Scene from Keith Josef Adkins' The Last Saint on Sugar Hill, currently playing at the National Black Theatre in Harlem
Christine Jean Chambers

With the success of films like Lee Daniels' The Butler, 12 Years a Slave and now The Best Man Holiday, which surpassed box office expectations this weekend, 2013 is being billed as a banner year for African-American films. But while films with predominantly black casts are thriving, live theater featuring predominantly black casts is not.

The Harlem-based National Black Theatre recently celebrated the start of its 45th season with The Last Saint on Sugar Hill, by African-American playwright Keith Josef Adkins. But in an interview with The Root, Sade Lythcott, CEO of NBT, called black theater companies “an endangered species” and expressed concern that unless drastic measures are taken, companies like NBT may not be in existence 45 years from now.

When news broke last year that Minnesota’s Penumbra, one of the most critically acclaimed black theater companies in the country, was suspending operations it rattled the theater world. Though Penumbra is now up and running again, albeit with a leaner staff, earlier this year more bad news befell those who care about diversity in the theater world: In April, Pittsburgh-based Kuntu Repertory Theatre closed. Founded in 1974, it is credited with being the first resident company to produce and perform a play by the late August Wilson, now considered one of America’s greatest playwrights.

The National Black Theatre has struggled to keep its doors open as well. Though Lythcott stressed that in its entire 45-year history NBT has always managed to produce quality shows, it has experienced setbacks, many of them involving the increasingly tough financial realities facing cultural institutions based in communities of color.

Lythcott explained that her mother, acclaimed Broadway performer Barbara Ann Teer, initially “founded the National Black Theatre out of a need to create roles for African Americas that were not monolithic roles of housekeeper, pimp, hustler.” The theater became legendary for nurturing up-and-coming black artists, one of the most famous being Samuel L. Jackson, who painted sets there. House Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) once called NBT “the cultural heartbeat of Harlem.”

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Yet it has faced significant financial challenges in the last two decades, beginning with government budget cuts during the Rudy Giuliani administration (the NBT building was financed through public and private funds) and later through messy litigation regarding ownership and financing of the building. Though that uneasy chapter has concluded, today the theater faces perhaps its toughest terrain: a philanthropic world cooling on minority-focused cultural institutions, particularly in the Obama era.

Michael Dinwiddie, president of the Black Theatre Network, proclaimed black theater to be in a state of emergency “because of the perverse notion we have in this country that people are being reverse racist by creating their own cultural institutions.” He went on to explain that “funders would rather give money to a white theater doing a black play than a black theater doing a multiracial play. That’s really problematic—I don’t want to call it reverse racism. Is there such a term as inverse racism? Is that such a term?”

Marshall Jones, producing artistic director of Crossroads Theatre Company, a New Jersey-based African-American theater that was awarded a Tony in 1999 for Outstanding Regional Theatre, likened the current decline of black theaters to the decline of the Negro Leagues following the Major League debut of Jackie Robinson.

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“We have BET, TV One, Oprah has her own network. White theaters [on] Broadway are doing black shows. [Nonblack] Regional theaters do August Wilson shows constantly.” Those all sound like impressive strides for black artists but, he noted, “The directors, the producers, the designers aren’t people of color.” 

When asked to cite the biggest loss to the black community and black artists when local black theaters close, he said emphatically, “a lack of work.” He explained that many black directors he knows say they struggle to be considered for projects in mainstream theaters that do not have predominantly black casts. Yet now that August Wilson’s works are so widely acclaimed and performed, many white directors specifically request to direct his work or work by other similarly acclaimed black writers.

The irony, of course, as Jones and Dinwiddie both noted, is that Wilson got his start at black theaters. As did other future stars including Denzel Washington, Law & Order's S. Epatha Merkerson and the late Lloyd Richards, one of the country’s most acclaimed African-American theater directors, who became dean of the Yale School of Drama.

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In 1998 the Coalition of Theatres of Color was founded so that cultural institutions made up of predominantly minority artists could work together to find solutions to the unique challenges they face. The organization held a town hall last year at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem on the topic "Can NYC's Theatres of Color Survive in the New Economy?" The group has a conference planned for August of next year.

Lythcott said that funding has always been a challenge for minority-focused artistic institutions. “Funding is the No. 1 issue that has always plagued black theaters. We have always gotten less than 1 percent of budgets allocated to the arts across the board, and same in New York.”

But she added that smaller, minority-focused entities have also struggled to adapt to the changing math necessary to survive and thrive in the new philanthropic landscape. There was a time when spending most of a budget on programming made sense. But there also has to be a strategic allocation of resources toward fundraising and promotion, particularly today in the social-media age. If you mount a terrific show but no one hears about it—including donors—it can all be for naught. But many artists who pour their heart into running these institutions are less likely to invest resources in hiring a fundraising firm, when actors, set designers and others actually working on the production are being underpaid, Lythcott said.

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She explained, however, that even if you can’t write a $10,000 check to an institution, there are important things members of the community can do. For starters, if there is a local minority-focused artistic institution in your community, and you plan to attend a show, bring people with you. Or go a step further and buy a season pass instead of just attending the occasional show.

“By doing that, you are helping to sustain the institution,” she explained. Even people who are not fans of the arts should care whether or not institutions like NBT survive because “Theaters are like little economic engines,” she said, citing all of the jobs theaters create, including actors, set designers, costume designers and ushers.

“Our black theaters are the building blocks of our culture,” Lythcott exclaimed. “They become the life force of how we’re seen in the world. It balances out that energy and information you get from the media that still polarizes and marginalizes what it is to be black in this country. If we don’t have the alternative then we might as well die.”

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Keli Goff is The Root's special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter. 

Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter