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Black theatre - the way it is: an interview with Woodie King, Jr.

Woodie King, Jr., was born in Alabama in 1937 and, from the age of 9, reared in Detroit. In Detroit, he co-founded Concept East Theatre in 1960 and began working in New York in 1964, where he quickly became the premier producer of Black theatre. He founded the New Federal Theatre in 1970 and went on to produce Broadway plays, films, and recordings; publish anthologies; teach; and mentor literally hundreds of Black actors, playwrights, and theatre professionals as well as found the National Black Touring Circuit.

Over a twenty-seven-year period at the New Federal Theatre, King produced and, in numerous cases, provided the launching pad to Broadway for productions such as Black Girl by J. E. Franklin; What The Wine Sellers Buy and Checkmates, both by Ron Milner; The Taking of Miss Janie and other plays by Ed Bullins; Slaveship by Amiri Baraka; for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf by ntozake shange; The Dance and the Railroad by David Henry Hwang; Champeen by Melvin Van Peebles; and Mr. Universe by Jim Grimnsley.

As a filmmaker, King's list of credits includes directing and co-producing The Long Night, the only American film selected as part of the New Directors/New Films show at the Museum of Modem Art in New York; directing Death of a Prophet, a feature film on Malcolm X starring Morgan Freeman, and Torture of Mothers, starring Ruby Dee; and producing Right On, an award-winning feature on the Last Poets.

He has also produced spoken-word recordings for Motown, and his publications include numerous fiction, drama, and poetry anthologies. Often called a "renaissance man," Woodie King, Jr., has excelled as a producer, a director for stage and film, a writer and editor, a teacher and mentor, and a founder and artistic director of theatrical institutions. In the far-ranging and frank interview that follows, Woodie King, Jr., reviews his history and offers his views on the future of Black theatre.

Salaam: How did you break into the theatre scene in New York?

King: I came to New York at the height of the Black Power Movement. I worked in and around New York for maybe eight or nine months, then became associated with the anti-poverty program. They were setting up cultural arts programs in Harlem, the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and Brooklyn as part of larger anti-poverty agencies. I became the director of the one in Manhattan. It was called Mobilization for Youth. We set up training programs for young Blacks, Latinos, and Asians between the ages of 16 and 21 down on the Lower East Side. We paid them to take classes. It was supposed to be a program designed for failure, but we made it something viable and meaningful in that Lower East Side community. We brought in a lot of fantastic musicians and artists to work with the participants. In jazz, for example, we brought in Kenny Dorham and Jackie McLean. We brought in poet Diane Wakowski and people like Baraka. In dance, we had people like Rod Rogers. In play-wrighting, Lonne Elder, III, and J. E. Franklin.

Work that came out of there captured the imagination of a New York critical, mid-'60s kind of establishment. Beyond all of that, what was happening in the city was a whole new movement: Black Power, Black empowerment, social awareness, Black is Beautiful. We operated on the Lower East Side, but we were very close to the sister organizations, Haryou-Act in Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant Redevelopment Corporation in Brooklyn, so we would be traversing among all of these. What was happening around the world was that this new, young Black art was impressing itself on world culture. We ended up taking young people to Rome, Italy, to the Hemisphere in San Antonio, Texas, to the Montreal Expo '67. These young artists, then 18 and 19 years old, are now some of the major artists working in the American performing arts: people like Gary Bolding, Maurice Sneed, Bostic Bearfelder, and Ronnie Clanton, who starred in movies like The Cool World. Back then they were very young, innovative artists. So all of that really deepened my involvement.

In '64, this was happening in New York, FST down in the South, and in Los Angeles you had Inner City Cultural Center. It was isolated, but it was happening. We were living in Harlem when Malcolm X was assassinated, so that and the riots really galvanized the Black intelligentsia. We were Blacks in the Village, but we really started dealing more with brothers in other cities. All of sudden New York was not and could not be the capital of this thing. We met the brothers in Chicago, OBAC. The whole art and painting and music thing in Detroit--some of that jazz in Detroit was developed as a counter to the Motown Sound that had erupted in 1959, where all of the musicians were usurped and went into that rhythm and blues kind of thing, but there was a whole jazz counter movement around that time.

Salaam: Tell us about your literary background in Detroit.

