The eviction of San Francisco Black Theater

Well let me start the ranting this morning. I received a few email messages about The Lorraine Hansberry Theater Company losing the lease on their downtown San Francisco theater district space on July 31st. Of course, we all in the black theater community are saddened and alarmed with this situation; another black theater homeless and under attack. I mean, after all this is one of our valued institution; the best west of the rockies. The state-of-the-art theater is located in a prime downtown location. Their black plays are budgeted $50,000 and above. Production values compare to any mid size professional theater anywhere. They are considered one of the leading black companies in America. For after all, that black theater has been producing top quality black theater for many years; one of which was my award-winning Vietnam play: "LBJ (Long Bien Jail")in 1986.

It is with mixed feelings that I look on this situation. I can still remember my bittersweet dealings with them over fifteen years ago. And since I am not willing to put my "true" feelings out there about this event or expose my Karma powers, I will attempt to be diplomatic in my observations. A little back story would reveal that I once was the first playwright-in-residence at SEW-The Lorraine Hansberry Theater Company back in 1989 (SEW stood for Stanley Earl Williams, the Artistic Director). Though I've often wondered why, you won't find it in any recent literature originating out of The Lorraine Hansberry publicity machine, You might find a hint I held that position for three years. I guess I ain't lived up to their lofty expectations and no one wants to lay claim to this brother's sad ass career.

With an ironic smirk on my face, I have to say that I was a Playwright-in-Residence without a "portfolio". That is to say that a formal contract, which would have bound the theater to giving me one production slot per season, was never formulated for one reason or another. And of course, through my three-year residency I was always asked to sacrifice for the company, my slot because the theater didn't have enough money for a full season.

The slick company's brochures for those years (1989-1992) do list me with that "illustrious" title, so I guess the documentation speaks louder than the silence. After developing a play, "Is you is or is You Ain't" in their workshop for the years I was in residence there and "miraculously" winning a major theater contest with it, I was told (I thought jokingly) that, playwright-in-residence or not--the theater would never produce a play with such an ignorant sounding title because it wouldn't do much for their image if they spent thousands of advertising dollars promoting it. I left the company and San Francisco rather bitterly in 1992 in quest of raising my art to another level. I had hit the "charcoal" ceiling.

My rant and rave with this situation is tied to a question: Are we as black playwrights supposed to keep our "dirty laundry" in dealing with black producers and black theaters, to ourselves? Are we to feel some collective empathy with the dire present situations of our former producers because they represent "excellence" that is under attack from capitalistic forces? Are we to wish them well in finding a new space and continuing their many years of excellence?

You tell me cause I sure have my smiling opinion!


Anonymous said…
Hello Jamal.
You got it goin' on, so don't sweat it. You have a lot to be thankful for. People come to your shows and you have already created a name for yourself. Don't spoil that with sour grapes. Most of our people are still living from paycheck to paycheck. Integration helped us but it also made us less dependent on ourselves. We have to learn to help one another again and not fill our hearts with bitterness because it will only give us heartburn. Forgive and move on. You will have your own theater one of these days and it will be FABULOUS!!!

Your sister playwright.
Anonymous said…
Well... Well... well. Karma is such designed that without lifting a finger or changing your spirit, one gets what one deserves. As brilliant as you are, smile and wish them well. When such a so-called ignorant title (whatever that means) acclaims to success, you’ll have your say. So rant and rave you fantastic playwright, 'cause it is or it A'int... or you is or you a'int... Ha!
Your Girl, 'Chele

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