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Theater of the Hood

The Challenge of Milwaukee's Black Performing Artists

Jul. 27, 2011
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What difficulties do Milwaukee performing artists of African American descent face in a city that ranks with the most segregated in America and harbors neighborhoods that are among the nation's poorest? Since art is widely deemed unnecessary, working artists of all races stand at the front lines of economic battles. Entrepreneurial skill is essential but due to poverty, segregation and educational failures, Milwaukee ranks last among major cities in minority entrepreneurship. A college education helps, but 60% of African American boys in Milwaukee Public Schools never graduate high school. Over 50% find themselves jobless or incarcerated.

When black Milwaukee artists address these and other facts of life, who's listening?

“Only in Milwaukee do I feel so excluded from the general theater population,” said Andre Lee Ellis, a 50-year-old Milwaukee director, actor and playwright who has worked in theater across the country. His Andre Lee Ellis and Co., now located in the Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Center, is titling its upcoming 18th season “And the Men Shall Also Gather.” The opening production, Tellin' It Like It Tis, written by Ellis, chronicles the lives of 10 contemporary black men.

“African Americans, the men especially, don't know they're welcome at theater,” he said. “The bros have stories to tell. They're missing in the homes in such numbers. If they see themselves in the theater, they will bring their sons, make it a family event, pass it forward.” Ellis adds, “Delicate marketing is required. I'm going door to door with my flyers, talking to people like a politician.”

Director Amir Ali founded his For My People Productions in 2009 with a poetry reading at UW-Milwaukee. Last spring, he produced Ntozake Shange's For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf at the King Center entirely with his own hard-earned cash. “In this segregated, very prejudiced city and state, you can only be valid if you have a major institution or some educational credentials behind you, which is how black people have been cut out of the loop of telling our stories,” he said. “How will we ever get past this if we stay so separated?”

Ali cheered the Milwaukee Rep's recent production of African American playwright August Wilson's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, but felt the Rep audience couldn't connect with the characters' rage.

Solo performer and comedian Chastity Washington, whose one-woman show An Evening of Expression was a hit with an interracial audience when presented this month by the new Milwaukee Multicultural Theatre, believes that “most contemporary organizations interested in black theater want old Negro spirituals or hip-hop they can make into farce.” Speaking as an African American, she voiced the question that worries all artists:  “If it's true, will it be received?”

The three agree that audience development among African Americans is a primary issue, and that many in that community don't find theater important. “Theater provides the ability to dream, to see life in a different way,” Ali said, using his life as evidence. “Kids need that.”

“We can produce jobs,” Ellis said. “If we are supported, we can hire people in administrative, artistic and support functions, and pay what they need. Some tremendous things are happening in the hood. Forty thousand people came to this year's Garfield Street Festival—mainly black people spending their money with other people who look like them.”

If that mountain is steep, so is the one these artists face with funding organizations. “A lot of us don't have the time or help to meet their criteria,” Ellis said. “Our proposals might come in looking sloppy. Organizations that should help, and know how to help and know that we need help, don't help. My heart hurts if I can't pay a bill or if the show isn't as good as it could be, but I don't know where the help is.” In the next breath, he said, “If not us, then who? Maybe if more black people came, we'd get wide support. Black people need to come first.” He added, “I also blame us, the artists, because we never had togetherness. We're all trying to do it alone.”

John Schneider is a theater artist and educator and assistant A&E editor of the
Shepherd. He directs Project Non-Violence, a theater for teens, in partnership with the North Division High School Boys & Girls Club. He will continue to examine the challenges facing Milwaukee's black artists in the months to come.


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