I heard about a new theater program that occurred this summer in Brooklyn, which sounded more like a dream than a reality. It proved what can happen when people put actions behind ideas and words.
How many of our young adults and mature adults who aspire to careers in the arts are aware of the roles African-Americans and the Blacks Arts Movement played in theater in this country and why don’t we see fit to make sure that they are acquainted with this information? That sounds like an important task. Now who would have the knowledge, desire and ability to impart this information on the next generation of theatre professionals? Theater icons such as Phylicia Rashad, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Sonia Sanchez, Michele Shay and Peter Jay Fernandez, that’s who.
Yes, you heard me correctly. This dream program came true for the first time in Brooklyn at the Billie Holiday Theatre as students aged 22 to 40 participated in a Black Arts Theater Intensive, where for five weeks between July and August, they studied scenes, dialect work, dance and movement, history and culture, voice and dialect and ethnomusicology. The program is a collaboration between the Billie Holiday Theatre and the Stella Adler Studio of Acting.
Dr. Indira Etwaroo, the executive director of RestorationART and the Billie Holiday Theatre recently spoke with the AmNews about this incredible program and discussed its 2018 launch.
“BATI had a winter launch in January 2018 for one week and a summer program launch July-August 2018,” Etwaroo explained. “There were many conversations happening between artists and institutions about the need to ensure that the next generation of theater artists was provided a deep immersion in understanding their culture rooted in the African-American theater canon and the Black Arts Movement. All of the founding members of the faculty—Stephen McKinley Henderson, Ruben Santiago Hudson, Phylicia Rashad, Michele Shay and Sonia Sanchez—all have relationships with The Billie Holiday Theatre and Stella Adler Studio of Acting. They have been the brain trust. They put us together and the rest is becoming history. They have provided unparalleled support in a partnership like this coming to fruition, knowing that future generations need to be able to have a sacred space to access and connect themselves to a powerful history. These renowned theater artists served as advisors and faculty members.”
Considering the mission of the Intensive, Etwaroo said, “The AUDELCO and Obie Award-winning Billie Holiday Theatre, born out of the Black Arts Movement in 1972, teams up with the renowned Stella Adler Studio of Acting. As theater home to the largest Black community in the nation, The Billie moves into the future with a commitment to deepen relationships with artists and audiences, engage new partnerships and cultivate the next generation of artmakers. Founded in 1949, the Stella Adler Studio of Acting has trained thousands of actors, many of whom have gone on to important theater and film careers. The spirit that has animated Stella Adler Studio of Acting stems from the insight that growth as an actor and growth as a human being are synonymous. These two historic cultural institutions join arms with one core mission: Through the lens of the Black Theater Canon and the Black Arts Movement, to train theater artists in becoming vibrant and contributing members that celebrate and champion the exquisite diversity of local, national and global arts’ communities in the 21st century.”
This program’s unique focus for Black students to know their roots, brings to mind a line from an August Wilson play: “You got to be right with yourself before you can be right with anybody else.”
“We target students from training programs, and working professionals, ranging in age from 22 to 40,” Etwaroo remarked. “We welcome actors of all ethnicities but have found a predominance of African-American actors apply and audition. It’s clear to us the power of the program depends on this demographic, that is, young actors of African descent whose primary actor training experience has been in Eurocentric institutions. These actors, though skilled and talented are looking for their voices, their roots and a place to call home. We enroll two sections of 16 students each. They come from all over the country and even from overseas. Many of them are currently pursuing MFAs and BFAs at prestigious colleges and universities around the U.S.”
Students learned of the auditioning through marketing in Backstage, in American Theatre, on Facebook and at Stella Adler, as well as through the marketing efforts of the Billie Holiday Theatre.
“Students also learn about us through word-of-mouth, and, as the only program of this kind in the nation, word travels fast,” said Etwaroo. “Admittance into the BATI is extremely competitive and we do an audition for this program. We look for the most energetic, artistically ambitious actors and also favor artists with a social conscience. Additionally, we’ve instituted an auditing program to accommodate the significant amount of academic interest in the BATI.”
