The Black Theater: The Q&A
Q&A with theater producer Maséqua Myers following The Black Theater: The Making of a Movement at the Bronzeville Historical Society on October 30, 2021.
Maséqua Myers (MM): I must say, even though we do have some intergenerational people here, I see people young enough to be my son, but let me just say that it also felt as though we had a lot of people in here that I would call “people of a certain age.” We was shouting and rooting for people that we saw, events that we knew took place in the sixties that helped catapult the theater into the position that was assistful in us being recognized, as we all know we are, but as other people had to be reminded, as human beings, that were giants and greats and had a culture and a heritage of our own. I would like to say this. I’ll make it a little personal. I graduated as a registered nurse in 1973, and I went into the nursing profession because I wanted to help people. That’s what I believe is my calling.
But I also wanted to be in theater, and wanted to be a performing artist. And there was some people who told me, “Why would you want to sing and dance and show your behind and shuffle in front of white people? Because that’s what you’re gonna have to do to make some money.” So, you know, I was a youngster. I’m seventeen, eighteen trying to figure out what I want to do with myself when that happened. So I said, “Well, I’ll go into nursing. Let that be a backup to my theater.” And while I was in nursing school, I found out halfway through that it really wasn’t what I wanted to do. But let me tell you why, too often while I was in those hospitals and I was giving care to white people, they reminded me that they were hateful. They reminded me, “I don’t want a shot from this n*****.” I would hear those things while I was in nursing school between the years of 1970 and 1974. And so of course I didn’t give people any care if they didn’t want any care from me.
But what it did for me was say, wait a minute, what I conceive as theater is the fact that I have control over the narrative. I can create and write and put in front of an audience what I think is important, much better than you have control over something like television or film. So I said, I would rather create and teach and educate, or entertain, or edutain – as that word developed later on – in a place I had more control over than in the hospital setting. So instead of me giving shots and caring [for] and wiping the behinds of racists that called me a n*****, I decided theater and performing arts was where I belonged, and I am so glad I made that choice. Not to take away from anybody who made the choice to go into the medical profession. I’m just saying what happened to Maséqua Myers.
This particular film, when I got a chance to review it at least once before coming here today, it just brought up for me such empowering feelings. I really felt good about hearing and learning and seeing people who are my role models. Most of them are just a step above me in terms of generation. And I would like to just say that in the sixties, it was very special, because we had a unity across so many different phases of life, from legal to medical to performing arts, from our entertainers [to] our intellectuals. Because it was a time of transference, of us understanding that we needed to take control of ourselves and our destiny. It was a real compact time of that kind of philosophy. And so what I would like to do is to talk – I’m moderating, I’m not lecturing, believe it or not. (Laughter) And so I’m getting ready to turn this over and let you all know that to have some kind of structure in this moderation, I would like to look at it from the historical point of view, and then talk about the present and our purpose, and then wind up talking about the future of theater. So with that in mind, I would like to just open it up at this point and ask the questions and see how this goes.
What was most impressionable to you in seeing this film right now? What do you remember most that sticks out and impacted you, whether positively or negatively? Because this is a discussion and a conversation and not a lecture. Would anyone like to jump out and do that? While you think about it – maybe they’re all gone, the ones that go, “Ooh, ahh.” (Laughter) Maybe those are the ones – the very vocal ones left the room. But I would like to say that for someone who was fifteen in 1968, to be able to be born during a time that was so important to us understanding who we are and our connection to where we come from and making sure that we’re connected to the pridefulness of our heritage and that we as a people have a culture, even though we were disconnected from our original culture, that we do have a culture. Everyone has a culture. So because we said we want to have Black theater doesn’t mean that we hate anybody. It means that we recognize that we love ourselves. And that’s what’s most important about living.