King: In Detroit we had poets like Margaret Danner, who would bring in people like Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps. Famous people we looked up to would come through. Powell Lindsay, who had been to New York, and Alma Parks Lewis, an actress who had been to New York, had poetry sessions almost every Saturday. Libraries were open from nine in the morning until ten at night. If you didn't get it in high school, librarians would take you under their wings and give you the latest books, the latest literature. Also, at that time at the University of Michigan there were these Esquire Writers Workshops. They were bringing in these writers--all White--like Nelson Alger, David Newman, and Saul Bellow. The librarians would be able to get us their lectures, the transcriptions, and we would read them. I got off into studying the short story form more than anything else.

Salaam: Why the short story?

King: Because Langston Hughes had given me a book of his short stories, Something In Common. He had a one-and-one-half-page short story that impressed me so much, a real simple love Story that takes place in Greenwich Village. A guy gets on a bus. A woman gets off. They had been lovers fifteen or twenty years earlier, and they can't remember why they broke up. She remembers him, and he remembers her. She says, "I've got a son now," and she has named her son after him. And then he gets on the bus, and that's the story. I was so impressed with that. In school you didn't get Ellison, but in the library we got Ellison. In school you didn't get Paul Robeson, but in the library we got him Of course, I started reading everything that Robeson had ever done and every play he had appeared in. At the same time, I was moving toward the fact that I wanted to be in theatre, and I wanted to be an actor.

Salaam: What impelled you to want to be an actor?

King: Really being very impressed with Sidney Portier. You know, the story of how he could not speak English, got a radio, listened to it on a roof. He left home when he was 13 or 14, went to Miami, came to New York when he was 16, lived on roof tops, and taught himself everything he knows. It was that kind of inspirational thing. And Langston would talk about artists and how they were working in New York.

There were these two images. One image was what White people said: Black people were starving in the gutter in New York. That was the fearful one. And Langston Hughes would be talking about Harlem. And I would say, oh man, I want to check that out.

Salaam: So Langston Hughes was a direct, flesh-and-blood influence on you?

King: When I came to New York, the first person I went to see was Langston Hughes. He got me tickets to all of his plays. My first major collaboration, other than the play that brought me to New York, was with him. It was called The Weary Blues. We collaborated, and I did it.

Salaam: Tell us first about the play that got you to New York.

King: I had this theater in Detroit called Concept East in 1960. 1 ran it. In 1963 Kennedy was assassinated. I remember, all the brothers and sisters in the theatre ... we were all young people--21, 22; some 18 or 19 or even as young as 15 years old. We sat around and looked and said, "If some one can blow away the president, damn; well, we better do whatever we want to do now!" That was the first time where you couldn't be frivolous, you couldn't just do. Everything had to have a meaning.

Salaam: So that realization which doesn't hit most people until they're 40 hit you all very early.

King: Oh, man, yeah. I remember David Rambeau--he took over the theatre after I left, and he was the one who got me into theatre. Ron Milner, Daryell Luna, Mary Helen Washington, Ponchita Augular, and the painters Harold Neal and Umbaji King--a lot of us were taking one course at Wayne State or at the University of Detroit, but we were all involved in running the theatre. Umbaji King said, "Look, I know what I want to do; I'm an artist." They had the Contemporary Art Gallery, and we had this theatre. He said, "It's hard to tell what you guys want to do in the theatre. It's always very hard because you need writers; a writer has to say it." Ron was writing novels. So Ron jumped up and said he was a writer. A couple of other brothers said that they wanted to write. It was like that. At the same time, I was going over to New York a couple of days here and there. I had met Baraka and he said, "Look, I'm doing such and such play." And he would always send a copy. I got to know all the guys who were doing The Blacks. When I came to New York it was like, you were one of the people. Everybody fit in. And they liked that because they were all from different places. Anyway, at Concept East we were doing these plays--it was really to raise money for the sit-ins that were going on in the South--it was two one-acts, Study In Color and Boy, both by this White Episcopal minister named Reverend Malcolm Boyd. I was the producer of all of his plays; everything he wrote I produced. He was the Chaplin-in-Residence at Wayne State at that time.

Salaam: How did you get to be a producer? You wanted to be an actor.

King: Right, right. But I had to be a producer because there was no place to act. Rambeau and I would go out to the White theatres and see the plays, and we would say, "Wait a minute, if I was the producer, we wouldn't do this play." On top of that, if we did get into one of their plays, we would never get the lead. We would be the buddy of the lead. Plus the plays were never about us; they were about defining their humanity. So, for example, if they did a lynching film, it wasn't about the person who gets lynched, it was about the White person who felt sorry for the lynching. And that was not what we were about.

