Jo Reed: From the National Endowment for the Arts, this is Art Works. I’m Josephine Reed
Male Voice: If you would, please raise your arms straight up into the air, everyone. Everybody please, hold them up—just like that. Keep them up. Now, we’re going to do a call and response. I’m going say ”Hands up” and you respond with “Don’t shoot…” I’d like you all to keep your hands up with me. Some of you won’t, but try. I’m asking you to be uncomfortable with me for a moment. For this moment in time, let’s attempt to experience the same experience together.
Jo Reed: You just heard an edited excerpt Hands Up: 7 Playwrights, 7 Testaments. It is written by Dennis A. Allen and performed by Kamal Bolden. It’s a radio play produced by National Black Theatre. National Black Theatre or NBT was founded in 1968 by Dr. Barbara Ann Teer—an award-winning performer, director and champion of the Black Arts Movement. Based in Harlem on 125 St and 5th Avenue, NBT has spent the last five decades presenting stories by and about Black Americans—its aim is "to produce transformational theater…by telling authentic stories of the Black experience” and it did so not just on their stage but in the streets, parks, shops, and bars of Harlem. And in the process, this not-for profit community theater has become an important cultural incubator. Since its founding NBT has produced over 300 new works and worked with artists ranging from James Baldwin to Nikki Giovanni, from Nina Simone to Maya Angelou-- winning along the way 54 Audelco Awards, a CEBA award and an Obie Award. NBT is also an NEA grantee receiving a musical theater grant and an ARP grant. I spoke with the current CEO of National Black Theatre Sade Lythcott, and I asked her to tell more about the principles that’s guided NBT for over half a century.
Sade Lythcott: So the National Black Theater was founded by a visionary artist, Dr. Barbara Ann Teer-- full transparency, also my mother <laughs>-- and she really began National Black Theater for a very specific and sometimes considered subversive reason. She wanted to create an artform that was informed by the Black experience itself. The subversive experiment that my mother was interested in was about infiltration, what does it mean to infiltrate our own communities with authentic and radical storytelling, and how restorative could it be to ignite, to liberate the stories and the talent that live within our own community. And if we were going to do this work right, we needed to do it for us by us. So she moved to Harlem, and founded the National Black Theater in 1968, -- one of the foremothers of the Black arts movement. National Black Theater comes out of that spirit of empowerment, of radical unapologetic storytelling in service of the Black identity, Black liberation, and she saw it ultimately in the bigger picture was in service to human transformation, and we've been on the corner of 125th and 5th Avenue ever since.
Jo Reed: Now you're located in Harlem as you said, and you're a national theater, so how does NBT work with and within its community?
Sade Lythcott: So it's a great question. We always say we're very proud to say we're a community theater, and we say community with a capital "C". It's really about bringing resources back to community, empowering community to see that within our ranks we have everything that we need when we lend ourselves to each other, and so that's one of the fundamental building blocks of National Black Theater. We own our property on 125th and 5th, and one of the things that was a part of Dr. Teer's pedagogy was that Black artists should be able to live, work, and serve within their own community. So we design all of our programs, and all of our programs are informed by that: how are we in service to Black artists and community to empower them to live, work, and serve within the community. So it's everything from site specific work like Ebony Noelle Golden's “125th and Freedom”, that used 125th Street to do 16 site specific theatrical works across the corridor. It's through COVID creating new digital programs that are directly in response to the present pulse lived experience. So, you know, site specific work like partnering with the New York Phil to do “The Bandwagon” in Marcus Garvey Park, or to bring the public theater's summer stage, you know, summer in the parks, to parks and open spaces in Harlem. So we partner and we work within community in those ways. Probably the most important thing in the last two years is we work with community as active listeners to advocate for the needs of our sector and the needs of our community. So how are we amplifying the specific need or time and place where we're experiencing challenges, where we're experiencing information that's informative to how we create a more sustainable landscape for not just the National Black Theater but all of the theaters within New York City, and nationally really looking at how are we a model and a template for sustainability for Black and BIPOC organizations across the country?
Jo Reed: Well you tell your stories not only on the stage, but when you have works in the theater as opposed to out on the street, in the lobbies you create, you're known for these displays that you create, and you've called them a bridge that you built between the theater and the community.
Sade Lythcott: Yeah, so I get the privilege as the CEO of National Black Theater to co-lead our space with our executive artistic director Jonathan McCrory. And when Jonathan came aboard 10 years ago, he and I right on the heels of my mother's transition in 2008, we really had one of those existential crises, at least I did. I had an existential crisis where I was looking at shoes that were impossible to fill <laughs>, and I was looking at an organization and an institution in the community that was shifting dramatically in such a fast pace. And we asked ourselves what is NBT in this new 21st Century context? And it wasn't about “how do we reinvent the wheel?” It was about how do we reinvigorate the blueprint of Dr. Teer and the original NBT company which she called liberators, and so what we did is we looked back into the archives, and we started to distill pedagogy, practices, classes, and we took them all and distilled them into something that we call holistic producing. And so this is how we approach it. National Black Theater was always performing in the streets of Harlem, they were always coming from a space of deep healing that our narratives could heal our communities and our artists, that we could be the salve for the PTSD that the Black diasporic population has experienced in this country. So they would go to bars, they would perform on the streets, and that would bring folks inside our building, and that's the part that I was referring to earlier as subversive, she wanted to bring the community inside so that we could have a conversation with our own identity and liberation. That said, our take on it was: well, let's find the work that we love, the playwrights that we want to invest in, that we believe in who they are and what they have to say, we're not going to ask them to be political, we're not going to ask them to have a social justice lens on their work, we will just produce it as brilliantly as we can. But if you're going to be <laughs> produced at NBT what we ask of you is that you allow us to delve into the text to tease out a dramaturgical social justice, social impact them that already exists. Then we blow that up into a dramaturgical lobby exhibit that really takes a look at the parallels of whatever is existing in the world of the play is existing in our own world today. And that sometimes community members need to be able to first relate to how it impacts their own lives to be curious enough to walk through our theater doors. So we start with the play, it comes out into the lobby as a dramaturgical lobby exhibit, we've done every kind of theme from criminal justice reform, to urban gentrification and cultural erasure, and so the audience member will come into this dramaturgical lobby, take it all in, hopefully see themselves and their concerns all across the lobby, and then they walk in, and they have this experience at the play. After every single play, and this is what closes out our holistic producing approach, Jonathan and I hold a post-show discussion where we turn the show, turn the experience over to the audience so that the audience can produce a new piece of work that encompasses their experience of the dramaturgical lobby exhibit, and the play. We wrestle, and we talk, and we discourse and digest the show with the actors. And it's the most beautiful and I think unique experience, and through that we really get to NBT's theory of change which is Black liberation plus art plus placemaking equals human transformation, I will tell you if you've ever been to a show at NBT, you walk out transformed.
Jo Reed: Let's talk about the placemaking side of that triangle because we haven't yet. How does placemaking work within NBT and the work that you do?
Sade Lythcott: Placemaking is fundamental and foundational to the way NBT approaches its work, it's a tenet of our theory of change. My mother when she founded National Black Theater, the stories that she was telling were so courageous and bold, some would say radical, and what we very quickly realized was that the work that we wanted to do sans the White gaze, was niche, controversial often, because it wasn't placating to industry standards. It was really its own art form and art standard, and so she realized that we needed to quickly figure out a funding model. And so that property that we purchased in 1986 was really this engine for placemaking. The real estate should subsidize the art so that we could stay truly independent, truly liberated in the kinds of work and classes and rigor that we wanted to produce on our stages. And so placemaking is fundamentally about self-determination, that we can be a template-- for other theaters, other organization, other artists--to approach their work and their craft from a space of being their own CEO, their own entrepreneurial kind of lens to their work so that we don't depend on anyone else for our own sustainability, for our own empowerment, and then we empower each other to pay that forward within the national and internationally the diaspora community.
Jo Reed: You’ve also created partnerships with other theaters and organizations to develop and to produce new work. How do you choose who to partner with and how does it benefits NBT and its partners?
Sade Lythcott: NBT is going through a major capital redevelopment right now. We're doing ground up construction on a brand-new multiuse building that we're really excited about. And it really forced us to look at placemaking in a different kind of way because we would be displaced from our building for at least four years. So we started a new program called NBT beyond walls, and what we discovered in the process of really something that was completely utilitarian, we needed to partner because we were out of our space, was we discovered that NBT's placemaking is an idea more than it is brick and mortar. That the pedagogy, the idea of Black liberation in service to human transformation, the real, unapologetic Black storytelling was an IP that deserved to be everywhere, leaning back into Dr. Teer's first kind of stance that this is not about representation of Black actors on stage, this is about infiltration. So we approach all of our programmatic partners from a space of infiltration, that the work that we do together should be reflective not only of what you see on the stage but the values we hold as we produce and support the work. And we have been fortunate enough to partner with all kinds of organizations, which is what's really exciting in this moment in time. So we have an entrenched partnership with like stalwart partners like the Apollo Theater, like the Schaumburg, but we're also discovering that our pedagogy works everywhere. So we have these new partnerships with the New York Philharmonic, with the public theater, with New York Theater Workshop, producing work all this season. So it's been really wonderful because even though those organizations may look very different and produce different work than National Black Theater traditional does, the coming together of our pedagogy and our values to craft something brand new has been exciting for both our partners and NBT during this time.
