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New reference book is the A to Z of black theater in the U.S.

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by Misha Berson, Seattle Times

africanamericantheaterbookOn the cover of the new “Historical Dictionary of African American Theater” is a glossy photograph of two young, strikingly attractive actors, Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee, in a scene from the landmark black drama “A Raisin in the Sun,” by Lorraine Hansberry.

But flip through this chunky, 500-plus-page volume compiled by two Seattle natives, and you’ll find so much more on the subject at hand — from the stage credits of other black movie stars to the efforts of pre-Civil War African Americans to integrate our nation’s theatrical life.

Along with an introductory essay and a timeline, the volume contains some 600 entries devoted to performers, playwrights, directors, designers, composers, companies and others engaged in black theater in the U.S. from the early 1800s to the present day.

Published by Scarecrow Press, the reference book is the product of the intensive research of Seattle-bred Anthony D. Hill, associate professor of theater at Ohio State University, and Douglas Q. Barnett, who amid the fervent civil-rights activism of the late 1960s helped start the Seattle African-American troupe Black Arts/West.

A retired theater producer, director and administrator, Barnett, 78, chatted over coffee recently at a cafe near his Capitol Hill apartment about the project that has absorbed him for the past two years.

In some ways, the historical perspective came naturally to Barnett: He was raised with a keen awareness of the historical contributions of African Americans.

“The Barnetts are a pioneering family,” he noted proudly, pointing out that his paternal grandfather came to Washington state in 1888, when it was still a territory.

And Barnett’s father, the late Powell Barnett, was a respected Seattle civic leader and social activist. A recently renovated city park and playground on Martin Luther King Jr. Way, is named in his honor, in recognition of his service as the first president of the Leschi Improvement Council.

Barnett’s own pioneering efforts included producing nearly 50 plays at Black Arts/West, the Central District company he co-founded in 1969.

“That was during the heyday of the African-American theater, which was from the 1960s to about 1975,” said Barnett. “It was a great time, because we were finally producing plays from our own experience, our own history.”

After moving on from Black Arts/West, Barnett had a variety of jobs. He worked for the Seattle Arts Commission, and at Rochester, N.Y.’s Geva Theatre. And he recalls the excitement of being company manager of a national tour by the most prominent black theater to emerge in the 1960s, the illustrious Negro Ensemble Theatre.

When Hill (an old Seattle friend and author of the previous work, “Pages from the Harlem Renaissance”) invited him to co-author the book, Barnett was eager to include in it an array of lesser-known figures, along with superstars like Poitier and Denzel Washington.

“I think the book provides a great service that hasn’t been available,” said Barnett, “and I want to see it have widespread dissemination.”

To that end, he is trying to raise funds to send the encyclopedia (list price: $115) to every historically black college in the U.S.

The compendium reaches back to the early 19th century, when most African Americans were still enslaved, with substantive entries on such trailblazers as Ira Aldridge, a Shakespearean actor born in the U.S. in 1807. To find work he had to move to England, and later achieved success around Europe.

Another entry describes the 1856 work “The Escape; or a Leap for Freedom,” a semi-autobiographical melodrama by ex-slave William Wells Brown — listed here as the first published play by an African-American writer.

The book’s entries run up through the first decade of the 21st century, with entries on current, Pulitzer Prize-honored black dramatists such as Suzan-Lori Parks, Lynn Nottage and August Wilson, who at the time of his death in 2005 was Barnett’s Capitol Hill neighbor.

Since the 1980s, many once-vibrant black theaters have closed down, due to lack of funding and other factors. Barnett says he’d grown worried about the fate of African-American drama until he attended the biannual National Black Theatre Festival in Winston-Salem, N.C., in 2007.

“I was really pleased to see so many young people involved, and what they’re doing,” he recalled. “They gave me hope for the future. They gave me a lot of hope.”

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com

Copyright © The Seattle Times Company

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Written by Symphony

August 25, 2009 at 12:12 pm

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