I decided to write some names down because, and not all of them, but so many of them have passed on. We had a few that are still living, but they would be in their eighties and above. But we were brought back into a connection of Langston Hughes, Paul Robeson, Owen Dawson, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Lloyd Richards, Douglas Turner Ward, Robert Hooks, Glynn Turman, Roscoe Lee Browne. It was good seeing them young too. And like my grandmother would say – and she passed at 94 – in her early nineties and late eighties, some of the younger children in the family reunion might want to run from her when she tried to discipline them. And she’d say, “Alright.” And they’d laugh at her because she couldn’t move that well. She’d say, “Alright, you’ll get to be my age if you’re lucky.” And so the young kids go, “Lucky, what does that mean?” Just live long enough. You know how the old folks say? Just keep living. Then you will know what that means. So you’re lucky. Yes, you are. If you get to be eighty, and seventy, and ninety. And I’m looking at seventy in about a year from now, and I’m calling it the sensational seventies. So James Earl Jones, Lonne Elder, Ntozake Shange, Lorraine Hansberry, Barbara Ann Teer. I got a chance to meet a lot of these people as a younger person, and it shaped my philosophy and secured my decision and kept me on – as far as I’m concerned – a very wholesome and righteous trajectory. Barbara Ann Teer, I said that. Michael Schultz. I had never seen him young. I only met him in his later years, so it was a treat to see him in this film, and Woodie King.
Well, let me just point out – and stop me anytime you want to. Say, “I have something to say,” or just say it. But one of the points I want to make is that Barbara Ann Teer – the National Black Theatre was not created to imitate white theater in any way. And she made that statement. I got a chance to meet her. What a blessing. I should have been about nineteen at the time. And we know that we’ve come from a culture of rituals. We live in a culture of rituals, and it was necessary for us not to just do plays that were in blackface, so to speak. We were just at a time when this country was imitating, and not creating, and not connecting to a brilliant past.
Audience Member #1: I have something to say.
MM: Yes! Thank you.
Audience Member #1: I think perhaps I am old enough to be in that older group. I graduated from [inaudible] in 1960. So one of the things that excited me about coming today was that in my young adulthood, all of this great stuff was going on in New York, and a lot of Black theater here in Chicago. And there was a little group of me and my friends who, quite frankly, had grown up as fairly privileged Black people in Chicago, but we took on the job of learning about some of what had been presented here. And then I was an English major, so I actually read all of those plays and I was really excited about that. So listening to the presenters here, I came away with this thought, because there were these two opposing ideas that I heard, especially that, number one, Black artists should be able to participate in the general culture and have parts there as well, but also, Black people should create our own art. And there was this concern about why there’s one or the other. And it occurred to me, Black people have to create our own art because we’re the only ones who have it and who know it. And it’s not going to be the same as an Irish – well, let me not say Irish. It’s not going to be the same as a Chinese or Japanese –
MM: We can say Irish, Italian.
Audience Member #1: Well, I don’t want to go there because the point I’m trying to make is, I sincerely am concluding that the white culture cannot fully accept Black art because in order to do so they have to acknowledge the evil they’ve perpetrated on Black people. And I think until our country is completely ready to accept that, to acknowledge it, to apologize for it, and to begin trying to make reparations for it, that’s always going to be a painful topic that they don’t want to express.
MM: I’m sorry. I want you to finish. You’re going to wrap up?
Audience Member #1: Yes. Then I was just going to say, therefore, Black people have to create our own, present it to our own, and then as someone suggested [inaudible].
MM: Thank you for that comment. I think that comment, for me, deserves applause. (Applause) I really do. And when you said that, that is the goal, isn’t it? I would think the goal for our existence – well, I say “our.” Any people, but we’re talking about Black people right now. Our goal is to make sure that the truth of history is known and accepted. And once it’s accepted as true, then all the reparations can take place. I heard someone up here said, “That’s never going to happen.” But I’m saying it has to. And we have to leave that as a goal. And I believe it will happen. If we look at how, in a way, short we’ve been in this country, considering time itself, and that we have made some tremendous strides based on where we’ve come from: nothing. Things have been totally disconnected from us. It’s an amazing place that we are right now. Even though we have our challenges and our difficulties, we have made such strides. So the next stride for us is to continue to understand that people have to not run away from our history. They cannot run. And once they stop running, I’m not going anywhere. They can come and bump into me and I’ll let them know what’s going on. Until that acceptance happens, we have to keep making sure that it does. Simple as that. You were going to make a comment? Oh, I’m sorry. Yeah. There was another comment? Yes.
