Searching for an Alternative to Tyler Perry in Black Theater

AmsterdamNews - A conversation on 'The State of Black Theater'

Black theater — both its successes and its challenges — was the topic of the day at a recent discussion at the Newark Public Library. In a discussion that included the playwright Amiri Baraka, actor Stephen Mckinley Henderson, actress Marie Thomas and theater producer Woodi King Jr., the panelists bemoaned the current state of black theater and recalled its more glorious past, the Amsterdam News reported in its print edition.

Despite the presence of a variety of Black faces in movies and television in various roles, the question was asked: “Where are the plays of our great heroes portrayed in Black theater, such as Paul Robeson, W.E.B. Du Bois, Harriet Tubman, etc.Where are our positive role models on television or in the movies?”

The enormous success of the writer, actor and producer Tyler Perry — who got his start in the gospel-themed plays on what is known as “chitlin’ circuit,” theater and has gone on to create a string of high-grossing movies — was inevitably a part of the discussion.

“That’s why Black theater is still so vital, because it is futile to consider waiting for Hollywood to create and produce the greatness of ourselves,” Baraka commented. “We know that Tyler Perry has made millions of dollars playing Madea onstage and in the movies, but where is the alternative to him, playing someone’s mama?

Many stars of the screen owe their success to black theater, he said.

Baraka continued, “It’s Black theater that has always been the greatest training ground for all of the great black actors that we see today in Hollywood; if you are talking about Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, Cicely Tyson, Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman and many others, they all got their start in Black theater. “We first saw Denzel onstage playing Malcolm X at the New Federal Theatre in New York in the play ‘When the Chickens Come Home to Roost.’ Today,, Denzel is on the A list of movie superstars-his movies have grossed billions of dollars in revenue — thanks to Black theater,” he said.

As for solutions to the problem, the panelist had a suggestion:

All of the speakers agreed about the vital need to educate Blacks on the importance of producing our own theater and using our own resources, including the new technologies of social media and the Internet, to market ourselves. However, the struggle to produce great Black theater continues.

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