Jo Reed: One example, Dreaming Zenzile, is a play that you've nurtured and coproduced and done in partnership with, I don't know, half a dozen other organizations? it kicked off in St. Louis, and it has a rolling world premier literally around the country, and it's going to end in New York. Tell us a little bit about that play and that experience.
Sade Lythcott: Oh, what a wonderful piece to be bringing back to live theater. “Dreaming Zenzile” is a brand-new musical by Somi Kakoma and directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz and it's an incredible new musical about and based on Miriam Makeba's life that we get the privilege of having steward, nurtured, and developed over the last three years with Mara Isaacs of Octopus Theatrics, St. Louis Rep, the McCarter Theater, Arts Emerson, the Apollo, and we're so excited to then bring the world premiere to New York City. It will be coproduced by National Black Theater and New York Theater Workshop, and I have to say we could not have done it without the invaluable support of the NEA, and the new musical theater grant that we received from NEA. It was critical, and it's going to ensure that the work comes to New York. So we're very excited about that and really grateful.
Jo Reed: It’s impossible to talk about theater right now without talking about the pandemic. This has been just a hard, hard year for theater, for the performing arts, for everybody involved in the performing arts. How have you coped, how have you been?
Sade Lythcott: So I have to say in some ways the pandemic has been earth shattering, it is has been harrowing to see how we all in the sector have had to put on superhero capes to really bolster and keep our sector alive, and thankfully the support of spaces like the NEA and the federal funding that we've received from NEA and other recovery and relief funds have been what has kept some of our doors open that wouldn't have otherwise. NBT in particular I will say is in a very interesting and critical juncture. So we closed our doors to COVID in March 2020, and it was devastating. You know, within two weeks almost 100 percent of our earned revenue went out the window with the majority of our season still ahead of us. But what also happened in June of 2020, NBT finally signed its redevelopment deal for our new construction of our building. So COVID's been surreal for NBT because we would have had to close our doors anyway, and we have really gone onto the frontline when it comes to advocacy. What we're doing through the pandemic is really designing and constructing our new space, and looking at strategic initiatives and strategic planning as we create this new incredible arts complex. But we do still feel the impact of COVID on our partners and in our own organization but are grateful for the relief that we have gotten in the places that we have gotten. NBT was able to get SVOG, Save Our Venues, we were able to get the ARP from NEA and PPP, and literally that was our organization's lifeline so that we could continue to offer uninterrupted programming to our community and to the sector while also focusing on the future of our space.
Jo Reed: You expanded your digital programming, didn't you? With “Welcome to NBT at Home?”
Sade Lythcott: Yeah, so I think the thing about COVID, obviously the devastating impact of COVID has been well documented, I think the thing that gets less talked about is that in this space of beginning again, of approaching reopening, it is for so many of us to really approach the work like startups, right? There's uncertainty in what it is to be a startup but there's so much innovation, and so during this time I feel like NBT has really leaned into the innovation of different digital platforms. So we started the series of talks with artists called NBT at Home where we would bring live into your living room interesting and present pulse conversation that were responsive to everything that we were living through in real time, so everything from the racial reckonings to the disproportionate impact of COVID on Black communities, the lack of safety net for artists when it comes to how the pandemic was playing, all of that were these really active and lively and rich conversations that we brought to you at home at NBT at Home. We also leaned into radio plays, you know, I was so excited when you invited me to do this podcast because NBT instead of trying to figure out how to put plays on tape and stream them, we thought we're so excited by the podcast world, and that the roots of performance in a podcast style was the original way folks received performance which was radio plays, and that this medium we could reinvigorate with radio plays. So that was a part of our NBT at Home, we would do radio plays, and then finally we leaned into the digital space in creating digital short films and programs by commissioning Black artists to take their theatrical voice and interpret it into a new medium of short films, and so we partners with All Arts, and have produced two short films there, we partnered with “When We All Vote” Michelle Obama's organization and created and commissioned 11 Black artists to respond to Shirley Chisholm's “Unbossed and Unbothered” quote and produce work that speaks to our communities, empowering our communities to vote and understand how important civic engagement is. Then lastly on the digital stage we partnered with the Park Avenue Armory here in New York and produced an ongoing series called “100 Years, 100 Women,” in response to the centennial of the women's right to vote, where most women, not all women, got the right to vote. So it's been a really innovative time, and we've taken digital platforms and incorporated them, I think forever, into our programmatic output at National Black Theater. I'll say the last thing that's really quite incredible about the innovation of all of us in the theater world finding our voice and space in digital platforms is that we've all gone from hyperlocal, some of us that were already national are now international and global because of our ability to reach audiences on digital platforms just like this.
Jo Reed: You know, I'm very interested in the part that NBT played in the conversation about the long overdue racial reckoning, certainly in theater as well as throughout all stratas of society because these are conversations you have been having since you began.