So ten of us got together and put up a hundred dollars each. We took an abandoned bar and converted it into a seventy-five-seat theatre. Because I took the lead on it, I was the managing director.

Salaam: So you were the one who held the money.

King: Yeah, I went out and found the ten people. They all put up a hundred dollars. I put up a bit more, whatever was needed. I had a regular job with the city making no money to speak off but, you know, you take it out of your family and you find a way to make it work. We did this for three years.

We had this huge hit in Detroit with these two one-act plays. The theatre was a hit from the time it opened. From Motown, Berry Gordy gave us a little bread, and all the people started going down. When we opened, on Thursday, we'd have hardly anybody in the audience; by Friday, we had half a house; and Saturday and Sunday we were packed. We were able to pay the rent and give everybody fifty dollars for their weekly pay. Then these plays by Reverend Boyd were such a hit that there were lines a block long. The tickets were five dollars and three dollars.

And then the Episcopal Church said, "Can you tour this so we can raise money?" Boyd didn't want any money. His share went to the sit-ins and other Black Civil Rights organizations. We didn't take any profits; we just made a salary. It was me, Cliff Frazier, and Reverend Malcolm Boyd. I produced three events. Cliff directed one, and I directed one. Boyd starred in one, and Cliff and I staffed in one. A Study In Color and Boy were the two one-acts which toured, and there was a third piece, an abstract piece called 7he Community, about how the community was disintegrating and dying, and how these people came to bury the community. The Episcopal church toured the two one-acts under the umbrella name The Episcopal Society for Racial and Cultural Unity. We toured to at least twenty-five churches and organizations that they sponsored. This was like '63 or '64.

Now let me put this in context. Off-Broadway, the actors in The Blacks were making $62.50 a week; that was Actors' Equity salary. For one or two performances a week while we were touring, we were making maybe $750 a week, and as the producer another $200 a week. Everything else went to the Society. So we came into New York with this production and ended up at a small off-Broadway church called St. Mark's Church of the Bowery, where the Poetry Project is now. The general Episcopal seminary produced us in their location for the normal $3,000 or $4,000, and it was such a success that it was too large for the seminary, so they suggested we take it to St. Mark's Church in the Bowery. St. Mark's did not have anything but a parish hall. They didn't know how to do it. Meanwhile, I was in New York and Cliff was in New York. We had gotten there in March, and they said, "We'll do it in May/June." So we had enough money so that our families were taken care of. I got a job in my profession, which was drafting, mechanical engineer/draftsman. We were surveying the city of New York with this firm of Wayne, Carnarsi, and Brooklyn, but these White people didn't want actors working for them. Meanwhile, St. Mark's didn't know what to do, so Cliff and I built a theatre. We got the cans and cut out lights. They wanted the assistant pastor in on it because he was into theatre. Anyway, we had talked to movie theatre owners and got seats, put the seats in. We called the place Theatre Genesis. We opened and got a great New York Times review. Our pictures were in the paper. I got into the office the next Monday, and the guy fired me on the spot.

But in New York that didn't matter because you could go across the street and work for, say, Pratt Whitney Aircraft doing the same thing--might even get a hundred dollars more a week. That's the reason why people love New York; you can get fired from one job and go right down the street and get hired to do the same job. Anyway, we got these great reviews and almost simultaneously with that Douglas Turner Ward was putting together Day of Absence and Happy Ending with Robert Hooks. We were all buddies; we hung out late at night. In the Village during those times you actually hung out. If you went to jazz things, for example, you actually hung out with Jackie McLean or Kenny Dorham, Detroit musicians. You went to cafes, and a guy would play bongo drums and a poet would get up and recite. Baraka would actually be at the poetry things at St. Mark's. Out of that success a theatre was built. The next writer they brought in after us was Sam Shephard, then Murray Mindack. We were all buddy buddy, but I would go to them with a play and they would say, "No, no, we're dealing with these wayward hippies of the Village." They could get money for these lost rich kids. So, I said, "Why go through all of this for $50 a week?" We knew these people were going to make it--Sam Shephard, Murray Mendack, Oleander Johnson, Barbara Oden--we knew they were good and didn't have any outlet either. So that spurred us on to do our own thing. But that's how we got to New York.

Salaam: Had you graduated from college in drafting?