Audience Member #2: A lot of us will remember times when we went home, went to visit relatives, and they pulled out the family album. And you would have to sit there and you would go through them, whether or not you knew the family members or whether you were interested in the family. But we would go through that process, as children we would go through that process. I compare that to theater because we know the stories and the people that we need to know about, and then we need to pass [them] on. And so whether we participate in other cultural groups or not, the stories of Black people should be perpetuated by Black people. And we need to understand their importance, because we’re the only ones that can get back into it.
Audience Member #3: When I was looking at this documentary – it’s about fifty years old, am I correct?
MM: It came out in ’78. So who does quick math?
Audience Member #3: So that’s about forty years, a little over forty years. I was kind of disheartened because I think that we have not progressed much since 1978 to 2021. We do have two Black theaters, Jackie Taylor’s [Black Ensemble Theater] and ETA.
MM: We have a few more, but those are our traditional ones that have been with us for so many years.
Audience Member #3: Right. And I just don’t see us progressing. We should have done more, in my opinion, than what we have since then. Forty-something years.
MM: Your opinion counts, and I hear it well. We should be further along. And some of that traveling is our fault as well, because we often, in my opinion, want to be accepted. And with wanting to be accepted, then we want to also step back from our history and what we’ve gone through and not say it happened. That’s the same place that other people are. They don’t want to say that it happened for different reasons. One, because it’s such an atrocity. It’s such a horrible history. And the other one is because I don’t want to be put out like I’m hating anyone. So we have a problem. We have to educate ourselves too. And I think that’s what happens in those times that we come together and we talk about photographs, and we talk about our family lineage, and our history. We have to be open, too, about certain stories. A lot of our grandparents and parents didn’t talk to us that way, because they thought they were protecting us. But in a way, it was keeping us in bondage.
Audience Member #3: Condoleezza Rice was on The View this week. I don’t know if anybody saw it. She said something about – correct me if I’m not paraphrasing her right – she didn’t want them to teach Black history because it makes the white children feel bad in schools to teach Black history. Did anybody hear that? Am I saying it right?
Audience Member #4: Yes, you are. You said it right.
Audience Member #5: And they’ve said that throughout the course of the development of Black history. And a lot of Black people take up for that. But I think Anthony Williams made two points. One of which, he talked about how, when he was directing in LA, he couldn’t keep actors because they kept being hired for other films. And one of the things I was gonna say earlier, when you look at that documentary, it is a testimony to how many Black celebrities were made from the theater into film. But you have two things that happened. One, the Black actors were taken into and relegated into Hollywood. And the second was that the funding agencies, which they failed to really deal with, created a method of funding white theaters for the purpose of integrating their institutions and stopped giving to the Black theaters.
MM: Yeah. That happened after this 1978 documentary.
Audience Member #5: And they begin to go out, and they gave Joe Papp and those folks –
MM: It happened here in Chicago, too. I mean the Goodman Theatre, Victory Gardens Theater, other North Side theaters did the same. They would write grants and the grants would go to them before they would come to Black theaters in our neighborhoods. And that was something else that we had to fight against. Yes, sir.
Audience Member #6: Is it possible to get a copy of that?
MM: I’ll have to turn that question over to Michael. Mike?
Michael Phillips (MP): Yeah. It’s distributed by a company called California Newsreel, and you can order a DVD of it. I think it’s like $30 for home use.
Audience Member #6: All right, thank you.
MP: Yeah. It’s newsreel.org.
MP: Almost all of the films we’re showing for this series are from there.
Audience Member #7: Could you just mention some of the theater companies here in Chicago? I know there’s Congo Square.
MM: Well, yes. That’s one of them, Congo Square. What else do we have?
Audience Member #8: Definition.
MM: Definition Theatre. Pemon? Do you know a couple more? I would like to introduce Pemon Rami, who is quite a renowned – since you came, it’d be nice of you to share this with me. But Pemon Rami has also been a phenomenal force in the Black theater movement and the Black Power movement, as well as film and television. So I will, since you’re here, relegate some of the questions to you. And I’m saying that, too, because he just recently was on the Jefferson Awards committee that only has about two Black people on a fifty person committee. I said roughly about that, it might be three. He has recently gone to maybe 180 plays around the surrounding Chicago area. And so with that, you would be really contemporary with production companies. We mentioned ETA, we mentioned the Black Ensemble Theater, we mentioned Congo Square, Impact Theater. You shook your head about –
Pemon Rami (PR): Well, I shook my head about Definition Theatre. I shook my head about Definition Theatre for the same reason that I have to back up to James Earl Jones’ notion that there was no such thing as Black theater. There was no such thing as Black theater for him, but he kept getting work in white theaters.
