Please join me in this call to arms to sustain theaters of color, which are possibly facing a lack of funding in 2021! A recent town hall meeting, held through a collaboration between CTC (Coalition of Theatres of Color, an initiative started in 2004 by Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis) and Manhattan Borough President Gale A. Brewer’s office, convened politicians, heads of several minority theater groups that are part of the CTC, and Tony Award winning actors, directors, and producers to address the issue.
Explaining the imperative reason for this meeting, Jackie Jeffries, president of AUDELCO, shared, “CTC was originally started as a Coalition of Theatres of Color for theaters 25 years and older. It was comprised of Black, Hispanic and Asian theater companies. The Coalition became a line item in the City’s Budget under New York State Assemblywomen Inez E. Dickens and City Council members Charles Barron, Leroy Comrie and Domenic Recchia. Sometime in the last few years CTC was taken out of the budget as a line item and made an Initiative. Initiatives do not have the security in budgets like line items. So now the City and State are saying they are bankrupt and they may not be funding the CTC Initiative for 2021. We’re advocating to make sure the Initiative is funded. The ultimate fight to me is to secure the money and have CTC restored as a line item in the budget so that this does not happen again.”
The town hall had dozens of participants, including Manhattan Borough President Gale A. Brewer; Sade Lythcott, National Black Theater and CTC chair; Diane Fraher, AMERINDA (American Indian Artists Inc.); Madaha Kinsey-Lamb, Mind-Builders Creative Arts Center; Carl Clay, founder of Black Spectrum Theatre; Tisa Chang, Pan Asian Rep; and Libertad O. Guerra, The Clemente. There was also David Martine, chairperson of AMERINDA and a member of Chiricuhau Apache/Shinnecock Nations of New York, and politicians Daneek I. Miller, co-chair of B.L.A.C.; Councilwoman Adrienne E. Adams; Laurie Cumbo, Majority Leader New York City Council; and New York State Assemblywoman Inez E. Dickens. Tony Award winner actor and choreographer Andre De Shields, actor and activist Danny Glover, and actor, playwright and director Ruben Santiago-Hudson were also on hand. The Town Hall was also attended by Woodie King Jr. and Pat White of New Federal Theatre; Vy Higginsen, founder of the Mama Foundation; Athena Moore from Borough President Brewer’s office; Jeanine Tesori, Robin Snowden, Joyce Adewumi, Joyous Pierce, Tracy Hyter, Joanna Castro, Sandie Luna, Deborah Nitzber, Jonathan Silver, Hana Tahrovic, Brian Berne, Richarda Abrams and Cheryl Lane. It was quite an impressive group of people that came together for this vital cause.
One by one, participants discussed the roles played by theaters of color in our communities in the five boroughs. They talked about the times we are living in, facing the pandemic, racism, police brutality and the brutal killings of George Floyd and others, but they also looked at the purpose of theater and the healing process that it will help to facilitate, and the need for it to be sustained with the financial support of the city.
“This particular Initiative has been highlighted and supported by us at the Council. The money brought in by the arts in New York every year is $20 billion, it’s a lot of money. In tough times arts keep us going,” said Brewer.
“The arts give expression to the joys and ills of our society…They give insight, reveal and record the complex nuances of our time and place and not only for the now, but for future generations…We are compelled right now to visualize how arts and culture will serve in the recovery of our society. We are the creators and we often make things out of nothing,” said Niria Leyva-Gutierrez of the Northern Manhattan Arts Alliance.
“I am the CEO of the National Black Theatre and chair of the CTC,” explained Sade Lythcott. “This meeting is a celebration of the work we do and the times that we’re living through. Black Lives Matter is not a moment, it is not even a movement, Black Lives Matter is a value proposition. This evening isn’t about theater, it’s about our lives…This evening is about making our communities whole, how we walk in the direction of healing…The CTC represents 42 cultural institutions, we employ thousands…Cultural arts institutions are not about plays or art for art’s sake, we are agents of change. Today our missions are more vital than ever in playing a role in the recovery of our great city, as many of our organizations are more than just theaters. For decades CTC theaters have functioned as safe havens for communities in which they operate…serving up cultural, educational and economic resources for youth and families. We’re asking that no harm be done to the CTC City Council Initiative.”
Speaking up for the arts, Danny Glover spoke eloquently as he said, “Where do we go from here? We have the opportunity to build structures in which we validate our stories…In trying moments the arts define us. Artists are the gatekeepers of the truth…We need to put funding at every level—city, state and federal—for the arts.”
Diane Fraher, president of AMERINDA (American Indian Artist Inc.), expressed her appreciation for the funding it has previously received from CTC. “Colonialism and slavery are gone, but we all remain and we are asking what are our stories….Native American theater started in New York City in 1971 and it’s important that it has a vital presence in New York.”
Ruben Santiago-Hudson shared uplifting words: “This is a time of chaos and uncertainty. It would be easy to ball up and cry, but this is not a time to do that. This is the time to have a voice and speak…When this pandemic is done we, the artists are the healers. We will be called to use the power God has given us. I implore everyone looking at a budget, find a way to make sure that your theaters are intact. When theater dies, the community suffers. We need to keep our theater intact. Keep the village strong!”
Carl Clay spoke powerfully about what would happen if communities of color don’t have local theater companies, like his company Black Spectrum Theatre, which has been in Queens for over 50 years and is utilized for so much more than theater productions. “During COVID-19 we partnered and raised money to get testing for COVID. We produced online series to talk about COVID-19. Like all of our CTC members, we do these things because we must. We ask the City to help us do our part and bring the City back to life.”
Andre De Shields praised this fine artform. “Theater can be the transformation in the world that we want to see,” he commented. “We are the masters of language, emotion and intellect. We want to do no harm, our mission is to heal.” De Shields then had everyone smiling and swaying as he performed “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”
If you’re interested in donating to CTC, Lythcott said, “CTC is a coalition of 42 diverse theater organizations. If you want to make a donation, choose one of the theaters or donate to us individually.”
Ty Jones, founder of the Classical Theatre of Harlem, remarked, “If anybody is threatening our money, I’m ready to go to City Hall and be visceral. I’m ready to do that.”
Woodie King Jr., founder of New Federal Theatre, explained, “Silence is what we had been before CTC and CTC changed that…Now we’re at 42 theaters and we are very strong now. We must stay strong. We must speak out constantly. This CTC Town Hall is a first step in speaking out…We are about entry level major American artists as we see as someone coming into this system and helping to stabilize the economy of New York. ‘Hadestown’ was doing $200,000 a week, these shows bring money into the economy, but the actors must have a starting place. All these people who are wonderful and excellent, they come out of these [community] theaters…”