During the s and s black Los Angeles produced dozens of cultural groupings that sought both to foster a new art and to generate a new relationship between creativity and community. These organizations were defined in part by their variety: theater companies like the Inner City Cultural Center and the Performing Arts Society of Los Angeles; community arts projects like the Mafundi Institute and St.
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Their reach extended beyond Watts and South Los Angeles, past the city limits even. Altadena sheltered early associations of black visual artists, and it was from Pasadena that Ridhiana Saunders produced the journal Nigger Uprising. These groupings encompassed visionary leaders and a mass base, generated furious debates and ideological positions, and participated in both critical moments and ongoing campaigns. In total, their reach and influence can be said to match or even surpass those of both mainstream civil rights organizations and radical nationalist formations.
For this reason, it is appropriate to consider the Black Arts Movement in Los Angeles as a social movement in its own right. If we heed Robin D. Kelley's acerbic reminder that the Black Arts Movement was not so much about "race riots and dashikis" but rather was "a self-conscious collective effort to promote. One might, for example, adopt an intergenerational frame, expanding the timeline to encompass everything from the work of prewar figures such as William Grant Still and Louise Beavers to the post contributions of the KAOS Network and the World Stage. One might choose to tell the story through the critical creative and organizational interventions of black women artists and activists such as Miriam Matthews, Ruth Waddy, Linda Hill, Jayne Cortez, Marla Gibbs, Ridhiana Saunders, and others.
One might select a particular figure whose trajectory illustrates the intersection between creativity, collectivity, solidarity, and hard work; Gibbs comes immediately to mind. One might explore how and why artists working in visual, dramatic, and musical media all saw abstraction as a means by which to develop racially coded work, thus producing an art unlike that typically favored by socially concerned artists. All of these approaches—and the short list above is hardly exclusive—acknowledge the scope and scale of what Roderick and Rozzell Sykes called "the art of creative survival.
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It traces the trajectories of a number of critical institutions and individuals, and explores what we gain by expanding our focus across genres and geographies, across ideologies and institutions. Perhaps more than any other artistic medium, theater highlights the tremendous variation present in the cultural activities of L. In each case, a specific vision of the relationship between the dramatic arts and the larger black community took hold.
The Ebony Showcase Theater sought to develop professional talent by utilizing all-black casts in mainstream and experimental plays written by white playwrights. The ICCC pioneered what would later be called "multiculturalism," seeing art as a tool for social inclusion and bringing black writers and performers into dialogue with Asian American and Mexican American actors, playwrights, and works.
PASLA founder Vantile Whitfield, by contrast, publicly identified his company with the cultural nationalist philosophy of Ron Maulana Karenga, while a singing troupe affiliated with the company performed as part of the Angela Is Happening benefit for imprisoned radical Angela Davis. In each case, the tripartite focus on creative control, community service, and innovative art was present.
At the same time, the differences in the philosophies and missions of these organizations, all flourishing alongside one another, meant that the local black community had distinct choices in terms of defining "black art" in the context of theater. Judged on its longevity, its influence, and the memories of its participants, the Ebony Showcase Theater stands out as a singularly successful institution.
Founded in by Nick and Edna Stewart, Ebony Showcase functioned to incubate theatrical talent for five decades, closing only in Its reach extended backward as well, linking almost a century of black expressive culture and connecting the Harlem Renaissance, midcentury modern, black arts, and postmovement cultural moments. The cultural milieu of Renaissance-era Harlem exercised a powerful pull on the young man, who abandoned his schooling—after all, he observed, "everybody with an education was a Pullman porter"—to work in the vaudeville circuit.
In trying to find ways to infuse menial characters with dignity, Stewart pursued a strategy common among black actors prior to the rise of the modern civil rights movement. This strategy might be seen as one component of what scholars term "racial uplift ideology," or the idea that assertions of black morality and steady economic progress could wear down white racism. Such a political position is evident in the Stewarts' vision of the Ebony Showcase Theater as a facility that would prepare black actors for the white roles from which they were excluded. As a result, during its first twenty years, with the exception of an important regularly televised talent show, the theater gave little active attention to showcasing works by black playwrights or seeking to develop a predominantly black audience for the plays it presented.
