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Wanda Whiteside waves the flag for African-American theater.
Wanda Whiteside has always seen herself as a staunch integrationist. “We have to get along, because it’s the right thing to do,” says the founder of the newly christened Inner Circle Repertory Theatre Inc., with no small amount of certitude. “It’s being a decent human being. It’s being a mensch, you know?” Whiteside invokes the Yiddish expression fluidly, having grown up alongside a few menschesand many others who most likely missed the markin the middle-class neighborhoods of her native Brooklyn and Long Island.
When Whiteside headed north about 25 years ago to study at the Boston Conservatory, she found herself the only African-American student in an introduction-to-theater course. The class obviously made an impression on her. From a Manila folder sitting in front of us on a coffeehouse table, Whiteside pulls out a typewritten paper titled “An Evolution of a People’s Theater.” It’s dated Nov. 20, 1975.
In the paper, Whiteside as an 18-year-old college freshman articulates the need for culturally specific theaterAfrican-American theater, in this case. She isn’t talking about the occasional performance of A Raisin in the Sun or Porgy and Bess to keep a theater company’s season diverse. She argues the importance of theater companies in the United States with African-American ownership featuring African-American actors communicating the African-American experiencesupported by primarily African-American audiences.
A red-penciled “A-” is marked in the paper’s upper-right-hand corner.
Sure, Whiteside admits, these weighty thoughts were not exclusively her own intellectual property. After all, she was only a teenager. “Life is the black man’s growing insistence that his story be told and told in terms compatible with his own experience and his own self-awarenesstold like it is,” Whiteside dramatically reads in the near-deserted Silver Spring coffeehouse.
Whiteside’s been talking about starting her own African-American theater company ever since she wrote the paper, she says. “It’s the kind of thing where people say to you, ‘Wanda, why don’t you just stop talking about it, and why don’t you just do it?’” she says with a laugh.
Last Dec. 2, Whiteside pulled a Nike: Her Inner Circle Repertory Theatre debuted with a reading of Joseph A. Walker’s Rampart Street at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda. Walker, in fact, was one of Whiteside’s professors when she completed her undergraduate studies, at Howard University. About 40 people attended the event, which featured Mardi Gras beads and masks, jazz music, and a Caribbean buffet.
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As a metropolitan area that hosts the nation’s wealthiest majority-black suburb, the nation’s most prestigious historically black college, and some of the nation’s most noteworthy black residents, from Vernon Jordan to Robert Johnson to Juwan Howard, Washington would seem an ideal incubator for African-American theater troupes. Whiteside’s addition brings the total to, well, let’s see: One plus one plus oneyesiree, that’s three.
The African Continuum Theatre Company, which appears at the Kennedy Center this season, has been performing in D.C. on and off for almost a decade. Cheryl Collins recently began an African-American theater company housed at Prince George’s Community College. And now there’s Whiteside’s Inner Circle, which has no place to call home as of yet. Whiteside hopes to locate her theater in Silver Spring and has been talking with folks involved in that city’s downtown redevelopment. Right now, Inner Circle rehearses in a former retail space in Silver Spring’s City Place mall.
Others have tried to start African-American theater companies in D.C. in the past, with limited success. “Every year or so, somebody announces they’re starting a new one,” says Jennifer Nelson, producing artistic director of African Continuum Theatre. “I applaud their efforts. But I also say, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’ve heard it before.’”
Of course, African-American theatergoers regularly attend performances at the Kennedy Center, Arena Stage, and other mainstream theaters in the metropolitan area. But there’s a belief that those same theatergoers are less than enthusiastic about supporting local African-American theater companies. “I’m going to try and change that trend,” says Whiteside. “I just think [theater’s] a vital thing for our communitythe African-American community and the community at large.”
The raison d’être for African-American theater got Broadway billing a few years back, when two giants of the national theater community clashed over the issue. In a keynote address delivered at Princeton University titled “The Ground on Which I Stand,” Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson vigorously argued for the existence and survival of African-American theater companies.
The inclusion of African-American themed plays in mainstream theater and nontraditional casting of other works doesn’t satisfy Wilson. “To mount an all-black production of Death of a Salesman or any other play conceived for white actors…is to deny us our own humanity, our own history, and the need to make our own investigations from the cultural ground on which we stand as black Americans,” Wilson argued in the speech, which was reprinted in the September 1996 American Theatre.
