Even in the most positive scenario, these institutions have an "averaging" influence upon the art and literature we create. What happens when black definition and self determination fly in the face of what these institutions espouse? Perhaps artistic directors running organizations like those mentioned earlier should get used to a different kind of reaction to their invitations to "play in the big house." Perhaps, now that August has provided a national forum, we will begin to hear black artists saying things like: "No, thank you! I don't want your help. Your help has been the undoing of most things I hold dear. Your help skews, stretches, and distorts my values and my art. I will not facilitate your cultural and artistic imperialism."
Black communities and institutions are languishing, in my estimation, largely because they have become conditioned to look outside of their own milieu for criticism and approbation. Funding and support of major regional theaters, without recognizing and ensuring the health of black theaters, is a continuation of that conditioning. If black theatre is to realize itself and continue to make artistic and cultural contributions to American theater, it must be supported to the degree that it can take chances and do what people in the corporate world call "research and development." When we nurture, or discover, a talent which has the voice, insight, craft and courage to scale new artistic levels, we should be healthy enough to provide technical, dramaturgical, marketing, critical, administrative, financial, and audience support necessary to allow that talent to realize itself. In short, we should be capable of gratifying our own interests.
I have both facilitated and participated quite substantively in the development of craft in a number of black theatrical artists who are making outstanding contributions to American theater. It seems obvious that Penumbra is doing "something" right. "Something" right for Penumbra and right for the nation. Yet, because of a national atmosphere that does not choose to reward that talent until it has been recognized by "the majors," I now have to fight to keep Penumbra from becoming a "farm team" where well-funded artistic directors come to do "one-stop-shopping" for new ideas, talent, and craft.
Lou Bellamy is founder and director of the Penumbra Theatre.