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Alfred Cannon, envisioned an organization dedicated less to helping prospective black actors succeed in Hollywood than to providing a creative outlet for the nonwhite communities of Los Angeles as a whole. Emerging from the embers of the Watts rebellion in , the ICCC would expand into a major partnership with Los Angeles schools; receive major infusions from philanthropic organizations; begin publishing a quarterly magazine; host minority playwrights from around the nation; and open a theatrical training institute that offered vocational, language including Japanese, Spanish, and Swahili , and movement arts classes.
Eventually, the ICCC would diversify into subsidiary institutes with specific missions, all housed in a newly renovated facility. By a cast of celebrity teachers and volunteers had been brought in, and the center was offering vocational certificates as well as associate's and bachelor's degrees in music, dance, and theater arts. A diverse board of directors was responsible for shaping the vision of the ICCC.
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Partially as a result of this diversity, regular ideological disputes broke out over the purpose and direction of the organization, as well as over play selections and the center's early insistence on hiring mixed casts that included blacks, whites, Asian Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans. During the inaugural season, one contentious decision was the hiring of a prominent white director from the East Coast to shepherd the institution, which had a stated commitment to providing art that would be relevant to black Los Angeles audiences in the aftermath of Watts.
Prominent white supporters, among them Gregory Peck, envisioned the theater as a means to expose African Americans to classic art so as "to affect positively the lives of the people in the minority and economically deprived areas. The complex and intriguing ICCC served as a mainstay of Los Angeles—area community arts activity for more than two decades. Ebony Showcase lasted more than forty years.
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Each institution trained hundreds of actors, set designers, and other theater personnel, and each obtained a national reputation and scope. By contrast, the Performing Arts Society of Los Angeles PASLA , founded by Vantile Whitfield in , closed after only eight years, and for most of its tenure remained a smallish outfit of about thirty people, more than half of whom had no previous dramatic experience.
In many of the early treatments of black arts activity during the s and s, theater and literature were taken as the two central areas of emphasis. Anthologies such as New Black Voices represent this general tendency, loading up on pieces dealing with poetry and drama to the detriment of dance and visual art.en.acyvawexus.tk
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This was part of a general paucity of works on the subject as whole. Writing in , David Lionel Smith lamented the lack of scholarship on the Black Arts Movement, noting that basic questions about origins, styles, locations, and trajectory awaited serious attention. Interestingly, much of this scholarship continues to treat the Black Arts Movement as a primarily literary phenomenon. James Smethurst's important and wide-ranging survey, for instance, is titled The Black Arts Movement: Literary Nationalism in the s and s. The reasons for this are hardly surprising, as writers were among the most vocal avatars of new black aesthetic sensibilities and were responsible for founding some of the Black Arts Movement's principal organizations.
Yet in the case of writing, Los Angeles stands apart from much of what we commonly think of as "black" writing during this time. Los Angeles produced a diverse literary landscape. The best-known project, of course, was the Watts Writers Workshop. Originally the brainchild of white screenwriter Budd Schulberg, it grew from a liberal effort to connect Watts "to what you might term the outside world" and to make it into a critical community cultural resource.
By , when internal debates over the nature and tone of members' writing caused an organizational split at the workshop, Los Angeles could increasingly boast a vital black literary scene, with poets and writers pursuing a broad range of creative idioms in a variety of venues. Nigger Uprising , for example, published local writers alongside reviews of black art shows at local galleries, updates on the Biafran civil war, and examinations of the political debates that divided local activists.
Black music has a long and distinguished history in Los Angeles. A local "Negro" Musicians' Union had existed since , and music instructors constituted a major percentage of the city's nascent black professional class in the years immediately before and after World War I. These teachers exercised a significant social and political influence, with figures such as John Gray, William Wilkins, and Genevieve Barnes Lewis teaching thousands of students, publishing regular columns in the Eagle and Sentinel , and generally working for the "uplift of the race.
Recalling the celebrated role of prewar Central Avenue only adds to the general picture.
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Imagine: today there are fewer than a dozen live music venues that cater to African Americans in all of South Los Angeles—an area larger than Manhattan. Six or seven decades ago, one could find that many clubs on a single block. It is small wonder, then, that the widespread political and creative mobilization that took place during the s would find strong expressions in the musical world. The duo began rehearsing together regularly in , ultimately developing a strong musical bond based in part on a shared insistence on challenging themselves and maintaining creative autonomy.
Both Carter and Bradford were dedicated experimentalists, eschewing the material of other composers in favor of original compositions. Carter saw this as basic to the group's creative process. Skip to Content.
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