“Chitlin’ Circuit” by Everett Spruill
Black actors (Blacktors) and Black actresses (Blacktresses) have consistently been an under represented group in Hollywood and on the Silver Screen (television). Yet, while their plight may be similar to other people of color in Hollywood (Latinos playing thugs, Asians playing karate masters, “Middle Eastern” people playing terrorists…), what Blacktors and Blacktress’ end up doing for work outside of Hollywood is very fascinating and telling of ethnic-niche entertainment markets.
Since gaining mass popularity in the late 19th century, the ‘Theatre’ in America has been heavily segregated, particularly because of its inception in an already racialized cultural terrain and because of the perpetuation of racial segregation by those who owned theaters who would not let Black performers in their theaters, directors of plays who would not cast black members of casts, and writers who wrote racially insensitive material. This is not unlike Hollywood. But by the 1920s some of the only work a Black actor could get were minstrel shows performed primarily for white audiences. Others who did not or would not perform in minstrel shows sought self-definition, better yet, they carved out their own lanes. That lane was known as the “Chitlin’ Circuit” where Black written, produced, and directed stage plays could be seen and the venues were often Black owned, like the Howard Theater in Washington, D.C. which was one of the stops along this string of venues stretching from Jacksonville, FL to New York City’s Apollo Theater.
Black Urban Theatre: The Bougie way of Saying “Chitlin’ Circuit”
In 2004, Ebony featured an article about Tyler Perry asking: how did Tyler Perry go from homelessness to a $5 million dollar mansion? In the article, Perry says speaks to the criticism his work has received from “Blacks in traditional theater” and those Black people who feel his work “set back Blacks 500 years through minstrelsy.” Apparently, playwright August Wilson told him to “keep on doing what you’re doing… I don’t think it’s bad at all.” The article is of note because it gave some credibility to the use of the term “Black Urban Theater.” Tyler Perry is the most successful of a handful of big players in the Black Urban Theatre circuit. Emmbre Perry and Dan Garcia made one of their “hit” stage plays into a movie — God Send Me a Man (2009) and it starred Robin Givens. Well not really. They put her on the cover of the movie box, but her role is rather tangential.
The current environment for Black actors is simply this: if you’re looking for them, they’re likely in a Tyler Perry movie (or soon will be) or an “inspirational” stage play on the Black Urban Theatre circuit, or they’re avoiding both of those like the plague and taking the hard road by fighting for a few spots on the mostly white prime time line up.
If Tyler Perry brought people to Black Urban Theatre that were never there, then Je’Caryous Johnson’s work takes up where Tyler Perry left off and which stars every Blacktor and Blacktress you’ve not been able to find in years. For example Je’Caryous Johnson’s Love Overboard stars Khalil Kain, Carl Payne from Martin, and even Miguel Nunez who was Juwanna Mann.
So what’s the issue?
The work of Tyler Perry, Emmbrey Perry, and Je’Caryous Johnson all deal in the same tropes. There are undercurrents of sexism, heterosexism, homophobia, and a general lack a consciousness about issues of class, all of which are divisive and unhelpful to the African Americans individually and collectively. These plays and their authors are sometimes guilty of depoliticizing and individualizing issues which are systemic. So preoccupied with getting women married to the “right” man, they elide issues between men and women’s relationships with one another other than sex. Blaming the victim seems to run as an dominating theme in these plays, especially in God Send Me a Man. What’s interesteing about all of this, is that there are brilliant Black actors/resses, playwrights and authors out there who deserve to have their work appreciated by the same audiences giving there money to these plays that ain’t doing nothing for them. So… if you want to know which playwrights to really be on the lookout for, here are just a handful:
Tarell Alvin McCraney Lynn Nottage
Suzan-Lori Parks Katori Hall
Marcus Gardley Danai Gurira
Tracey Scott Wilson August Wilson
Ultimately, I have faith that racism can end and that internalized racism can be uprooted. We live with the consequences of the racialization of bodies in America, so rather than acting like race doesn’t exist, it is my hope we can begin to correct the mistakes of those who set up the hierarchical system that devalues both the physical existence of non-white bodies, but if we can channel creative force, our Kuumba — if put to use in resistance to systems which further bind us and separate us from one another along lines of color, race, faith, sexuality — then maybe, just maybe… we can do mo’ betta.