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Building A Black Arts Community In North Carolina

Raleigh Little Theatre
Actors rehearse a production of 'Mirandy and Brother Wind' for Raleigh Little Theatre

In the last decade, there has been a surge of new work from African-American artists in the Triangle.

But they are still grappling with a limited number of platforms, especially in the performing arts. The amount of talent is booming, but the number of roles for African-Americans is not keeping up.

Now, a group of black artists in the Triangle is trying to bridge that gap through a forum that brings artists together with local entrepreneurs and art lovers who are craving new modes of expression.

Host Frank Stasio talks with Monet Noelle Marshall, artistic director of MOJOAA Performing Arts Company; JaMeeka Holloway-Burrell, artistic director of Black Ops Theatre; and Dasan Ahanu, founder of Black Poetry Theatre.

They will host the event, "The State of Black Arts Forum; Infusing Black Art in the Community," at the Farrison-Newton Building on the campus of North Carolina Central University tomorrow at 6 p.m.

Marshall has three hopes for the forum: networking between black artists, connecting black artists with the business sector in the Triangle, and inviting white allies to be included. One of the issues they hope to address is the idea of norms when it comes to theater and the world of art. 

“There is some cognitive dissonance about what art means to people and where they tend to interact with it,” Ahanu says. “It oftentimes is cultural.”

Holloway-Burrell says one of those norms is that theater has to occur in a large auditorium with a stage and 400-person seating. She and her Black Ops Theatre are interested in guerrilla theater, a form where actors perform spontaneously in neighborhoods.

Holloway-Burrell says when black people do have the opportunity to act, they shouldn’t be pigeon-holed into certain stereotypes.

“Black artists can play an array of characters,” Holloway-Burrell says. “We don’t have to be the drug dealer or the rapper. Our experiences extend way past that.”

Marshall says the idea that a black person playing Hamlet on stage would turn an audience off is wrong.

“We have shows about Peter Pan and people playing animals, and if we can believe people can play animals and do all these other things, why’s it so hard to believe a person of color can play a Danish prince?” Marshall says.

Too often in theater, Holloway-Burrell says, the color of the actor is more important than his or her talent.

“Never is it the ‘cake decorator’ who just happens to be black,” Holloway-Burrell says. “It’s always the ‘black cake decorator.’”

"Leaning into the uncomfortable conversations"

Marshall says art often becomes a safety net for people to escape from their daily lives. With MOJOAA, Marshall wants the uncomfortable play to show things like domestic violence or slavery.

“There is an importance to leaning into the uncomfortable conversations,” Marshall says. “If we don’t have them, how can we get past them?”

In September, MOJOAA will open an interactive piece on slavery. 

Will Michaels is WUNC's Weekend Host and Reporter.
Longtime NPR correspondent Frank Stasio was named permanent host of The State of Things in June 2006. A native of Buffalo, Frank has been in radio since the age of 19. He began his public radio career at WOI in Ames, Iowa, where he was a magazine show anchor and the station's News Director.
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