances a week to the Broadway standard of eight per week. It culminated with four sold-out weekend performances at the now defunct 1600-seat Palomar Theatre. Every performance over the six month run was sold out! It was a heady experience and I became sold on theater. Belatedly we found out that Greg had persuaded Gene Keene to produce the play with the proviso that Greg play the lead role.

Greg Morris went on to achieve national fame in the hit TV series Mission Impossible. Roberta Byrd Barr, who became a close friend, went on to become the first woman to be Principal of a Seattle high school. For years she hosted a TV show called "Face to Face" at KING-TV. Over the years I sought her advice on many important matters. She was a profound influence in my discovery of Black poetry, which we used in many of our early productions.

The Dream

I stayed with the Cirque for a while, but over the years it was obvious that Gene Keene was married to the formula that had kept him in business all those years, so I resigned from his resident company. It was then that I conceived the idea of a black theater which would provide access and opportunity for people of color in the theater. The success of Raisin had been so overwhelming, so complete, that I assumed it would be a rather simple matter to organize and start a black theater.

The Times We Lived In

Fueling this desire were the times we lived in. It was the early sixties, and Black America, so long oppressed and denied, was rising up in a boiling cauldron of fury that the country was hard put to contain. Black America exploded, but the country as a whole was undergoing an agonizing metamorphosis.

We had undergone the debacle of the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile crisis, John F. Kennedy was murdered, the women's liberation movement took hold, the pill threw inhibitions to the wind, "free love" reigned, and America sank slowly into a quagmire to be known as the Vietnam War. In the middle of this, the Civil Rights Movement was giving impetus to not only social change, but a rebirth in minority theater development across the country.

New Voices

The Free Southern Theatre evolved in the South, Luiz Valdez created El Teatro Campesino in California, the Negro Ensemble Company, The New Lafayette Theatre bloomed in New York, Concept East was in Detroit, and PASLA came to life in L.A. It was a period of awareness and ethnic self-discovery for me. I learned more Black History in one year than I did in going through 12 years of the Seattle School system. The change in cultural dynamics inspired me more than ever to start a theater.

During the period between 1963 and 1965, I started three theaters. They were named respectively, Ebony Stage Productions, The Black House, and The New Group theater. Only the New Group survived and it eventually became Black Arts/West.

The Beginning

When the New Group Theater was founded in early 1965, I sought out Roberta Byrd Barr for advice. Over lunch we discussed the daunting task of starting a Black theater and the paucity of material available. She brought up the idea of utilizing the poetry of Black authors to tell a universal story of living Black in America from slavery times to the present. She threw out names like Sterling Brown, Melvin B. Tolson, Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Margaret Danner, Angela Grimke, Countee Cullen, and a host of others. The names flashed in front of my eyes like rich fruit, promising a repository of succulent new material. The library became my home for the next few weeks as Roberta and I met weekly at her home on 26th Avenue, trying to fashion a work for four actors. The result was a piece encompassing the work of more than 30 Black poets. We named it Counterpoint in Black.

Our first performance was free at the Douglass-Truth Library on a Sunday afternoon. It was graciously received and in the social hour afterwards, the signs were all there that the community loved the presentation of material relevant to their lives.

Encouraged, we then approached the University Unitarian Church about performing at their Fine Arts Festival. We would perform Counterpoint and LeRoi Jones's torrid new play, Dutchman. They accepted, eager to taste this exotic new morsel now being called "The Black Experience." A week prior to the show, we discovered that LeRoi Jones himself was booked for a speaking engagement at Reed College in Oregon. We informed the Unitarian Church and they were more than willing to pick up the tab if he could speak at the church after our performance was over. Details were worked out between his agent, the church, and myself and the gig was set. Everything went smoothly. An overflow audience enjoyed both Counterpoint and Dutchman. Perhaps encouraged by LeRoi Jones's appearance, we had our first ever review from a mainstream critic -- Rolf Stromberg of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. We had taken our first tentative steps into the world of theater and the water felt fine.

