Dartmouth hosts the 2018 International Black Theatre Summit

by Joyce Lee | 9/27/18 2:00am

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In March of 1998, Dartmouth witnessed a historic summit on black theater, intended to address specific strategies to build and maintain black theater companies and institutions. Playwright August Wilson, whose work “Fences” won both a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award, led efforts to organize “On Golden Pond” during his time as a Montgomery Fellow at the College. In 2018, 20 years after the original summit, Dartmouth will once again host a summit on black theater this week from Sept. 26 to 29. The 2018 International Black Theatre Summit, titled “Breaking New Ground Where We Stand” in reference to Wilson’s famous speech “The Ground On Which I Stand,” will not only examine theater as a medium for black performance, but film and television as well. 

Theater professor Monica Ndounou, who is hosting the 2018 summit, said that she started the formal organizing process last fall, during her first term as a professor at the College, but decided to do it before she accepted her position. She said it was part of her decision to come to Dartmouth.

“I think there are a lot of possibilities we can explore with what we're trying to do now,” she said. “I’m not saying that it wasn’t possible in 1998, but there are certain things [such as] the Internet [that are] really big now, and we have digital technology and other resources that we can access to do some of the storytelling that we want to do.”

Ndounou said the summit actually came together fairly quickly, as she started planning the event toward the end of the fall term last year. In the process of her planning, Ndounou said the success of the film “Black Panther” confirmed for her the importance of a new summit that expanded discussions beyond theater and into film and television. 

“The original event was primarily theater focused,” she said. “Because of the nature of my research doing theater, film, television and media, we’re having the same conversations in all these different spaces, and we’re fighting some of the same battles — [so] what would happen if we came together to figure out what strategies we can use to support black storytelling across platforms?” 

Key themes in this year's summit focus on structural changes across platforms, which are the only way to sustained changes in representation, Ndounou said. Referencing a study conducted through the Bunche Center at the University of California, Los Angeles, she said that although data now exists about the inequity in hiring practices both in front of and behind the camera in television and film, institutions will not commit to making changes in the system unless demanded to do so by a general audience. 

“People are tweeting their displeasure — people who may not have access to different platforms to publish, like the New York Times or other publications can still publish their views on matters of representation, and you have enough of that out there so it’s really hard to ignore now,” she said. 

This fall, Ndounou is teaching Theater 22, “Black Theater USA,” whose students are actively involved in this discussion about representation in entertainment. 

“[In my class], we were talking about how it’s not just entertainment,” she said. “People’s impression of themselves very often is determined by the images circulating out in the world, ‘cause they’re constantly being told this is who they are. And unless you have the resilience and even that community that challenges that master narrative that misrepresents, then you may be identifying with something that has nothing to do with you.”

Lexi Warden ’21, a student in Ndounou’s course last fall and a panel speaker at the summit, said that students involved in the summit were aware of the event early on through informal student groups around theatrical projects, including the production of “Citrus,” last spring. 

Warden said that she emphasized the rarity of an event such as this summit occurring at the College when  she reached out to student volunteers. She felt lucky to see the Dartmouth community and the black theater community overlap as it does through the summit, she said. 

“I guess the fact that somebody recognized that this particular event happened here and has significance here was really reassuring to me,” she said. “And I hope this can set a precedent — a precedent so that black artists can have a space here and make the theater space here more inclusive.”

The summit will consist of a variety of events, including film screenings of “Black Panther” and “The Hate U Give,” as well as workshops, panels and student productions. Some of these events will be closed to the public, including the two films and a majority of the workshops. 

“The original summit was a five-or-six-day event, and only one day was open to the public,” Ndounou said. “This one is actually more open than the previous one, and a part of that is because there are some internal conversations that need to happen in closed company before you start having a public discussion.”

Because the conversations during the workshops are intended to develop strategic steps on moving forward in black theater and performance, much in the spirit of the previous summit, it was important for there to be space to have conversations that allowed disagreements and competing ideas, Ndounou said. 

There will be six working groups for the summit: black theater, film and media, capitalization and business matters, cross cultural collaboration, activism and education. Speakers at these workshops, as well as at panels and film screenings, will include Black Lives Matter activists, representatives from film production companies, theater and drama professors, playwrights, actors and other creative members of the industry. 

“Dartmouth has a very strong alumni network, especially in the entertainment industry, and so some of the participants are alums, and we also have students speaking on the panels,” Ndounou said. “A lot of what we’re doing is supporting the work that people are already doing in other spaces. It’s just organizing it, and creating this sort of collective synergy around this idea that clearly representation matters, and clearly there are a lot of issues we’re dealing with across platforms.”

Ndounou said that Dartmouth could potentially emerge as a leader in a conversation about producing structural changes in areas such as film and entertainment through its alumni and students, such as screenwriter and producer Shonda Rhimes ’91, who has spearheaded the “Time’s Up” movement against sexual harassment in Hollywood. 

“It’s not just about getting things to look different, superficially, but also in getting them to operate differently,” Ndounou said. “And that also has to do with who occupies positions of power in these different areas. So the goal is to connect with people who are doing this work.” 

One of the key events of the summit, which will also be open to the public, is Roger Guenveur Smith’s solo oratory performance“Frederick Douglass Now.” Smith originally participated in the first summit in 1998. Smith also returned to Dartmouth to perform his Obie Award-winning show “A Huey P. Newton Story.” 

“I think one of the things that was most memorable about the first summit was [Wilson] and his wife Constanza [Wilson] carrying their newborn daughter down the aisle of [an auditorium], where we had gathered,” Smith said. “And it was a beautiful kind of christening of their child but also I think it was a kind of baptism of a movement, a rebaptism of a movement that had begun generations ago when folks decided there needed to be a peculiar and particular kind of focus on African-American theatrical forms, and who took it upon themselves to find and define a unique voice in this country.”

In honor of Frederick Douglass’s bicentennial, Smith has performed his solo piece internationally to wide acclaim. Prior to his work on Douglass, Smith incorporated the figures of Rodney King and Huey P. Newton into their own solo performances.

“I had, and continue to have, a tremendous historical imagination and curiosity,” Smith said. “And I found, as an undergraduate in American Studies ... at Occidental College, a way to combine my interest in history and my obvious interest in performance as well.” 

Smith’s show is directly inspired by the life and work of Douglass, and utilizes all of his written work in chronological order. The pieces are edited for a contemporary audience, and are bookended by Smith’s own writing — a prologue called “Blood and Brains,” and an epilogue that is a hip-hop and jazzinflected take on Douglass’s legacy. Smith said that the show is titled “Frederick Douglass Now” because he believes the work to be relevant to the present American cultural moment, and not simply a piece of nostalgia or history. Because of this, Smith said that he would not perform Douglass as an impersonation; he would be wearing a modern suit with a cordless microphone, rather than a 19th century wig and costume. 

“I would like to think that people leave the show wanting to know more about [Douglass], wanting to know about his great narrative, his letters and speeches,” he said. “I’d like to think that young people would want to leave wanting to do a [Douglass] performance of their own.”

Smith will perform “Frederick Douglass Now” at Moore Theater in the Hopkins Center for the Arts today and tomorrow at 7 p.m. The 2018 International Black Theater Summit ends on Sept. 29. 

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