Harlem’s own National Black Theatre gets first OBIE Award

Linda Armstrong | 8/13/2020, midnight
For 65 years the Annual Obie Awards Ceremony has been acknowledging the best in Off- and Off-Off Broadway theater.
Barbara Ann Teer Contributed

For 65 years the Annual Obie Awards Ceremony has been acknowledging the best in Off- and Off-Off Broadway theater. This year at a ceremony presented on YouTube Dr. Barbara Ann Teer’s National Black Theatre (NBT) received its first Obie Award for Sustained Excellence in Production and Continued Advocacy on behalf of Black artists. Anyone familiar with the National Black Theatre, which has been located on 125th Street and Fifth Avenue in its own physical complex and has been delivering Black productions for 52 years, knows that this honor was well earned. The award highlighted works from the 2019-2020 season that included “125th & FREEdom” and “100 Year/100 Women.” NBT is headed by CEO Sade Lythcott, daughter of the late Dr. Teer, and NBT’s Artistic Director Jonathan McCrocy, who plays an imperative role in the substance of what NBT creates.

National Black Theatre CEO Lythcott recently spoke to the AmNews about this incredible honor.

AmNews: How did you feel when National Black Theatre received its first Obie Award for Sustained Excellence in Production and Continued Advocacy on behalf of Black Artists?

Sade Lythcott: It was an incredible and unexpected surprise! NBT has been dedicated to creating a home for Black artists for over half a century. We serve from a space of deep and unbinding love for our people, stories and community. We have never centered recognition or awards as a benchmark of our success, but of course it feels wonderful when we are recognized because it means that our impact is being felt.

AMN: Your mother created National Black Theatre in 1968, and for over 50 years it has been a place that welcomed and nurtured Black artists, telling our stories as only we can. How do you think your mother would have received this honor?

SL: My mother, Dr. Barbara Ann Teer, loved celebrations. I remember growing up and watching her get dressed to the nines every year for the AUDELCO awards. She thought it was an important part of the ritual that is theater. She would have felt honored and would have used her speech to continue to shed light on centering our stories in service to Black liberation and human transformation. She would have taken the time to invite everyone to lean into this moment in history and to listen to the wisdom of our ancestors that are beckoning and guiding us through this difficult and transformational time.

AMN: The Obie Awards honor excellence in Off and Off-Off Broadway Theater. What does receiving acknowledgement from this group mean to a theater which has stayed focused and true to its mission? Does it inspire you to take things to the next level, and what would that level be?

SL: We are in a space of tremendous artistic rigor. We always have been. Rigor, training and spirituality as a tool for liberation and transformation is at the root of everything we do. The work that NBT generates is a product of those principles and I truly don’t believe that there is any higher level than that. The genius of Dr. Teer is that she placed zero value on the white gaze or lens. If they recognized her work, fine. If they didn’t, that was ok too because the work was intended to be just as rigorous for our audience as for our artists. It was meant to make you feel and confront your relationship with your own oppression and, in turn, begin to take action dismantling those stories in ourselves and in our communities. She invented an original art form that she referred to as “working Blackly.” Awards like the OBIE bring new eyeballs to our work, which can often lead to more resources being brought to our table, and with more resources it means we can deepen our impact and create more opportunities for Black artists to continue to dream and radically imagine a future where we are all truly free.

AMN: Through the years I have been to countless productions at NBT, and there is a spiritual vibe you feel as you walk through the front doors. Passing the fountain, you feel a calmness, and as you get off the elevator you feel yourself prepared for what healing, blessing, education or entertainment you are about to experience. What enables you and Jonathan to maintain this environment?

SL: Thank you for this acknowledgement, there really is no higher compliment to us than that. The true keepers of this “spirit technology” are Abisola and Nabii Faison who have been the backbone of NBT for 50+ years. My mother truly believed in the technology of soul. She created a curriculum that she trained everyone who worked in any capacity at NBT, called the Teer Technology of Soul. For her, the science and secret to soul was about tapping into the vibratory frequency that makes people feel whole, complete and full of joy. So that is the space we maintain and curate on a daily basis at NBT. Dr. Teer visited and studied the great holy lands and sacred spaces all over the world and found that all of these places around the world, no matter if it was in India, China or Nigeria, had something in common. They all had rituals and the rituals made you feel more seen, safe and sacred. That vibration could heal people, awaken them and ultimately lead people on a transformational journey to be in relationship with their highest self. So long answer short, we are committed to the preservation of Indigenous wisdom through ritual to maintain our space, because our community deserves to have its own temples where we can learn, heal and grow in the beauty of our Blackness.

AMN: What types of plays do you strive to continue to present at NBT?

SL: NBT likens itself as medicine for the disease that is racism in the form of anti-Blackness (in white and non-white spaces). We strive to produce work that is rooted in the radical imagination of Black creatives. We are interested in new and contemporary voices that challenge the mainstream; that create new pathways to authentically present the complexity of the Black experience. We strive to push the boundaries of traditional Black identity to include the vast diversity within our community including LGBTQIA and the disabled communities. We are interested in producing art that transforms the way we see, relate to, and value each other and our own lives. We strive with every production to demonstrate the richness of Black Lives and that they Matter. Lastly, I think we strive to create a space and work that feels like home and captures the present-pulse of our humanity as a kind of mirror by which we can view ourselves more wholly.

AMN: What’s coming in the future for NBT when theaters open again?

SL: For the time being we have really embraced engaging our audience on all of our digital platforms (Facebook, Instagram and YouTube), introducing our new programmatic arm, NBT@Home, which shares new work and archival offerings from our vault. We are also in the beginning stages of a capital redevelopment project to complete my mother’s vision to transform NBT’s property into a world class, state-of-the-art theater complex deserving of Harlem, the community that she loved so dearly and coined “the cultural capital of the Black world.” The future looks bright and with the grace of our ancestors’ blessings and wisdom and the support of our community, NBT will continue to shine a light for all the world to see. We are humbled and feel beyond privileged to continue to steward the Legacy of the National Black Theatre.

For more information, visit www.nationalblacktheatre.org, and follow at https://www.facebook.com/NationalBlackTheatre, instagram.com/natblacktheatre/ and twitter.com/NatBlackTheatre.