Charity Spotlight: The Making of a Movement

Share
Posted By on February 6, 2020

The Black Theatre Troupe is doing some of the community’s most vital theater

THE STORY

            The Black Theatre Troupe began as a way to alleviate some of the racial tensions of the late 1960s and early 70s that were brewing in most major U.S. cities. In an effort to serve the community, Helen K. Mason, a supervisor in the City of Phoenix Parks and Recreation Department, was asked to design and implement a program that might head off the riots that had plagued other cities.

            What started as a series of open-door “rap sessions” for minorities blossomed into an inclusive theater troupe that has gone on to play an essential role in Phoenix’s development. “It was formed on a platform of activism and a belief that it was important to share the African-American experience,” said David Hemphill, the executive director of Black Theatre Troupe. “It is also a notable bridge to unite all cultures through stories — all of the company’s productions have universal themes and appeal.”

            Today, this respected professional theater company continues both to promote excellence in the performing arts and provide opportunities for people of color. The only professional African-American theater company within the four-corner states, the Black Theatre Troupe conducts educational workshops and produces plays that reflect the African-American experience.

            “Without our company and the productions we present, many artists of color would not have many — or in some cases, any — outlets or platforms to develop their skills and talents,” Hemphill said. “Black Theatre Troupe is the place where people of color can ‘see themselves’ onstage and feel secure in having those same aspirations.”

THE CAUSE

            All of Black Theatre Troupe’s programs are community-based and encourage community participation and educational development. “Our training programs give all that are interested the opportunity to pursue their dreams. They are able to learn and hone their skills to become proficient and competitive performers,” Hemphill said.

            Still, many people outside the black community ask Hemphill why they only do “black plays with black performers.” To which he has a ready answer. “It is imperative that they remember that the black experience in America has been and continues to be influenced by many different cultures. This impact is reflected by our performing many works, like our current production ‘Trouble in Mind,’ which has an ethnically diverse cast,” he said.

            One production that is a mainstay of Valley theater is the company’s annual production of “Black Nativity,” written by Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes. “It has become the Black Theatre Troupe’s holiday card to the community,” Hemphill said. “It’s performed at a time of year when we’re all looking for something to lift our spirits and help us feel the joy of the season. For many African-American arts organizations around the country, it has become as popular and meaningful a holiday tradition as ‘A Christmas Carol’ or ‘The Nutcracker.’”

THE FUTURE

            2020 will mark the kickoff to Black Theatre Troupe’s 50th year, a time for the company to reflect on its roots while looking ahead to its future. As the fifth-largest city in the country, Phoenix needs Black Theatre Troupe more than ever. “With the large influx of people coming to Phoenix from other areas of the country — and most of them from cities that have a vibrant and diverse arts scene — the power of diversity must be at the forefront of what a great city has to offer,” Hemphill said.

            And so, Black Theatre Troupe is doing all that it can to focus on sustainability so that it can remain a significant piece of the city’s cultural fabric for future generations. “This can only happen by concentrating on the financial stability of the group for the next 50 years,” Hemphill said. “It is our goal to expand our programs and grow our audiences and supporters.”

            Luckily, Black Theatre Troupe has a strong base of support, which Hemphill attributes to the troupe’s ability to stay true to its mission and share the experiences of a culture.

            But to those who haven’t seen a Black Theatre Troupe production, Hemphill issues this promise. “They will not only be entertained, but they will also be able to learn and understand the power of the arts to shape a community and change minds. They will see some of the country’s most courageous and powerful theater.”

            To learn more, visit blacktheatretroupe.org.

Karen Werner

About Karen Werner

Karen Werner is the editor of Frontdoors Media. She is a writer, editor and media consultant. She has interned at The New Yorker, worked at Parents Magazine, edited five books and founded several local magazines. Her work has appeared in Sunset, Mental Floss and the Saturday Evening Post.