*T’Keyah Crystal Keymáh (In Living Color, Cosby, That’s So Raven), along with actor Lamman Rucker (Meet the Browns, Why Did I Get Married Too?), will serve as Celebrity Co-Chairs for the 2011 National Black Theatre Festival (NBTF).
One of the nation’s largest and most prestigious black theater events of its kind, NBTF will run from Monday, August 1 – Saturday, August 6 in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
Keymáh’s stage performances have included Love Letters (w/David Alan Grier); her critically acclaimed one-woman show, Some of My Best Friends: A Collection of Characters; the Moscow production John Henry Redwood’s drama: The Old Settler; August Wilson’s Piano Lesson; T’Keyah Live…Mostly: A True Variety Show, the latter of which debuted at NBTF in 1999.
Keymáh has also produced and directed three of her own plays. In addition, she recently directed the world premiere of the stage production Route 66: Finding Nat King Cole.
Q-In your professional opinion, what is the state of Black theater in America?
A-Theater in general and particularly Black theater is struggling to survive amid greater and greater arts funding cuts, and fewer and fewer patrons with disposable income. Add to that the national cuts in education and the insidious proliferation of corporate sponsored, celebrity headline driven television programming, and you have a recipe for appeal-to-the-lowest-common-denominator theater as well. Fortunately, however, there are a good many theaters developing and producing quality new and classic works for both adult and youth audiences. Many companies are incorporating smaller and more commercial productions and even renting space to touring companies to stay afloat. Some are co-producing with larger and more funded (non-Black) theaters as well. Gatherings like the National Black Theatre Festival serve as an important venue for the synergistic exchange of information and ideas between established and up-and-coming companies, and individuals in theater.
Q-Why is the Black theater movement in decline?
A-It is important to remember that theater is a vital to Black culture. Encompassing drama, comedy, history and music, it is the last refuge for our performers, artists and storytellers. It is the most viable platform for us to display honest interpretations of the full spectrum of Black life without censorship or commercialization. In addition to the economic climate and the general dummying down of America, there is also the mounting and dangerous notion that the isolated, albeit undeniable success of a selected few is cause to cease noticing, questioning, rebuking and rebelling against the disparities that plaque the great majority of Black people. This notion, this thought gives rise to the feeling that there may no longer be a need for Black cultural institutions.
Q-What are some of the challenges that face today’s Black playwrights, directors, and actors?
A-With so much emphasis on what appeals to the widest audience, playwrights, especially emerging voices that offer unique, political or elevated stories, have no easy task of trying to be heard. Similarly, directors who want to helm new or artistically challenging projects must work to convince producing theaters that there is still an audience for those pieces. As with all aspect of the entertainment industry, stage actors today, must compete with more actors for fewer jobs.
Q-There have been many Black stage/musical plays that have come to America’s urban areas over the last 15 years, many of which have featured recording artists and television and film actors/actresses. What is your opinion of these types of productions?
A– I will preface my response by saying there are quality shows that feature recording artists and /or performers best known for their work on television and in films. Performers should be free to work in any medium for which they have skill and /or training, and producers should be free to hire whomever they want for their productions. Additionally, from a producer’s perspective, it makes commercial sense to feature actors with a wide following when attempting to attract a wide audience. Unfortunately, popular performers are sometimes used not just to embellish a show’s marketability, but to compensate for poorly crafted, underdeveloped scripts and hurried productions. Sometimes a star performer can smooth the rough edges of a show, but the damage comes when theater patrons become used to inferior works ‘saved’ by popular artists and /or great or elaborate performances and stop expecting more.
Q- Do you think that Black audiences are really interested in serious Broadway and off Broadway types of stage productions? Why or why not?
A- Like everyone else, Black people want to see themselves represented onstage, but there is rarely the chance to do so on Broadway. Broadway and many off Broadway productions are extremely expensive to mount, and most producers are not willing to risk money on dramas of any color. Since Black dramas are so rare, Black audiences have to be cultivated and most shows are pulled before that happens.
Q-How did you become involved with the National Black Theatre Festival?
A-Larry Leon Hamlin, the late great founder of the National Black Theatre Festival honored me at the 1999 event. That was my introduction to the festival and it was so impactful an experience that I have attended every festival since. I performed my shows, “Some of My Best Friends” and “T’Keyah Live!… Mostly,” there, presented workshops and now am honored to serve with Lamman Rucker as Co-Chair.
Q- What is NBTF doing to help revive Black theater in this country?
A– The festival gathers theater luminaries from all over the country and beyond to share information with each other and impart wisdom upon aspiring artists. It provides venues for new and established works and allows audiences the opportunity to see a wide range of theatrical pieces and to mix and mingle with those presenting and performing the works. In addition to twenty-five main stage productions, there are reading of new works, film screenings, fringe series of college productions, workshops, panels, poetry, art and more. The energy in the whole town of Winston-Salem is focused on the festival and if you don’t come with a great appreciation for Black theater, you will leave with one. As Co-Chair, I am asking the festival to encourage even more viable networking than ever. The NBTF is like a wonderful family reunion, but it has the potential to be a think tank for our cultural survival. I’m pushing for that.
Q- You have had success with television and film projects, what intrigues you most about Black theater productions?
A– There is no second take in theater and no break for commercials. If you are not well studied, you will fall and there is no net. Few things are more exciting than that. Doing a show that is historically significant or culturally relevant to Black people makes me proud to be part our rich history of story telling. The first time someone approached me after a performance of “Some of My Best Friends” and said gratefully of one of my characters, “that was me,” I knew for sure how important is it for us to tell our own stories.
Q-Who are some of the playwrights, stage directors and stage actors that have most influenced your stage career?
A-There are too many to mention but the list certainly includes Ntozake Shange, who’s “For Colored Girls…” was the first work that spoke to me and the first I committed to memory; Vinette Carroll, whose staging of “Your Arms Too Short to Box with God” stays with me still; Val Gray Ward, who was the first person that I saw perform different characters onstage; and Dr. Ronald O. Davis, my Florida A & M University theater professor / director who introduced me to Errol John’s “Moon on a Rainbow Shawl,” Ossie Davis’ “Pearlie Victorious,” Micki Grant’s “Don’t Bother Me I Can’t Cope,” and Lonnie Elder’s “Ceremonies in Dark Old Men.”
Q-What projects – stage, film, television or others – are you currently working on?
A-The second edition of my book, Natural Woman / Natural Hair will be released this summer and I have music, film and television projects in development that will hopefully start seeing the light of day by next year. I’m set to direct Pearl Cleage’s “Blues for an Alabama Sky” for the North Carolina Black Rep this fall and my new solo stage show, “Don’t Get Me Started” debuts at the The Academy of Arts & Letters (TBAAL) in Dallas in early November before coming to the DuSable Museum’s theatre in Chicago this winter.