MM: Right. He was fine.
PR: Definition Theatre defines themselves as an integrated theater, so it’s not technically a Black theater.
MM: Alright, that’s why you said that. And there was another name that came out?
Audience Member #3: It was the Spa Theater. It was out in Park Forest.
MM: Oh, okay. Okay. Alright. So somebody was making the point that we know that there are far less theaters now than there were in the sixties and the seventies. If that wasn’t the point that was being made, I’d like to make that point. And unfortunately that’s what happens sometimes when we open up. We think that now we want to be accepted, instead of being just excellent in what we do, and produce where we are, and perform to people where we are. We think that we are not successful unless we’re accepted. And so we take our work and our professionalism to the other side, or to other people.
Audience Member #3: Well, you make more money.
MM: But fewer people work. Yes, you’re absolutely right. I don’t want to deny that statement that you made. Yes, more money is made, but fewer people work.
Audience Member #3: Because if you look at some of the other movies on TV, like the Motown movies, they always said they wanted to go to the – I don’t want to say the white audience, but they wanted to cross over.
MM: Which is the same thing.
Audience Member #3: They wanted to cross over because they wanted to make money. That’s the name of the game.
PR: But if you look at that movie, that documentary, and the fact that the Negro ensemble went out of business, the reason the Negro ensemble went out of business is because when they started, they started from the heart. Everybody was volunteering, they were there to do the work. Then they got this funding. Once the funding was withdrawn, they couldn’t go back to the original love of the process, of the theater. So it fell away. But to be super critical, look at the number of stars that came out of that theater. If they had pushed to make sure that they – that their responsibility was to give back and to make sure that it was the same, it would still be around.
MM: Makes sense.
PR: But on the other hand, more Black folks want to be on the board at Goodman than want to be on the board at ETA.
MM: And we have to understand that that is indoctrination more so than anything else. It’s indoctrination. And it’s hard to get people not to think the way they’ve been inundated to think, and the way they’re inundated every day through television, through films, through music, to think a certain way. So it’s not easy, but it has to be done. And so many of us have done it for so long, which is why we are able to be here in this room today. So that’s what’s important to understand. The other point is – I opened that up about Barbara Ann Teer. So there’s another point that I wanted to bring out, and it deals with the fact that institutions are important. The Bronzeville Historical Society, the South Side Community Art Center, and all of our theaters that we just mentioned. And they’re important because they create a place where freedom of expression is just that, and works created for Black people about one’s experience will not be rejected, generally speaking.
And then when you’re in a place of love, like a lot of times when we have reunions, and your mama, your auntie say, “Go on up there and sing, child. Go on up there and sing, boy,” you know? And you know you can, because nobody is going to say, “Sit that non-singing boy down.” They’re gonna say, “You just sound so good. I’m gonna have you do this again.” In other words, you’re in a place of love, of caring, and that’s what institutions – if that’s their mission, and most of them are – that’s what institutions do for us. They make us feel at home. They make us not be subdued for not being who you are. And I’ll give you an example. While I was executive director of the South Side Community Art Center, we had this partnership with the Art Institute, and the Art Institute has a great history of being first. It’s a shame that they have to be the first, but they brought in Black folks before any other art institutions brought in Black people in the United States.
I had young artists of nineteen and twenty years of age cry in the gallery because they were able to exhibit their work for the public somewhere. Guess where that place was? The South Side Community Art Center. One young lady had a concept – because we were told that our ideas are invalid. They’re not important. They’re not important to whom? To the larger society, to those who are in charge, usually of a higher education institution. This young lady had an exhibit. It was in five pieces, five stages. And what she did was interpreted American lynchings, and she had trees that were blossomed. But if you look at them really well, you would see a noose hanging from the tree. And you would see a family in one of them, sitting at a picnic table with someone hanging in the tree in the background. This is real. This is real American history. This is an artist. This is someone who wants to express that experience of her people. It was not going to happen. But we had this collaboration with the Art Institute, and we were able to, as curators, select the kind of art. It was beautiful art. And it was showing how nature sheds beauty, even though people can do such ugly things.
