JaMeeka Holloway-Burrell, artistic director of the new Durham theater company Black Ops, plans to turn our region's conversation on race up a notch in September. Imagine hearing these words in the front row of Common Ground Theatre's intimate space:
"I gotta talk about RACE because white people be some stupid-ass mothafuckas. And all a you people who consider yourself to be 'color-blind' ... That's some bullshit right there. Does this look like a TAN to you, mothafucka?"
Those aren't Holloway-Burrell's words. They come from the stand-up comedian in playwright Young Jean Lee's The Shipment, Black Ops' inaugural show, co-produced by Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern. By the time the acid-tongued comic has also gone in on audience members of color, notice has been served: This forum is wide open. The topic is our least examined—and least defensible—views on race.
Lee wrote her 2009 script to address the reductive stereotypes her performers repeatedly encountered as black actors. In her script, she notes that her goal was to blur the lines between "stock forms of black entertainment" while denying audiences the usual responses to racial clichés, "illicit pleasure or self-righteous indignation."
But what begins as a critique of racial representation in theater and other mediums inevitably lays none-too-gentle hands on the sources and perpetuators of those stereotypes: us.
"It's a beautifully provocative piece. You could feel people receding into their chairs," Hidden Voices associate director Kathryn Hunter-Williams says, chuckling, as she recalls The Shipment's previous regional production, a touring two-night stand in Chapel Hill in 2010. "I think it's reflective of the times. [Lee] doesn't make it easy for you."
Holloway-Burrell agrees. "It hits you in the face. It's what we think about race but never say aloud."
As The Shipment responds to our media-influenced dysfunctions about race, Black Ops responds to what our theatrical community has and hasn't done with black actors, directors, designers and stories.
A Durham native, Holloway-Burrell grew up hearing about the history of the arts here. "There was such a rich culture," she reflects, recalling venues such as The Stallion Club, which regularly brought acts from Motown. "I definitely want to reinvent that aesthetic. We need to solidify a place for black artists, who can easily be pushed out of this wave of growth."
Black Ops is not the region's first effort at creating a company devoted to black artists and works. In 2008, the group New Traditions mounted a chaotic inaugural run of Wine in the Wilderness before disbanding over internal conflicts. Last year, Justice Theater Project, though not a black theater company, mounted a successful season of plays including A Raisin in the Sun, Black Nativity, The Mountaintop and The Color Purple.
But those are outliers in this theatrical ecosystem. Holloway-Burrell notes the lack of any constant black theatrical presence and is largely critical of the roles that have been available: "Black actors generally don't have the opportunity to stretch themselves across genres. We've had to wait for a theater company to do a black show for black artists to even feel they have a chance at being cast. That's not fair."
Has regional theater welcomed black artists? "Not en masse," says veteran actor Thaddaeus Edwards. Director and dramaturge John Harris finds that while most theater presenters are progressive and liberal, "they're fighting 30 to 50 years of history. The institutions already built don't have the history of being welcoming."
Monet Marshall, artistic director of MOJOAA Performing Arts, observes that the theater community is "not very quick to self-assessment" about the stories it produces and the ones it ignores. But, she's quick to add, "it's not a malicious thing. We often get comfortable telling the stories we've been telling, producing the playwrights we've been producing, working with the actors we've been working with."
To that, Harris replies, "If you're having the same conversation with the same audience and applying the same solutions you were in the '80s and '90s, then something important isn't happening."
For her part, Holloway-Burrell isn't much interested in making audiences comfortable. She claims there's too much "feel-good" theater in the Triangle. "We're doing provocative, thought-provoking, conversation-stimulating work," she says. "There's no Tyler Perry about us at all."
She resists the suggestion that her company is breaking new ground with its controversial choice for a first production: "It's 2015; why isn't this normal by now? It's not groundbreaking. We're just late."
Holloway-Burrell is focusing on new interpretations of old texts and new playwrights—including Katori Hall, for whom she worked in New York in 2011. "Her voice, and Suzan-Lori Parks', speaks more for my generation," Holloway-Burrell says. For a proposed 2016 production of Ibsen's A Doll's House, she asks, "How does the dynamic change when it's a black mom who walks out on her family, as Nora does?"
Edwards has appeared in such classical revisions before; Jaybird O'Berski, who directs the second act of The Shipment, cast him in previous all-black productions of The Cherry Orchard and Our Town for Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern. Edwards says recasting familiar shows "confronts narratives of whiteness and blackness by pointing out there's nothing inherently white about either of these stories. That's a hugely important thing to do; it helps to illustrate the vastness of what blackness is."
Black audiences largely shun the regional stage, Holloway-Burrell says, "because they don't see themselves; they don't see their stories." Her challenge involves determining which theatrical works will correct that "so black folks will feel welcome to come see it."
Hunter-Williams is optimistic about her prospects. "I firmly believe if you put it on, people will come—that is, if you do good work," the director says. "It's not enough to just say, 'We're doing it because nobody else is.' It has to be good: well-acted, well-directed, well-produced." We'll see what Black Ops adds to our conversation on race—and, perhaps as important, who will be there to take part—starting Sept. 3.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Shipping out"