JaMeeka Holloway-Burrell has to stop and catch her breath for a moment. I've caught her between appointments on a busy day, moments before she rushes into a rehearsal for PlayMakers Repertory Company's upcoming world premiere of Leaving Eden. Over the last month, Holloway-Burrell has been assistant director for that production while also producing what promises to be a groundbreaking two-week festival devoted to developing black theater artists and audiences in our region.
You'd be out of breath, too.
This weekend and next, the Bull City Black Theatre Festival will fill Manbites Dog Theater with shows, workshops, master classes, seminars, and conversations on stage movement, playwriting, acting, and the past and present of black theater, locally and nationally. Holloway-Burrell is still adding events as we speak, juggling rehearsal schedules and performance slots for almost thirty stage artists in a dozen presentations—all while managing the responsibilities of that gig at PlayMakers Rep.
There will be performances, of course: staged readings by the region's three main black theater troupes (MOJOAA Performing Arts, Black Poetry Theatre, and Holloway-Burrell's own Black Ops) of work by three local black playwrights.
But the other offerings are notably different from traditional theater-festival fare. Lakeisha Coffey's workshop on acting, entitled The Playground, is open to people who've never studied acting, and even those who've never stepped on stage. Coffey, a veteran actor who's performed with companies including Little Green Pig and Bartlett Theater, says many people who have the talent to be on stage don't know it because they don't have formal training or they're afraid of auditioning. Rhetta Greene and Robin Carmon Marshall's session, Next Act, focuses on raising up the voices and stories of women fifty and older—a demographic for which American theater has had shamefully little use.
"We have so much to say and we've just not been heard," says Greene, an Obie-winning stage and film actor who recently appeared in Manbites Dog's Life Sucks.
These events are meant to provide access to tools, techniques, information, and support, not only for those already in the field, "but for those just beyond the doorway, looking through," as Holloway-Burrell says. She and her co-organizers want the festival to gather, nurture, train, and provide more exposure for black theater artists while building an audience "who will act as our collaborators." Director and local black theater historian John Harris calls it "watering the grassroots."
The stakes are high, as the festival could be a protoype for a more permanent regional entity. A group of artists is considering starting an African-American theater collective with its own black box theater, making the festival "a little laboratory for us to see what something more fully fleshed out would look like," says Holloway-Burrell.
It's painfully obvious that the community of black theater artists needs such an organization. Over the years, the region's academic, independent, and community-based theaters have provided inconsistent support at best, through isolated productions and initiatives. During them, the riches of this community have shone, only to fade upon their conclusion. The existing theater infrastructure "hasn't developed a sustained relationship with black artists and audiences," Harris says. "Frances McDormand put it best during the Oscars: we need an inclusion rider as well. There's a critical mass of black performers in our area. But looking at the upcoming season, what is there for them to do?"
Greene came of age as an artist through the Black Arts Movement in New York during the seventies, performing on and off Broadway and working as a film and television actor in Los Angeles before moving to this area in the last decade.
"I'm astounded at the talent here," she says. Greene likens the experience to "being back at Howard [University]. People live, eat, and drink theater here. I haven't experienced that love and dedication for so long."
As Marvel's Black Panther leaps over the $1 billion mark in ticket sales, the hunger for black stories told by black people—"for us, by us, about us, and near us," in the words of W.E.B. Du Bois—is undeniable.
"The audience is out there and the money is out there," Harris says. "The community is ripe to receive it," Green adds.
The lingering question, according to Holloway-Burrell, is how a community of artists historically limited by oppressive or disinterested structures can share resources, find their own direct access to audiences, and function as a holistic community.
"We'll get to the crux of these inside the festival," she says. "I can't wait to have those conversations."