Okay? But she couldn’t get that done at the Art Institute. And so that’s why it’s important that we have Black theaters and Black institutions. And when I was at the South Side Community Art Center, because that was our focus, it was fine art, it wasn’t performing arts. And I was part of the Chicago Cultural Alliance, too. I made sure that South Side Community Art Center was a part of the Chicago Cultural Alliance. And so it’s important that we never stop communicating with each other. Across the aisle. I sound like the Republicans and Democrats right now. (Laughs) Did I say that? See, indoctrination.
But it’s important that we reach [out] to each other and actually have civil conversations. While I lived in Phoenix, Arizona – and I truly believe this. Some people look at me and go, “I don’t know.” But I truly believe that I met white people in Phoenix, Arizona, that didn’t have a clue. Don’t have a clue about Black people. How they’ve been treated, mistreated, nothing. And so I always said I did my time in Phoenix and got out. I did almost six years, you know. This was in the eighties, and I thought it would have come so far. I thought it would have come so far from the sixties to eighties, and it hadn’t.
And so I just thought that that was an interesting thing to say to you all about that. And I was a part of that committee that tried to get Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday as a holiday in Phoenix, Arizona. And it was a very integrated committee. And so this young lady – we were young at the time, we were probably in our late thirties and mid-thirties. We were talking in general across the conference table, and we were dealing with experiences and race relations. And I said, “Well I was just called a n***** this morning.” Oh, I’m supposed to say n-word. But this is, well anyway, it’s real history. “I was just called the n-word this morning.” She said, “No!” I said, “Yeah. I was just getting into my car and a truck drove by, a pickup truck, and threw a donut or a rock or something at me, and called me this n***** b****.” So she said, “We would never.” And in her household it was probably true. “We would never talk that word. I don’t believe people treat people like this.” And I know people look at me and go, “She’s lying,” but I really don’t believe she was. I really don’t. I believed her.
And I taught in Scottsdale, Arizona, and everybody knows about Scottsdale, Arizona. Can you imagine what it was like in the eighties? I was the first Black person most of them had seen. The children had seen a couple of us on TV that was not real. And they went home and said, “Ms. Maséqua,” that’s what they called me, “Ms. Maséqua taught us this today, Ms. Maséqua taught us that.” And so in the final performance, six weeks later, I meet the parents and all that, and they go, “Oh, you’re Ms. Maséqua.” I said, “Yes.” They thought I was either French or Native American. Anything is better than African-American, you know? But it also shows you, because we’re talking about reaching across the aisle and teaching and talking to everyone about the truth of us, the young people didn’t say “that Black lady.” They didn’t do that, did they? The parents didn’t even know what color I was, or what race I came from. They just said, “Ms. Maséqua taught us this.” And I had to teach middle – and I’m saying all this because this is what theater can do.
Theater can change lives. Theater can tell the truth and take us to another level. And so I was teaching little blonde girls how to have good self-esteem. Because we had people who had blonde hair and brown eyes, but they wanted blonde hair and blue eyes. We had girls who had brunette hair and it was not as straight as they wanted it to be. And they wanted to have blonde hair and blue eyes and straight hair. Or some of them wanted to have hair like Ms. Maséqua because they liked her. They could relate to her. And at that time I had a puffy fro. I said, “Your hair is not like that. You’ve got to like how God made you, because I love how He made me,” you know what I’m saying?
So if we can love ourselves, that’s half the battle. If we could walk through life and not make an excuse for who we are, that’s more than half the battle. And that’s what I get from theater, and that’s what I got from this documentary. And how our living existence, as Black people, as far as I’m concerned, we don’t have the luxury to only do art for art’s sake. There’s a place for that. Of course there is. But there also has to be a place, until we know it’s equal footing, there has to be a place for us to teach truth and righteousness and correctness.
Audience Member #1: Can I make another comment?
MM: Yes, ma’am. You know I thought you were my aunt? You took my breath away. You were sitting here, and I thought you were my Aunt Evelyn. And I kept saying, “What is she doing sitting here?” Can you see that? Beautiful lady.