King: In Detroit there is something called CASS Technical High School. In order to get in, you have to test in. It was not a college, but something close to it. Once you came out of that high school, you could get a job in that profession. So coming out of that school in 1956 I went directly into Ford Motor Company, and for three years all I did was work at Ford in my profession. Who else at 19 years old has three years at a major company doing drafting? When I got to New York, they said, "Wow!" Detroit was a materialistic city; it didn't help artists. Imagine if you got out of school as an artist and there was an institution to take you in. But if you were in that automobile mentality--Ford, Chrysler, GM--they would look out for you.

Salaam: So you had both a technical and an artistic background. It reminds me in an interesting way of Amilcar Cabral, who went to school in Portugal, graduated, and went back to Guinea-Bissau, where they made him a bureaucrat and sent him all over the country doing surveys. In the process he learned the whole lay of the land and eventually became the leader of the liberation forces. In a very important way, you had two disciplines going that didn't seem to be related, but when you put your skills together, you were able to actually build theatres. And those disciplines also gave you the mentality to understand, as a producer, not just how to spot talent but also how to find theatre seats, build sets, and everything like that. So this was the Woodie King that arrived in New York.

King: Right, that's it. When I was in St. Mark's Church and they didn't know what to do, I just went to the drafting store and to the art supply store, measured the room out, and dealt with the angles. I knew how to do all that. I knew how to deal with the wiring. I really knew how to deal with exits and entrances, the rules and regulations. Plus, when I got here, I found that a lot of the people in theatre didn't know who Charles Chestnut was, and while they had heard of Ralph Ellison, they hadn't read him.

We come into New York, and we're looking all over for James Baldwin. I could go up to Ralph Ellison and talk for an hour about his book, so of course he's going to call me. I could talk to Langston for two hours about literature. These guys could just say, "You want a drink?" Langston would say, "I don't drink." I'm jumping ahead now, but I always tell young people today, "Know something about me before you come and talk to me." It's about what you bring. If you know something, then people will help you along the way.

Salaam: So in New York, you became a producer in actuality before you became a producer in name?

King: I didn't know that's what I was doing. In Detroit, when we did Concept East, we knew there were plays about Black people and Black ideas that we wanted other people to see, and we could not get those. They weren't being done by other theatres, so we decided we had to do them ourselves.

Salaam: After Mobilization, what happened next?

King: As a result of my work at Mobilization from 1965 to 1970, I think our young people captured the imagination of a lot of the arts organizations around the United States in film, dance, theatre, and music. And as a result of that, the guy who ran the whole agency was asked to come to a place on the Lower East Side called the Henry Street Settlement. He went over there and asked me to come over and run a training program in multi-ethnic theatre. By that time I was appearing on Broadway in a play called The Great White Hope. During my Broadway stay, the producers got very uncomfortable with me because, if I had three scenes in a two-hour play, the other hour-and-a-half I was writing about what I saw. I kept a diary and wrote in great detail, everything. I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to produce. The producer actually came to me and asked me why was I writing all this stuff, and I told him I wanted to produce. The director of the play, Ed Sherwin, and Jane Alexander, who is now the head of the NEA, and James Earl Jones, who was the lead--we became great friends, and we remain great friends today. But the producer was very uncomfortable with me.

Anyway, I took the money I was saving from being in the play and invested in an off-Broadway play by Charlie Fuller. It was Fuller's first play off-Broadway, A Perfect Party, which opened in 1969. In 1968, a new phenomenon happened in New York as a result of the riots around the country: Blacks were being included in television commercials. I knew how to master the thirty-second spot and the sixty-second spot: You had one-third personality, one-third product, and one-third out. I learned how to do that. So between 1969 and 1973--they took cigarette commercials off the air in 1973--but, during that time, I probably was the highest paid tv-commercial actor on the air. I took that money and produced A Black Quartet.

Salaam: Hit the pause button a second before you go on. You said you knew how to do that. First, how did you learn? And, second, what exactly was it that you were doing that you knew how to do better than others?

