Texas State professors launch groundbreaking research on black theatre in Texas By Mary-Love Bigony, University Marketing
African Americans have made major contributions to Texas’ unique culture, including widespread and varied involvement in the arts. While Texas musicians such as Scott Joplin and Blind Lemon Jefferson are well known, little has been written about black theatre in Texas.
Two Texas State University-San Marcos professors are changing that. Dr. Sandra Mayo and Dr. Elvin Holt are conducting a statewide research project to preserve the history of black theatre in Texas. Their research will yield two books, a Web-based library of archived materials and a six-city touring exhibit.
Holt, who is a professor of English and a specialist in African American literature, and Mayo, an associate professor of theatre, director of Texas State’s Center for Multicultural and Gender Studies and a black theatre specialist, will research theatres in Austin, Dallas, Houston, Fort Worth and San Antonio. Despite these theatres’ longevity — Houston's Ensemble Theatre celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2006 — few people outside the local areas have heard of them.
Untold Stories “We have a rich history of black theatre here in Texas but it is not well known,” Mayo says. “The Austin newspaper published a list of Texas playwrights, and there were no black playwrights listed. Even the Black Theater Network, which is a national organization, put out a book on contemporary black playwrights and they didn’t include a single Texas playwright.”
Mayo says the work of the late Sterling Houston, about whom she has produced two books, is virtually unknown outside of Texas. Nor is the work of other accomplished playwrights. “[Texas State alumnus] Eugene Lee’s plays have been produced all over, including at the Royal Court in London,” she says. “Ted Shine was editor of one of the most-used theatre anthologies, Black Theatre USA.”
Finding the Stories Holt and Mayo are focusing their research on seven theatres: ProArts Collective in Austin, Hornsby Entertainment Theatre Company and Renaissance Guild in San Antonio, The Black Academy of Arts and Letters in Dallas, the Jubilee Theatre in Fort Worth and the Ensemble Theatre and Encore Theatre in Houston.
“What we’re doing right now is traveling the state and collecting primary documents such as programs, photos and reviews,” Mayo says. “The program tells you who directed, who acted in it, who did the tech work, the dates it was performed. For each theatre we’ll look for a watershed moment or turning point to begin the story. Then we’ll show the breadth and depth of their work, what they did, how did they did it, who did what, how they survived. It is so exciting to find these documents.”
The Black Academy of Arts and Letters, Mayo says, resides in the Dallas Convention Center and produces programs featuring stars such as Debbie Allen, Maya Angelou, Bill Cosby and Cicely Tyson. “They have the largest space of all the seven theatres,” Mayo says. “So their story will be about going from being kicked out of spaces to having this massive space; going from a small place with lesser-known actors doing what we call the standard literary canon to star-studded events. It is an amazing story and the man who founded it is still there.”
Telling the Stories “There are a lot of wonderful stories that we are going to be able to tell,” Mayo says. She and Holt will produce two books. The first will be a historical narrative that documents the origins and development of black theatre in Texas, with an emphasis on contemporary theatre companies and playwrights. The second will be an anthology of original plays.
“We’ll have a collection of plays by black Texas playwrights that have been produced in Texas,” Mayo says. “We’ve read more than 25 plays so far, trying to make a decision about which ones will be in the anthology. Sometimes plays are great for production but don’t have literary value. We’re trying to pick the strongest pieces in terms of literature. There are a number of playwrights whose plays have been produced but not published. We will celebrate them in the anthology.”
Mayo says another goal of the project is to archive the work of these theatres. “We believe that creating the archives is as important as getting the books out,” she says. Archives involved with the project include the Alkek Library at Texas State, the Carver Museum in Austin, the Black Academy of Arts and Letters in Dallas, Prairie View A&M University, the Fort Worth Public Library and the Institute of Texan Cultures in San Antonio.
Items in the archives will include programs, photos, reviews, posters, flyers and scripts. And Texans across the state will have a chance to see them. “There will be a six-city tour that starts at Texas State,” Mayo says. She says the project also plans to have a Web presence. “People from around the world will be able to access this information,” she says. “We will have links to each of the archival sites, and people will be able to see pictures and documents that tell the stories.”