Sade Lythcott: Yeah, it was surreal to watch the country wrestle and awaken to truths we have known for generations. NBT actually paused when this racial reckoning was happening after the murders of George Floyd, Maud Aubrey, Brianna Taylor, where everyone flooded the streets, we did the opposite. We said these traumatic experiences require NBT to be still and for us this was about answering of the call to create safe, healing space for Black people because the world had become enraged and weaponized in ways that didn't put our care on the frontline. When you watch how the reckoning has rippled throughout our industry, the country, and it needed to, what you're also seeing coupled with it is cancel culture and call out culture. And NBT immediately put out a manifesto that this was not about calling out folks for us, this was about calling folks in. That has been our stance, that is what has been the bedrock of our partnerships, we're calling people into this work as opposed to calling them out on their work. The thing about Black liberation in service to human transformation is that we can create the template and the model for how we all heal, and we use it through the vehicle of our storytelling, but our storytelling is as much for us, our people, and our community, as it is for everybody, because when you speak from the space of authenticity, you recognize your humanity, our humanity in each other's stories, that is what we call soul. That's why Dr. Teer always said keep soul alive, soul is an omnipresent force that recognizes that who we are is shared in our humanity. You can't see me fully human unless you can hear my authentic experience and storytelling, and so we're calling people into that, we're disinterested in analytics and ticking boxes that make you the larger society more comfortable that they're working in a space that has equity and parity but if those spaces are not calibrated for us to fully sit at the table together in our humanity, in our vulnerability, in what we know and don't know, and equally be committed to each other's healing-- then what are we doing? So for us that's what this reckoning has been, it has been not asking for a seat at anybody else's table, but really inviting folks to the table that we have built 50 years ago that we have been setting every single day for the last half century and saying, “Yes, you're welcome here too, yes, you're welcome here too, and this is how we're going to do it.”
Jo Reed: Where do you want to see NBT in the next decade?
Sade Lythcott: We want to see NBT's everywhere. That the national in National Black Theater, we want to lean into the national in National Black Theater, and national is twofold, national is about having national and international reach, but it's also being a nationalist in that we are proud of the courageous work that we do, and that the work that we do in its radical experimentation of Black liberation in service of human transformation should be the work in every theater. And if theaters are doing that work, then it has a little bit of National Black Theater in them. Also in the next 10 years we will be moving back, obviously before the next 10 years, into our new space on the corner of 125th and 5th Avenue, the most famous address in the world. You can go anywhere in the world and say 5th Avenue, and everybody knows New York City opulence, and you can say 125th Street and everybody knows 125th Street as Harlem, the cultural capital of the Black world. So in 10 years, in 5 years actually, you can come back to your home away from home on the corner of 125th and 5th Avenue, and what we're building in our new space it's innovative, we're taking the pedagogy and the blueprint of National Black Theater and exploring it through technology and what we want to build is an immersive theater space so that we can deliver not only traditional storytelling on our studio theater stage but an immersive 360 hemispheric theater adventure where you cannot only see our stories but you can experience them because we know that technology XR technology is the wave of the future and we can create more impact, deeper healing, and a destination in the heart of Harlem that's reflective of who we are as a people and who we are as artists and a community.
Jo Reed: And I think that is a good place to leave it. Sade, thank you so much. Thank you for giving me your time, thank you for the wonderful work that you do.
Sade Lythcott: Thank you for having me, this has really been so wonderful to share a little bit more about NBT with you. Thank you.
Jo Reed: And for me as well, thank you.
That was Sade Lythcott—she’s the CEO of National Black Theatre—you can find out more about its programming at NationalBlackTheatre.org. You’ve been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Follow Art Works on Apple or Goggle Play and leave us a rating—it helps people to find us. I’m Josephine Reed. Stay safe and thanks for listening.
Sade Lythcott, CEO of National Black Theatre (NBT), is carrying on the legacy of her mother, Dr. Barbara Ann Teer, who founded NBT back in 1968. Based in Harlem and born out of the Black Arts Movement, NBT has spent the last five decades presenting stories by and about Black people with an aim is "to produce transformational theater…by telling authentic stories of the Black experience.” It has done so not just on its stage but in the streets, parks, shops, and bars of Harlem. And in the process, this nonprofit community theater has become an important cultural incubator. Since its founding NBT has produced over 300 new works and worked with artists ranging from James Baldwin to Nikki Giovanni, from Nina Simone to Maya Angelou. In this podcast, Lythcott talks about the philosophy that’s been guiding NBT since its beginning, its emphasis on community and placemaking, how NBT develops new work and how, at this moment of racial reckoning, NBT has no interest in calling anyone out, they’re calling people in to sit at “the table we’ve been setting for 50 years.”