A factor in the eventual success of Black Arts/West was the late, great Jason Bernard. He was hired by the Seattle Repertory Theatre in 1966. The Rep had come into existence in 1962 and had been sued by myself and an associate, Keve Bray, for their discriminatory hiring practices.

But they fired Artistic Director Stuart Vaughn, and the new Artistic Director Allen Fletcher hired three minority actors his first season, one of whom was Jason. Even before I could contact him, Jason sought me out when he found out I was a litigant in the suit. We became fast friends and he volunteered to assist me in the goal of providing professional training to the actors in the program.

The Cold Floor

We had secured free usage of an abandoned firehouse at 18th and Cherry to rehearse in, but the city provided no amenities like heat and water, so we rehearsed without same. Winters were particularly galling because Jason employed a technique which was a marriage of the Stanislavsky and Grotowski methods. Each session started off on the floor! A cold floor! Jason was probably one of the hardest taskmasters around, but he rounded and shaped our small group like a sculptor shapes clay.

Slowly, we became a working ensemble of actors. Jason did all of this for no pay, because we had no money. Years later when BlackArts/West became successful, we were able to hire Jason to direct several of our productions.

Church organizations and others were eager to submerge themselves in the "Black Experience" and we obliged by performing one-act plays around the city. At $300/400 a production it was a lucrative venture. New Group Theater was becoming known.

Blues in C Minor

At that time an actor named Dale Meador approached me. He had a group of his own and had recently leased a space in Pioneer Square. He proposed the idea of merging the New Group Theater with his troupe under the name The Ensemble Theatre. We would produce theater under a blind casting mantra, using the best actor in the part regardless of color.

I agreed and The Ensemble Theatre was born. We were located at 107 Occidental Way, right off Yesler Way. We opened with The Fight for Barbara by D.H. Laurence. The audiences loved it, but the media critics had problems accepting the casting. We followed up with a double bill of LeRoi Jones's plays, Dutchman and The Slave. Again it was wildly successful, but the relationship between Dale, me, and the board began to unravel over the issue of the lease. Dale would not agree to have the lease transferred in the name of the theater itself, now a non-profit entity, and the Board revolted. I sided with the board and resigned.

The Moth and the Flame

At that point, an anti-poverty agency, the Central Area Motivation Program (CAMP), was looking for a director of its performing arts program. It should be noted that arts programs were excluded from HUD funding at that time. The only reason that CAMP had a performing arts component was because of vociferous lobbying by a group of prominent citizens including Beverly Christie, Tish Sommers, Roberta Byrd Barr, Agnes Haaga, Ruthanna Boris and others. They had obtained the promise of a two year seedling grant from PONCHO (Patrons of Northwest Civic, Cultural, and Charitable Organizations) if CAMP would implement such a program. CAMP capitulated and hired a director for the program in 1967.

By all accounts the program failed, and the director resigned. Against my family's wishes, I applied for the position. At that time I had 18 years of service time with the Postal Service. Twelve years more and retirement awaited. My whole family, including my father and mother, argued against the decision, pointing out the benefits of retiring at the age of 50, and then possibly working another job to augment my income.

But working for the post office was anything but exciting, and at that time was a low wage job. Rightly or wrongly, I felt that this was an opportunity to create something of advantage for the community. To provide access and opportunity to the young people in the area by adding the discipline and training of the arts into the arsenal they could use to survive in life. Only my oldest sister supported me, and she was far away in Philadelphia. I was hired for the job, but the ramifications of that decision hung like a storm cloud over the family for years.

Because of the previous year, my hiring in 1968 came with a make or break edict on the table. $10,000 of the PONCHO grant remained. $7500 paid my salary, the rest was used for supplies! Our "office" was a second-floor hallway with a used desk, typewriter, and filing cabinet. A CAMP employee with a theater background, Jo Steen, volunteered her secretarial services and the agency gave its blessing.

By this time CAMP had obtained the abandoned firehouse we had used years before with Jason Bernard. With my core group of actors still intact, the decision was made to develop a two pronged program of theater and dance. We were fortunate in obtaining the volunteer services of Lorna Prim Richards, an outstanding dance artist, to function as our Dance Coordinator.

