|As African Americans throughout the DC metropolitan area pour into play houses by the hundreds spending their hard earned cash to enjoy productions written by, produced by and featuring the brilliant talents of their own culture, how many stop to think about whether or not these wonderful productions are put on in a theater established, owned and ran by an African- American Theater Company? This question probably rarely enters the mind of the average black theatergoer. Have black people won the struggle to have the opportunity to put on their productions anywhere, only to forget about the victory of having their own place where their money is circulated back into their communities and where the African-American culture can benefit from the precious fruits of their labor?
Starting a black owned/run professional theater company is not the problem. Keeping one is! There have been many such theaters established throughout the history of Washington, DC and in time most have vanished leaving smaller companies such as The African Continuum Theatre Company (ACTCo) to take up this worthy but most difficult cause while continuing to put on meaningful productions. "There is no easy answer to the question of why more of these theaters don't exist," said Jennifer L. Nelson, the Producing Artistic Director of ACTCo. "In the last 20-25 years there have been many that have come and gone, most notably the DC Black Repertory Company which was around in the 70s and for a while seemed to be doing quite well. The survival rate seems to be the issue rather than people starting them," added Nelson.
Challenged by economics and area demographics, most professional theater companies in DC are non-profit as opposed to the likes of New York's Broadway Theatre where the focus is also about making money. The survival of non-profit theaters, whether black or white run, is almost solely dependent on contributed income, making this process a more difficult task. Of course a lot of people are probably wondering how much blacks that have the funds to invest are actually contributing to these theaters. Although there are many established and wealthy African-American artists and business people who have invested in black run theaters, this is something that is short lived because sustaining such a project has very little return. "You would need a couple hundred thousand dollars a year," said Nelson.
Nelson who has taken up the struggle to halt the extinction of black theater companies noted that many states are experiencing the same dilemma. "This is not a problem just localized to DC. In fact two of the most successful African American ran theaters around the country are right now in enormous difficulty, Cross Roads in New Jersey and Jumandi in Atlanta," said Nelson. As she prepares for a new year of productions, Nelson is also working hard to maintain ACTCo and is strategizing to do whatever it takes to grow and most importantly stick around for some time to come. The company is working hard to produce plays that are of primary interest to the African American community, but also the general community. At present ACTCo is looking for theater space that they can move into and call their own permanently. Right now they have a temporary agreement with the Kennedy Center.
There are unlimited ways that one can assist black run theater companies such as ACTCo in their continuing development and commitment towards long term existence. First and foremost go out to the productions. Students with an interest in business economics as well as theater are invited to contact ACTCo for internships. Volunteers/interns are needed to pass out fliers, do mailings and assist with things like building a strong database. "There also needs to be a deeper consciousness of the people, who want to be artist, they also need to be aware of the business side. We need to keep reaching further and further into the community to let people know that we're here and what we're doing. We now have a Board of Directors of eight and we are looking for a few more people to serve on the board. There have to be people working on all ends all of the time," said Nelson.
If you are interested in enjoying a great production while also helping to sustain an African-American theater company you can go to the African Continuum Theatre Company's new production Gris Gris running Jan. 24-Feb. 11 at the Source Theatre. Admission: $20-$25.00. Call 202-529-5763.