Theater archives

Whomped by Wampum


During the ’90s, and into this new millennium, various African American theaters have faced decimated arts funding. The lean times are forcing them to earnestly examine how their daily operations could be hampering their artistic viability.

Last September, Crossroads—the tristate area’s largest African American Equity theater company—cancelled their entire season. The board of directors of the New Brunswick, New Jersey, theater made this decision after the organization had amassed nearly $2 million in debt. Only the year before, Crossroads had garnered a Tony award for excellence in regional theater.

Subsequently, new board president Rhinhold Ponder has been developing a restructuring plan. “No one has identified malfeasance,” says Ponder of the theater’s past troubles. “The greater problem has been the reduction in financial support. We moved into the new building and the arts council grant was significantly reduced.”

Some feel Crossroads’ ills were the result of its accomplishments. In its initial incarnation the company mounted productions in a modest New Jersey space. But as their acclaim grew, so did the push to relocate to their current state-of-the-art theater. “What happened at Crossroads had nothing to do with the mismanagement of money,” insists Woodie King, artistic director of the New Federal Theater. “That money went into a new building, which cost a great deal to maintain.”

Crossroads’ New Jersey Arts Council grant was halved in 1991, the year the company moved into their new theater. New Jersey was in a recession, and cutbacks affected every NJAC recipient equally. Still, some insist the funding cuts were motivated by more than just economics. “These black theaters are not getting money,” King insists, “because they are black and these funders aren’t interested in seeing theater that explores oppression. The funders who give the money are white or Asian. They don’t want to see plays because plays talk. Jazz and dance don’t talk. That’s why Alvin Ailey’s budget hovers around $8 million a year.”

The darkened Crossroads, though, received a huge vote of confidence on February 6, when NJAC awarded them $100,000, which will be used for the staffing portion of their rebuilding plan. This money is also tied to a $500,000 debt-reduction grant that New Jersey’s Secretary of State can bestow upon the theater within the next six weeks. All of this means that Crossroads can now approach other investors. “We are closing during a time of great difficulty,” Ponder says, “but we are using this time to establish a stronger and better institution so we’ll open next season.”

The theater programming at the Nuyorican Poets Café, another African American stalwart, has also shut down. At their creative acme, the Nuyorican was producing four plays a season. Since last July, however, the theater has been mostly dark, with no outside funding coming through. Café artistic director Rome Neal is planning a subscription and membership campaign in order to revive and reshape the theater. “I’m getting tired of the begging the nonprofit identity gives us,” Neal complains. “I want someone in place to give us an endowment. We need a development person whose sole job is to pursue funds. The art will always be there. Now we have to think business because Off-Off-Broadway is poor man’s theater.” In the interim, the Nuyorican has joined a theater consortium that will mount shows in Off-Broadway venues.

The Negro Ensemble Company has also seen hard times. Started in 1967, NEC was at the vanguard of African American theater during the ’70s and ’80s. In 1992, though, NEC was evicted from Theater Four, mired in $300,000 of debt. At its creative zenith, the company produced Pulitzer Prize-winning work such as Charles Fuller’s A Soldier’s Play. Gradually rebuilding over the last few years, the company has been mounting nonunion productions in rented spaces on Theatre Row.

“In ’92, we were in a catch-22,” admits producing director Susan Watson-Turner. “We couldn’t get money unless we brought the deficit down, but we couldn’t bring the debt down without money. We had to show funders we were willing to be lean and mean. One of our saviors was the National Black Federation of Charities. They do a national campaign where they raise money on an employee check-off basis.”

Happily, not all is bad news. On March 25, the New Federal Theater celebrates its 30th anniversary with a star-studded party, featuring Ruby Dee, Ntozake Shange, Avery Brooks, and a host of other celebs. The survival of this African American institution is a testament to both artistic excellence and financial acumen. “I have always run this theater like a business,” says King. “I keep a low overhead and low deficit. That’s the only way to keep your doors open.”

The two-year-old Classical Theater of Harlem is another successful, albeit young, African American theater company. Cofounder Alfred Preisser’s mission is to present classics to the Harlem community. The company’s inaugural production was Macbeth, and its $7000 production of a Latino vs. African American Romeo and Juliet received as many Audelco nominations as August Wilson’s Jitney. “We are creating a classical repertoire of old and new plays, as well as jobs, in the Harlem community,” says Preisser. “It is a complete disgrace that the U.S. cannot keep great theaters like Crossroads and NEC alive. Or that Frank Silvera writer’s workshop founder Garland Thompson is homeless after 30 years. But our culture is about shopping. Anything that is out of step with the cult of shopping is expendable.”