The next year was spent in the production of plays like Old Judge Mose is Dead, The First Militant Preacher, and a world premier of Guerrilla Warfare by K. Curtis Lyle, a poet from the Watts Writers Workshop in Los Angeles created by Budd Schulberg.

CAMP had brought several of the Watts writers up for a reading at Garfield High School. K. Curtis liked the Seattle area and returned shortly to launch his writing career here.

At that time I was contacted by Kay Bullitt of the League of Women Voters. The local branch was in preparation for a conference on the emerging Third World nations, and thought that a play reflecting the interchange between developing countries and the free enterprise infrastructure of capitalism would be of interest. So, with the League of Women Voters putting up the money, we commissioned K. Curtis to write a play for presentation at the conference. However, upon reading the script (a blistering indictment of capitalism), they decided to withdraw, and left the premier to us. But they did honor their financial commitment and paid Mr. Lyle for his effort.

Work continued apace in the dance program. Ms. Richards was successful in obtaining the counsel of an old friend, Ruthanna Boris, who headed up the dance department at the University of Washington. Ms. Boris had impeccable credentials, having been a world-class dancer and choreographer for the New York City Ballet under George Balanchine, the Ballet Russe, and other companies. She is perhaps best known for her choreography of Cakewalk, among others.

We offered free classes in dance at the beginning and intermediate level. Initial instructors were Ms. Richards and Eve Green from the University of Washington, who taught beginning ballet. Ms. Richards felt this was important in providing a basic foundational structure for dancers aspiring to move into other areas of dance, such as modern and jazz.

Little Man/Giant

Ms. Richards brought to my attention Dr. Abraham Mariare Dumisani, a Professor in Ethnomusicology at the University of Washington. He was quickly added to our dance instruction staff. Here was this musical genius, floating in space at the UW who no one knew about and Ms. Richards had discovered him. "Dumi" as we called him quickly taught our students the rudiments of the music and dance of the Shona region of Zimbabwe.

We organized an African Dance Ensemble around him which quickly became the talk of the town. Black nationalism and pride abounded everywhere in the community, manifesting itself in naturals, cornrows, and African garb. High school groups and others were trying to express that pride in African clothing, music, and dance. But they were a day late and a dollar short, as the saying goes.

When they came and saw our Ensemble using Dumi's drums and marimbas, dancing to the infectious Shona music in tightly choreographed sections, segueing from one to another, almost seamlessly, they fell back in awe. We were the king of the hill, and it resulted in many bookings around the region. Half the money went to the dancers, the other half to the theater.

But the success was mainly Dumi's. He was a great teacher and humanitarian. He eventually taught at Evergreen State College and spread his great knowledge of music to everyone who asked. There was no color line with Dumi. He performed all over the Northwest and became a living legend to all who witnessed him. He was a great man.

A Certain Smile

Though Black Arts/West is primarily known for its dramatic productions, the accomplishments of our core group of advanced dancers is difficult to overlook. During the four years of our stewardship, more than 400 students were enrolled in the program. They ranged in age from 6 to 17.

The advanced group went on to acclaim, both nationally and internationally. The group of Stanley Perryman, Diane Hayes, Marvin Tunney, Anita Littleman, Michael Rhone, and Wayne Bascomb went on to perform in Broadway productions of Hair, Your Arms Too Short To Box With God, Sweet Charity, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, and Bubbling Brown Sugar. Collectively, some of them have performed with Arthur Mitchell's Dance Theatre of Harlem, the Alvin Ailey Dance Company, the Eleo Pomare Dance Company, and the Donald McKayle Dance Group. At least three of them are still [2001] active in teaching positions across the country. Theatrically, Robert Livingston has appeared in Sleepless In Seattle, in Twice In A Lifetime with Gene Hackman, and lastly in the TV series, The Fugitive. Alvin Sanders had a recurring role in The X Files, and is a constant presence in national commercials.

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