King: A spot is written by someone in an ad agency, okay? All you have to do is watch television for ten minutes, and you see a thirty-second spot. This is how fast you have to talk; this is how much of the product has got to be seen, how you hold it. You can not be intimidated when you walk in a room and there are ten people there because you have to sell a product in thirty seconds. So what do you sell? You sell ten seconds of your personality. That's all you can sell. You can't talk for thirty seconds about who you are. What I mastered is that, if I'm selling my personality for ten seconds, I would also show the product during the ten seconds. The product has twenty seconds. So they're going to go off after twenty seconds and focus on the product for the out. Now if two people are in the thing, say a young husband and a wife selling Maxwell House coffee, you're going to see them at a table. You might get a line like, "Honey, pass the coffee"--it's not going to be long--and then the camera is going to cut to the coffee. If you put your hand on the coffee that means you won't get cut out of the commercial. It's like anything else: You learn a form. I went to Bob Collier and took a week of classes, but the main thing is that it was a new phenomenon. It was written up in the Times. After the riots, all these articles about Blacks appeared in this and that. I would read the business section of the paper and know that BBD&O, or whomever, had just gotten the Maxwell House coffee commercial. I would tell my agent, who didn't know, to call so and so: "Here's the number and address; send them a note and a copy of the commercials I've done." He would call me back: "It worked; they want to see you tomorrow."

Salaam: So you were producing yourself?

King: Yeah, in a sense. Man, I did every kind of cigarette commercial there was and never smoked a day in my life, but I learned how to hold a cigarette. Anyway, I took that money and produced Baraka, Bullins, Caldwell, Milner. I didn't make any money off the productions, but I did them anyway. I gave money to other organizations, bought a house, and took care of my mom in Detroit. What happened, after a while, is that I decided I'd rather produce than deal with these commercials. So that's what I started doing, and had a hit in '71 and in '73.

Salaam: What was the hit in '71?

King: Black Girl. In 1973 I had a hit with What the Winesellers Buy. It was a phenomenal hit. It ran from '73 to '75 A three-year hit can last you five years. In '74 I had an award-winning play with Bullins's The Taking of Miss Janie. In '76 I had a huge hit with colored girls; that was '76, '77, and 78, and then Europe in '79 and '80. It didn't really matter that they took the cigarettes off the air. The money out of these plays was financing the New Federal Theatre. They will always change the rules.

Salaam: Raise the basket. Negro can dunk ...

King: Yeah, raise the basket. So, I said, well, if they freeze me out of producing, I'll go into books. I just went over.

Salaam: That goes back to your early years when you had studied literature. There was another side to Woodie King that they didn't,even know about.

King: Right, right. I would go to the publishers and make a presentation. Baraka was always very helpful. Another really interesting thing is that in 1969 I was producing the Last Poets, and I was trying everything to get them all to work together. They--especially Gylan Kain and David Nelson--would say, "Oh no, we don't work with Umar and Abiodun; he's a gangster." But I liked them, I liked all of these brothers. So, Dave Nelson, who went to high school with me in Detroit, is the one who brought it all together. I said, "Lets do it on stage," and we did it on stage [as the Original Last Poets]. I took my last hundred grand and did the movie Right On. You know how you know that something will work. I said, "I'm on a roll with these commercials, but if I stop and take three months where I can't go to get a commercial, I'm just going to deal with these brothers. Well, it'll pay off, right?" They promised me, "Woodie, we'll sign a management contract with you" and everything. So we did the movie, which won a lot of awards. We did the record with Juggie Murray, Right On! The Last Poets, and, man, they got into a fight with the other guys and there was no way of them ever coming together. They didn't like each other. We had them booked for the Johnny Carson Show and the Merv Griffin Show to promote the movie, but this was anti-what they were about. They were not about to promote anything on these shows. I say, oh man, I've got all my money tied on this ... and then Filipe Luciano left to join the Young Lords. So now, I've got this beautiful movie; I've got the album ...

Salaam: And the fighting and the lawsuits.

King: Yeah, the lawsuits. I had to get them released from my management because they wouldn't go out and make the gigs. They weren't together. We did get the movie out, and we did get it into a lot of festivals. But that three months I was out was ... well, you know when you're working, you're working twenty hours a day. I could never get them on the phone. I wouldn't be able to find them. I said, okay, I'm going to have make this decision.

Umar and I became friends out of the whole incident. Umar was very hurt that they had not included him in the film, but it wasn't me, it was them. Later, I produced one of Umar's plays to a huge audience. Umar can write. The play was Suspenders, directed by Al Freeman, Jr., and starring Clarence Williams, III. Clarence Williams tore it up. The janitor of the building, who Clarence played, and the guy who works on the penthouse floor and is the lawyer who owns the office are suspended in an elevator at two o'clock in the morning. You realize that this guy is in the building at two o'clock in the morning to kill himself, and Clarence is cleaning the building. It's a beautiful piece.

