As the Black Theatre Troupe readies its 50th anniversary celebration, its leader, David Hemphill, is disconcerted because, he feels, he’s back where they started.
Fifty years ago, in 1970, the country was wracked by racial unrest and injustice. Riots had broken out in many major cities after clashes between communities of color and law enforcement at all levels.
In Phoenix, Helen Katherine Mason wanted to give a voice to the Valley’s Black residents. Mason was the Phoenix Parks and Recreation supervisor, and she arranged for open-air community forums where people could come and share poetry and improvisations. From those readings, the Black Theatre Troupe was born.
Now, 50 years later, Executive Director Hemphill sees the country once again roiled by personal and systemic racism, injustice and a community simmering with violence.
“The thing that stands out the most in this whole thing is that we are right back where we started in terms of society,” Hemphill says.
“The Black Theatre Troupe was started in 1970 in response to the racial unrest and protest in the country. It was founded to help Phoenix heal and to prevent the racial unrest from flaring up badly here in Phoenix.
“The fact that we are back at this point again—it’s a bit disconcerting that we haven’t advanced more as a country.”
It’s been challenging because the Black Theatre Troupe hasn’t been able to respond to current events in the same way it might have—and in the way it had planned for the anniversary—because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Despite those challenges, it strives to reach new audiences that are struggling with societal issues and how to make their voices heard. Black Theatre Troupe is pairing that outreach with an effort to connect with its long-term supporters to let them know they are still alive and still need their backing.
“The most important thing that we can do is to continue to make new people in the community aware of who we are and what we can do and how the African American community is an important, integral part of the fabric of the city,” Hemphill says.
He says it’s difficult to engage one’s audiences right now, especially if an organization doesn’t have a lot of money or a technological wizard to help it figure out the ins and outs of digital streaming.
The troupe’s official birthday is September 14, and Hemphill hopes COVID guidelines will be relaxed enough so people will see outdoor activities at Eastlake Park.
“It will be a good while before we get butts in the seats again,” Hemphill says. “I hope the critical nature of the pandemic will have eased enough for people to be more receptive and more open and pay more attention to whatever way we try to engage them, whether it be through emails or virtual performances.”
Hemphill hopes to open the Black Theatre Troupe’s 50th anniversary season in January. A complete season will then run straight through, including the summer.
In the past five decades, the company has moved from its original home in the park to a synagogue to the Herberger to its current home at the Helen K. Mason Performing Arts Center, a facility it built with the help of a $2.5 million Phoenix bond election in 2006. It has a 35-year agreement with the city to make its home there.
“We’re very proud that we have survived the first recession, then we survived 9/11, then we survived the economic downturn of 2008,” Hemphill says. “Now we’re into this one, so we’re hoping we’ve learned a lot in terms of survival and in terms of making it through circumstances some companies would find insurmountable.”
Even more so than the buildings it has occupied, the Black Theatre Troupe takes pride in its artistic accomplishments.
Hemphill says it is one of only three companies around the country that has completed August Wilson’s 10-play Pittsburgh cycle that chronicles the African American experience in the United States. It started with “Piano Lessons” in 1993, Hemphill’s first season with the company, and last season completed the cycle with “Seven Guitars.”
“That’s a big accomplishment for a company,” Hemphill says. “We’re very proud of that.”
Each Pittsburgh Cycle play is set in a different decade of the 1900s, and Wilson received two Pulitzer Prizes for drama for plays in the series. They include such well-known plays as “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and “Fences.”
Hemphill says the troupe is also proud of its programs.
“Our children’s program is one of very few opportunities for children of color to have theater workshops and productions that speak to them,” Hemphill says.
“So, we are very proud of that artistically.”
The troupe is working on a series of monologues and songs that can be experienced virtually. Hemphill says he is working with a company that has been helping theaters with their online content and finding a way to monetize that.
He hopes to perform an annual Christmas production at the park if public health concerns allow it.
Once indoor shows resume, Hemphill has identified shows that do not have intermissions so audience members can go directly from their car to their seats and out again with no one congregating in the lobby.
The troupe is planning an outdoor performance of play readings from its first five decades.
“The plays that were written and that were being done in the late ’60s and ’70s, those plays were rooted in activism,” Hemphill says.
“They drew from the situations that were going on in society. (These plays) prompted and started the Black theater movement around the country. That will be very exciting to people and enlightening—just what those plays were designed and written to accomplish back then.”
The plays, Hemphill points out, were designed to explore the situations of people of color, what they were facing and the discrimination they were fighting. They gave people of color a platform from which to show how they felt, who they were, and make the case for equality.
“The plays said this is how we are as good as you, this is why we deserve recognition,” Hemphill says. “Most importantly, those plays showed that our stories are universal. What we feel, you feel. Some of the same things that we’re feeling and going through, you may be going through them on a different level, but basically, our story is a universal story.”
Hemphill says the troupe is ready for its next chapter. He hopes that his successor will keep the theater’s basic tenets in place—its activism and the exploration and illumination of the Black experience.
“We are hoping that people will never forget and people will always appreciate activism,” Hemphill says. “How Black theaters around the country started, the root mission of those organizations, we’re hoping that will remain relevant in our next chapter.”
The Black Theatre Troupe, http://new-wp.blacktheatretroupe.org.