The program has featured many prominent guest lecturers:
Seret Scott, a nationally recognized theater director and the first African-American woman to direct nationally, spoke about her career, particularly her involvement in the Free Southern Theater.
Bill Forchion, a clown and mask expert, spoke about his 30-year career navigating the circus industry as one of the only clown specialists of color.
Jonathan McCrory, artistic director of the National Black Theatre, spoke about heading a nationally recognized Black theater organization, what it means to be a leader and how he makes his creative decisions.
I spoke about my career of having an impact on diversity practices in cultural institutions across the country and the link between the Reconstruction/Jim Crow Era, the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Arts Movement.
Public intellectual and professor, Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, spoke about the role of artists to reflect the times and hold humanity accountable.
Hollis King, an artist with a storied career that includes heading a major advertising firm and creating album art for many prominent artists, including Natalie Cole, spoke about his practices of unlocking his creativity.
Carol Maillard and Louise Robinson of Sweet Honey in the Rock spoke about their careers as actors and musicians. Maillard spoke about her years in the Negro Ensemble Company.
Dr. Sonia Sanchez organized a trip to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, where we heard from Director Kevin Young, as well as several curators, about the necessity of documenting Black theater traditions and events.
Professor Frank Leon Roberts, who created the first course on the Black Lives Matter movement at NYU, spoke about the movement’s history and tenets.
Broadway actors Brandon Dirden and Carra Patterson spoke about analyzing August Wilson’s plays, and about navigating the theater and film industry as Black actors.
Award-winning theater and film actress Tonya Pinkins spoke about her approach to analyzing and performing songs as an actress.
Chantal Jean-Pierre, a voice and dialect expert who teaches at Rutgers, Brown and Yale, taught a workshop on mastering the Liberian dialect.
Internationally celebrated dancer and choreographer Camille A. Brown taught a class on African-American social dance.
Celebrated film director Dana Verde spoke about her best practices of low-budget filmmaking.
Nationally renowned actor Larry Powell screened his new film and spoke about the importance of investigating new forms of storytelling showcasing Black people with nuanced experiences.
Award-winning Afro-queer Juilliard-trained playwright Donja Love taught a playwriting workshop focused on an experiential understanding of different identities.
Like I said—unbelievable!
If you are interested or know a student interested in BATI, read about the upcoming Winter Immersion, January 2019, and next summer’s Intensive, July 2019, at www.thebillieholiday.org or www.stellaadler.com. You can apply for either of those two programs and set up an interview and audition anytime.
Asked why a program like this one needs to happen, Etwaroo replied, “In many ways, The Black Arts Intensive is about righting a wrong. African-American students have been part of a university, studio or conservative acting programs without learning about themselves; without learning about the history or the body of work that informs a rich, diverse and complex body of work that is the Black theater canon. The American theater landscape, and particularly actor training programs focus almost exclusively on Western, Eurocentric ideologies and writers and historical content through the lens of Eurocentric aesthetics. The Black Arts Intensive’s core message is that there is an incredibly long and powerful continuum of storytelling that speaks to the Black experience. That message is manifested in weekly historical lectures on the major eras of the African-American experience, helmed by Dr. Sonia Sanchez. It’s manifested in classes in African-American social dance, scene study and script analysis of under-examined, under-produced Black Arts Movement-era plays. Most crucially the message is manifested in having The Black Arts Intensive take place in the largest community of African-Americans in the nation in Central Brooklyn at the Billie Holiday Theatre at RestorationART Space, where healing, affirmation and self-discovery are possible; space all too often not available to African-American theater students. The Black Arts Intensive creates a safe haven, a sanctuary for young Black actors to tap into their highest creative potential, to explore their delicate humanity without fear of judgment or repercussion, to harness the strength passed down from their ancestors and to re-enter their artistic communities armed with that deeply realized sense of self.”