Terrence Spivey, artistic director of Cleveland’s Karamu House, urged all technical theatre practitioners to recruit and mentor more students of colour in his Keynote address at USITT 2015 in Cincinnati on Wednesday.
Spivey opened USITT’s 55th Annual Conference & Stage Expo at the Duke Energy Convention Center with a speech reflecting on the history of black theatre in the U.S. and Karamu House’s success as the nation’s oldest black theatre.
He said Karamu will proudly celebrate its Centennial this year, but the nation’s first black theatre, the African Grove Theatre in New York City, and many others in between did not survive.
Spivey quoted 19th-century black poet James Weldon Johnson: “The way for men of all races to know each other is to understand each other’s culture.” He called barriers to black artists and black theatre “the chain on the leg of diversity.”
Karamu House’s founders, Russell and Rowena Jeliffe, were white activists who established a settlement house in 1915 as a place to nurture all individuals to find common ground. They soon embraced the arts as a means to that end, and Karamu attracted and spawned some of the top African-American artists of the era and since.
Spivey described the Jeliffes as “radicals” and asked, “Where are the radicals of today?”
He thanked USITT and TCG for their efforts to create scholarships and mentoring programs for students of colour in the arts, and urged them to collaborate more with black theatre organizations such as AUDELCO, the Black Theatre Network, and the National Black Theatre Festival to encourage more students of colour to seek opportunities in technical theatre.
He listed many Karamu alumni who were “firsts” or “seconds” in their fields, including Nate Barnett, the first black stage manager on Broadway. Karamu House Technical Director Richard Morris Jr. won the second National Black Theatre Festival Award for outstanding set design in 2011, he said. The first winner was Morris’s mentor, Felix Cochren, and now at Karamu he mentors other young artists, including Spivey’s daughter, Malika, a costume designer.
“Technical theatre is a hand-me-down art,” he said. “How can we create more opportunities for students of colour?”
He also noted the 50-year anniversary of Bloody Sunday and the success of the Selma march only after people of all races joined together to make “a diversified leap” toward equality.
Later in the day, Spivey planned to join a special USITT panel, Creating the Mosaic: Diversity in Theatre. The Conference & Stage Expo continues through Saturday, with an estimated 5,000 people from the backstage industry participating in workshops, demonstrations, award ceremonies, and issues forums this week.
For more on the conference, visit www.usittshow.org.