Audience Member #1: Thank you so much. When I started teaching at Hyde Park High School, our recently departed Tim[uel] Black was teaching there. And one of the things that he used to tell us was that at any time in history, there are people living at every level of human development. And that’s something I’ve thought about a lot.
MM: That comment makes what I just got finished saying – it just validated me more. And I truly believe that. And my mother said, “We’re all gonna wake up at the same time, and we’re all gonna go to bed at the same time.” And that’s another similar anecdote for what you just said. And that discussion came out of the point that I wanted to make about institutions, and how important they are, and how they reinforce us. Because if people came to me – well anyway, that’s another thing. The Black theaters came of age because the Black actors grew tired of being ignored and created their own opportunity to work in their chosen career choice, which in this documentary happens to be theater. It’s just so long, I think, that you can be told no, and you have the capability to do it yourself, that you don’t go and do it yourself. Simple as that.
That’s one of the birth rights of Black theater. People want to know why it’s important. Because we have other issues. Oh, that’s the point I didn’t make. By being at the South Side Community Art Center, because of the unique position [I was in] as an administrator, it was important for me to create collaborations. It was important for me, as I saw it, to get to other art institutions. So I went to the Japan Institute, and the Chinese Institute, and the Irish Institute, and all these other institutions. I’m going, nobody else has to make an excuse for being here on this planet but us. Because we shouldn’t have to. And African and African-American culture is a prominent part of the fabric of art and culture. And we better understand that and love it and make sure that we are part of the fabric of the culture of the city, and of the country, and of the world. And I wanted to make that point. That’s what I got from this documentary. I’m not making these points out of the air. When I saw it, I wrote it down. I said, these are the thoughts that are coming to me. What else is there?
Okay. Also, if we have an institution, a place to come, then we have a place to develop. We have a place to develop intellectually, like what we’re doing now, we will have conversations and workshops. That’s our intellectual prowess. And then we can take our plays and our productions and we can get them rewritten. We can hear the sound of the dialogue, if it’s ringing true or not, because it’s up on its feet, and it’s different from being from the page onto its feet. And so that’s another important role that Black theater plays in the development of a people, and of an art form. Well, I’m not sure how long I have. I saw Mike looking at the watch. I’m not sure if that’s about me or what. How are we doing with time?
MP: I think we need to wrap up pretty soon.
MM: Alright, sounds good to me. I’m on my favorite subject here.
Audience Member #5: Could I make one quick comment?
MM: I don’t know, I need to check with Mike.
MP: Yeah, of course.
MM: I’m just playing. Sure you may.
Audience Member #5: We have been inundated – I was going to say brainwashed, but I’ll be kind – to the notion that we should tithe at church. It’s part of our nature. And so a lot of people that go to church give money every Sunday, a percentage of what they make. We have to see culture as important as religion. Most of us know that to be healthy, your mind, your body, and your spirit all have to be healthy. We have to tithe to cultural institutions the same way we do to churches, and ensure that they exist. And so those of us that are in a position to give need to be looking at these cultural institutions and saying, “So how do I make the Bronzeville Historical Society grow and prosper? And how do I commit to that on a continuous basis?” Until we change our thinking to get to that, most of these institutions won’t last.
MM: And that is our small – in a way you kind of summed up the future. I talked about how we would talk about the history and the purpose, and we hit those two points very well, and that we would wrap up by talking about the future of Black theater, and the importance of theater, those institutions, and that’s exactly what we must do. We need to make sure – and any small way is helpful because it means you’re giving to the whole, even if it’s volunteering like Sherry talked about, even if it’s telling other people about the institution, even if it’s giving 5% of your income to one or two institutions. We must make sure that we’re just not mouthing it, but that we’re actually [committing to] the action of supporting our institutions, or any institution that we think is doing a good job, a righteous job, a job that’s trying to make the world a better place. And that’s what I believe our jobs are: to make it a better place, especially for the generation that’s coming behind. I want to thank Michael Phillips for allowing me to be your moderator for today. And it’s been a pleasure meeting each and every one of you all in this discussion. Have a safe trip to your next destination. (Applause)