Salaam: How do you know you've got a hit? I mean, how do you select a hit?

King: You can't do it. You can only select what appeals to you.

Salaam: So why is it that you had such a good track record of appeal?

King: (Laughter.) Okay, here's what I think--and I know you're going to say, "Aw, man"--but it's because I've learned a lot from what a lot of people have written: Baraka, Haki, Nikki, Maya, etc. Anyway, there's a certain thinking going on in America. Once you lose that ability to vibrate with the country, once you lose your ability to vibrate with your people, you've got to get out of it. Once you let ego override that knowledge and instinct, you've got to move back. When I pick a play, I may not consciously say, "Well, what will all of these people think about it?" but I know if something in there jumps out, they're going to question it.

I tried to do Baraka on stage. I know he's one of the best poets in America. The critics said, "Ahhh, no," because they are White critics. I tried to do the Last Poets on stage. Same thing. But I know poetry as theatre is the same as James Brown singing twenty-seven songs, Smokey Robinson singing twenty-seven songs, Bob Marley singing twenty-seven songs. I know because I've been to all these things. So what is it that White people hate about these things? White people, White men hate Black masculinity. They would never say this. So, I said, "Okay, we'll get seven of the most beautiful women in the world and they'll say the same thing," and the critics say, "colored girls is masterful." But what they're really looking at is these women's asses and legs. Now the poetry in the piece ... if you were producing colored girls, you'd say, "`zake, let me see your poetry. Okay, I like this one, this one, and this one. I'll do these." Then if you're an actor, you say, "Oh, I don't like that one, but I'll do that other one." And a director says, "Okay, let's weave all of this together." That is how that play was written. No one sat down and wrote a piece from start to finish. That is why she has never had another hit like that because she is not that kind of writer. Colored girls was a collaboration--same thing that you all used to do at Free Southern Theatre, collaborations. ntozake rose to a certain kind of fame by getting on television and different places what she meant as a feminist, what she meant as a woman, when the piece had nothing to do with that. You, the producer, the director, the actor chose those pieces, so you needed to be answering the question of why you chose the pieces you did.

Salaam: Essentially you're suggesting that selecting the poems or the parts of a poem that you decide to use, along with weaving the selected pieces together is a different genre from the Western tradition of a playwright writing a piece from start to finish and presenting that. Maybe in rehearsal there might be some rewrites, but the piece is essentially the piece of the playwright. What you're talking about is a different process that is akin to what Black musicians do, particularly R&B musicians who may start off with a set list but who often end up doing something completely different once they get on stage.

King: Right. And my concern with doing that had nothing to do with anything other than poetry as theatre because I had tried three times and failed. I did a play called Night Song based on the life of Kenny Dorham written by the white woman who was living with him. It was beautiful. There were the Last Poets, and there was Baraka: The fifties, sixties, and seventies.

Salaam: What made you keep trying to do that after three commercial failures? What made you put your ego so far forward that, despite failures, you kept trying and kept believing that it could work?

King: Because if you go to a concert and you see Bob Marley mesmerize 15,000 people by doing twenty songs, if you go to a concert and see James Brown mesmerize people, or Al Green, or anybody, you've got to say, "The people who are here are the same people I want to reach, but they can't deal with linear forms." Why is it that poetry works so well? Poetry, especially poems as songs, poems as narratives that can be acted out, are no different than songs.

Salaam: So, you're looking at it subconsciously from the standpoint of form, and you're saying, "There is another theatre tradition, and I want to deal with that. I have a feeling for what it is, but I just haven't found the right vehicle yet."

King: Right. Right. For example, I know from eight tries, three or four of my own as well as attempts by others, that New York City is ready for a jazz musical, but you can't have a person who only loves jazz writing it. You have to have a person who is also a literary person, a person who knows jazz but also knows musical theater. Then you have to have a director. I know that the first play that successfully gets that over is going to last five or six years. A five- or six-year run on Broadway is a ten-year income generator--plus, it will set you up for other projects. In a similar vein, the first people who can do a real Latino musical in New York are going to blow the city away. Why? Because these things have not yet happened. What I try to do in theatre is what Harold Cruse did with his book. Very few people have caught up with The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual. Cruse spent ten years working on that book. It's like, if you get out there first, you don't have to be reinventing, because you set the tone. You become the forerunner.

Salaam: What do you see as the future of Black theatre?

