Black theatre: Premise and presentation
By James El-Mallakh–
Two theatre directors held a town hall-format speech at U of L’s Thrust Theatre about race in the performing arts on Oct. 25.
Barbara and Carlton Molette are a husband and wife team, who both hold Ph.D.s and have taught drama at the college level. They have written and directed numerous plays including “Prudence” and their most recent play, “Presidential Timber.” They have written a book called “Black theatre: premise and presentation” which will be in its third edition. The Molettes centered their 14-minute speech around the fact that race is a social construct as opposed to a biological one.
“To appreciate African-American art, one must recognize and acknowledge the most pervasive and external force affecting the cultural perspective of African American artists: racism,” said Carlton Molette. “The core concept of racism is that the world is populated by people of different races.”
The Molettes’ speech read like a duet between the two, with each exchanging the floor to deliver their respective parts of the same speech. After the speech they had a question-and-answer session with the 16 members of the audience.
Several questions came from Hank Bullitt, a program assistant in the theatre arts department. Bullitt said, “I loved what you said about the social construct of racism verses bigotry … I find that in the general populace there is no real understanding of the difference between the two words … how do we reconcile that?”
“Whether we like it or not, it’s an evolutionary process,” said Molette. He explained that as races become more intertwined, and as race in an individual becomes harder to distinguish, people will put less significance on race. “People will have to come to grips with the fact that this term ‘race’ doesn’t mean anything,” Molette said.
The conversation about race in performing arts was initiated by Deana Thomas, the director of U of L’s African American Theatre Program. She said that some of her early performances during her career were not well received because of the approach that she took. She said that Black theatre is highly oriented to people’s emotions, “If you look at African Americans, that [emotional history of slavery] is the history of who they are and they respond to what has been happening to them.” Thomas said that “[African-Americans] are perceived as being too emotional and we’re told that more restraint is needed.”
Another comment came from William Flood, a graduate student in the theatre arts program, who said that he encountered difficulty in a traveling production of “The Wizard of Oz” when he was cast as the cowardly lion. Flood said that the color of his skin against the lion outfit made his skin look “orange,” which the acting company agreed was problematic. “Fortunately the director was on my side,” said Flood, an
d he was able to persuade the theatre company to introduce a new outfit that accommodated his skin tone.
During the question and answer session, Carlton Molette said that one of the misconceptions that inspired him to write his book with his wife was “the notion that black people do not know how to behave when they go to the theatre; they talk back. Both of my grandmothers used to talk back at church … so it started to dawn on me that maybe the problem is that Black folks, when they go to the theatre, it looks a lot like going to church. There’s somebody up there emoting and we’re sitting out here in the audience so maybe what we’re supposed to do is the same thing.”
The question-and-answer session lasted for more than an hour and was intimate due to the small audience size. The Molettes’ speech is one of two speeches hosted by the African American Theatre Program. The next will feature Kenny Leon, a Broadway and regional theatre actor who recently produced an all-black cast of “Steel Magnolias” for Lifetime TV. He will speak at the playhouse from 5 – 8 p.m. on Nov. 5.
Photos by Val Servino/The Louisville Cardinal