Wilson knew that his ideas would be repudiated by critics, primary among them New Republic theater reviewer Robert Brustein. Brustein, who also directs the American Repertory Theatre at Harvard University, had always been cool to Wilson’s work. Of Wilson’s prize-winning play Seven Guitars, Brustein said that he “left after four guitars.”
In the next issue of American Theatre, Brustein responded to Wilson and set off a debate that eventually peaked with a live Crossfire-like face-off a few months later. “I don’t think Martin Luther King ever imagined an America where playwrights such as August Wilson would be demanding, under the pretense of calling for healing and unity, an entirely separate stage for black theater artists,” Brustein replied in the magazine. “What next? Separate schools? Separate washrooms? Separate drinking fountains?”
Whiteside disagrees with Brustein’s critique. Though she agrees that many core themes are universal, she sees African-American-specific theater as a means to integrate, not separate. She believes that it is an exercise in inclusiveness, a way to open up theater to audiences that might otherwise have felt left out. “I think theater should do three things: It should educate, it should inspire, and it should entertain,” she says. Whiteside says that so-called chitlin-circuit productions such as Beauty Shop, which cater to black audiences and often play at the places such as the Warner and Lincoln Theatres, miss the mark on the first two criteria.
And Whiteside doesn’t want to rely on mainstream theater to tell the black experience in America. “If Arena and Studio and Woolly Mammoth didn’t produce some of these shows, there would be none,” says Whiteside. “But isn’t there something about being dependent on that? It makes me a little unnerved….Suppose they said, ‘We don’t want this anymore.’ What would we do? We need foundationwe need infrastructure.”
Nelson echoes Whiteside’s observations. “Well, why do you have a Shakespeare Theatre?” Nelson asks. “Because if you end up doing everything, you end up really doing nothing. The more specific you become, the more attractive the theater experience is.”
“Brustein says drama has no color, that the human soul has no color,” Whiteside adds. “Drama doesn’t have any coloranybody can be a drama king or queen, I guess. But theater? Theater must have a color. It must. It must.”
Inner Circle’s premiere, Rampart Street, takes on the issue of color directly. It explores the life of legendary New Orleans jazz great Buddy Bolden. One of the play’s themes centers on the tension between the dark-skinned Bolden and his lighter-skinned Creole paramour.
Whiteside says her next production most likely will be Greens, a play written by local playwright Louise Gray. At its heart, Whiteside says, Greens deals with the issue of assimilation. The central character, a successful, young black professional woman, decides to host her family’s reunion. To everyone’s surprise, she even intends to cook greens.
Even though she’s never cooked greens in her entire life. “If you know anything about African-American culture and family, whoever cooks the greens in the family is the best cook,” Whiteside explains.
And the task isn’t easy. “You can prepare greens, or you can cook greens,” Whiteside clarifies.
Whiteside plans even more ambitious works after that, working with both professional actors and novice thespians. Once again, she reaches into the Manila folder for a little inspiration. This time it’s a dog-eared copy of Jean Genet’s The Blacks. In the play, black actors re-enact the murder of a white woman before white judges.
This play, written by a white man, is intended for a white audience. But if, which is unlikely, it is ever performed before a black audience, then a white person, male or female, should be invited every evening….The organizer of the show should welcome him formally, dress him in a ceremonial costume, and lead him to his seatpreferably in the front row. The actors will play for him. A spotlight should be focused upon the symbolic white for the whole performance.
Whiteside intends to hand out masks once again for The Blacksblack masks for white audience members, white masks for black audience members. “It’s all about seeing your differences in order to understand your likenesses,” explains Whiteside. “If you put up on stage [that there’s] no difference [between races], you’re not going to ever absorb what you need to grow. You need to take the medicine.”
Whiteside plans on administering quite a bit of medicine to Washington audiencesAfrican-American and otherwise. “I plan to give them everything they needwhether they knew they needed it or not,” Whiteside adds. “They’re going to get jazz, they’re going to get food, they’re going to get artand then they’re going to get theater.” CP