King: The future of anything that Black people are involved in depends on our place as Black people in America, in Harlem, on the Lower East Side, wherever. If I say, "What is Black people's future in America as we approach this millennium, the year 2000?" I know that we are outspoken. I know that we are unbelievably intelligent, often brilliant. We are moving more and more into individualism, which is a major, major problem. We are not reaching back, pulling along those who are less fortunate, because we feel we have got to look out for ourselves. Whether it is Henry Louis Gates and that group who have insulated themselves at Harvard ... although they're not really insulated, because Harvard can turn anytime...

Salaam: It's all a matter of whatever way the Harvard political wind blows. Right now it's blowing their way, so it's cool.

King: Right. It's not like there's an old-line Black institution that has got these minds. Harvard is a White institution. Gates and them may even think they are cultivating White minds, but White minds, no matter how cultivated they are, have to run General Motors. They have fifty or sixty White people on the board who are saying, "Naw, naw, I don't care what you learned at Harvard; this is what our stockholders need. This is the way this company has been operating for a hundred years. I don't care if you have Cornell West's theory. If it can't help us sell cars, then it's unnecessary." Whatever I learn at Harvard, if I put it to affect in the mainstream of work, if that doesn't help destroy Black people, or exploit Black and poor people, they have no use for it. In a sense, we go to these major White institutions and we come out either ready to build our own institutions or to perpetuate the European tradition. So, what's our future if we go into these European institutions and don't start our own? I'm not saying that institution building is automatic or easy, because it's very hard to start your own. You've got to be ...

Salaam: You've got to be a twenty-year-old that knows how to take a paint can and build a light.

King: You've got to know that, and you have to know what that current is that comes into that light or you will electrocute yourself.

Salaam: Essentially you are calling for the reintroduction of people who want to do for self and at the same time who understand that you have to learn skills in order to do for self. It's not that you want to exist completely isolated from the world ...

King: Right. You have to exist in the world. I'm in New York City, and I've spent time in L.A. and in London. If I wanted to produce 200 plays by Black people in England in twenty-seven years, they would laugh me out of the country. If I wanted to do it at Harvard, same thing. So why would I go there trying to do these Black plays? The people at those institutions would love to reject seventy-five percent of these projects. I always go back to Hoyt Fuller. Hoyt could reject five of my manuscripts, but I would learn so much from those rejections because he would say, "This is the point you missed, and this is what we need to know." If he accepted a manuscript he would say, "I'm glad you covered blah, blah, blah because this is what we need to know." We don't have that kind of leadership today. I see a lot of brothers in these large White institutions ... for example, Chenault at American Express, what can he do? He can do a little, but not much to affect the masses of us. We need so much, especially in theatre.

Salaam: There's this theory that theatre is one of the most political of the arts because by its very nature it requires collective activity in order to happen. Just the process of pulling all of the people together, even when you have a ton of money--not to mention when you don't--requires that you find a way to get people on the same wavelength.

King: Right. But also, theatre talks. Black theatre talks. White people do not want to hear Black people talk. They do not want to hear about what Black people went through to get what we've got, but that's the only thing we can call on and create into any kind of beautiful and artistic expression. Since dance does not talk, they don't understand jazz--jazz really be saying all kinds of shit. Blues--they don't know what's being said below the surface ...

Salaam: Because it's coded.

King: Right. Blues is coded, and fine art is safe. They can look at Romare Bearden, and turn their heads upside down looking at those collages. They see big hands and big body parts; it's very abstract. If Romare came into a room of all White people, he could actually say, "What I'm trying to say here is show how White people come ...." He could include them, even though that's not what he's saying at all, but since they don't know, they will buy it. In theatre, you can't do that because ...

Salaam: Theatre talks, which is both the beauty of it and the problem with it.

King: I had this conversation with Percy Sutton who owns WBLS. "Why can't theatre," he says, "get the kind of play and visibility that jazz, rap, and all kinds of rhythm and blues get? That way the station would be able to help us." I felt so bad because here is a guy who has one of the top-rated radio stations in America, and it's obvious that he doesn't know why he's top-rated. Maybe it was a rhetorical question; maybe he didn't want an answer. But I say, "No, it's not like that." We have to talk about this. He says, "Well, brother King, go ahead." First of all, a radio station has x number of hours for records, which is programming, a certain amount of time for talk, and everything else is for advertising. The reason you're top-rated is because the advertising end brings in all this money. You would not be top-rated if the advertising didn't bring in all this money. Now, why does it bring in all of this money? Because you're going to get a Michael Jackson cd, an L.L. Cool J, a Snoop Dog, TLC, whoever, and you're going to play that so whoever is listening is going to go and buy it. It's not going to cost you anything other than a payment to ASCAP and BMI to play those cds. Now, you say, "Since I've got these people listening to these cds, I can go and get Dial soap, or Oxydol, or Cheer to buy some ads. I can get whoever is doing a concert at the Beacon Theatre to buy an ad to let my audience know about the Beacon Theatre show because I have all these listeners." This is what makes your money. But do you understand that you're getting Michael Jackson for free? I can't use Michael Jackson's cd in my theatre; I have to use the live Michael Jackson. He can't come to a 300-seat theatre. You can play Michael Jackson all day and all night and you haven't paid a dime, but you've got people listening and at the same time you can charge advertisers $200 a minute for soap. That's how you make your money. So, it's not a question of what theatre can or can not do; it's a different medium all together.

The media that exist now are not media in which "the theatre" can promote and deal. Now a movie is a whole different ball game. You cannot compete with a whole-page ad for Jerry Macguire, where they paid $28,000 for the ad. And they can afford to buy that ad because in New York it might be in ten different theatres playing five times a day. That's fifty performances a day, and they can make that $28,000 back in a minute. And they don't care what you think of Jerry Macguire after you see it, because you don't have enough word of mouth to combat that whole page. But if I'm in a 300-seat theatre and thirty people don't like what I'm doing, those people can go out and say, "Hey, this is a piece of shit," and my play is over. These are the problems that we as Black artists and producers in Black theatre are faced with. We're basically in the same place that Black people in America are.

Salaam: In a very real sense, Black theatre is the least commercial of all the arts.

King: Theatre period, not just Black theatre.

Salaam: Theatre is the least commercial, and Black theatre is at the end of that non-commercial train. Has there been any major Black theatre hit ...

King: Yeah, there have been hits.

Salaam: ... since colored girls?

King: Bring in `Da Noise, Bring in `Da Funk. It's a huge hit.

Salaam: Anywhere you go across the country, in any city where there are more than 50,000 Black folk, somebody has done colored girls. You can't do that with Bring in 'Da Noise. Has there been any play like colored girls that can be a vehicle to be adopted by Black communities all across the country?

King: No, because for that commercial success of colored girls in 1976, somebody had to put up $450,000. Before that, for Winesellers to happen--I gambled, used my own money, and rolled the dice--$200,000. Before that, for Black Girl to happen, I got together a team of people and we put up $40,000. From 1980 on--let's see, I did Reggae on Broadway in 1980 and I did Checkmates in 1987 but I wasn't producing--the cost of doing a play has risen dramatically. For example, the cost to do colored girls right now would be around $1.7 million. The income of Black Americans who invested in that play has not risen sufficiently that they could make up that difference. To go out and do colored girls right now on a national tour I would have to raise around $2 million.

Salaam: And for that amount of money, you could do Get on the Bus.

King: Oh, yeah. That's exactly what the problem is. You could make a movie, but to get that $2 million is almost impossible, because if you came out of the sixties and seventies and you walk in the doors of people that can put up that kind of money, whether those persons be Sidney or Harry or Bill Cosby or Oprah, their people are going to say, "That's Woodie King. I don't know if you should invest in that." When I did From the Mississippi Delta, I went all over. I went to Oprah and sat down with her, but she didn't want to get involved in theatre. One year later she was producing off-Broadway productions with Northlight from Chicago. But that's the way it is.

Salaam: You're saying that Black theatre is going to rise and fall on the fortunes of what happens with Black people in general and not on what happens with individuals who may become famous, rich, or whatever?

King: Right. That's the way it is.

Kalamu ya Salaam is a New Orleans writer and former member (1968-1973) of the Free Southern Theatre. His latest books are The Magic of Juju: An Appreciation of the Black Arts Movement (Third World Press) and an African travel book, Tarzan Can Not Return To Africa, But I Can (Visions 3000). Salaam also has a spoken-word cd, My Story, My Song (AFO Records).
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Title Annotation:stage/film producer/director, author, teacher and mentor
Author:Salaam, Kalamu Ya
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Interview
Date:Dec 22, 1997
Words:7996
Previous Article:The date.
Next Article:A transplant that did not take: August Wilson's views on the great migration.
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