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The Bullcity Black Theater Festival Celebrates Black Art And Black Joy

photo of the back of an african american woman's head, facing a white woman across a table who is out of focus
Courtesy of Derrick Beasley

Throughout modern history the work of African-American artists has often been appropriated for the financial and cultural gain of those outside the black community. Black artists bare their souls to create provocative art, but their work is sometimes tokenized or categorized as being just "black art." At the Bullcity Black Theater Festival in Durham, black artists are challenging perceptions of their work through performances and community conversations. 

Host Frank Stasio speaks with two Durham-based artists participating in those conversations. Monét Noelle Marshall is a director, playwright, choreographer and art consultant whose latest performance piece “Buy My Soul And Call It Art” explores the valuation of black art. 

Credit Derrick Beasley
Monét Noelle Marshall's 'Buy My Soul And Call It Art' brings up issues of race in the art scene.

Thomas DeFrantz is a professor in the department of African and African American studies at Duke University and the director of SLIPPAGE, a research and performance group at Duke that will present a conversation at the festival about the framing and appropriation of black art. The festival runs through Sat. March 24 at Manbites Dog Theater in Durham.


Thomas DeFrantz on the expectations placed upon black artists:
There's kind of this teaching function that gets put upon black artists where we have to explain our work and explain the references and make sure that audiences are comfortable understanding them, but that's very tiresome.

Thomas DeFrantz on the history of black dance styles:
These dance forms [get] appropriated and transferred all over the world without reference to living, breathing black people. So the things the dances did when they were created become impossible to do in these other sites.

Thomas DeFrantz on black art as a social and political force:
The thing to understand, though, is that black art is entirely wrapped up in its social conditions. So black artistry in African-American performance, we don't have a distinction for art in this “art [for] art's sake.” We don't believe in that. So the art is always answering the social condition of the moment. It's always speaking through our relationships with our ancestors, our parents, our grandparents, our children, our neighbors, our lovers. So it's very much an art form that's built in relationship and creativity as expression, but not somehow sequestered from everyday life.

Monét Noelle Marshall on owning the label ‘black artist:’ 
I cannot separate my art expression from the fact that I'm a black woman raised on grits. Or that, you know, my art expression is built out of the black church – like I can't even parse out those things. So for me to not acknowledge those references would be disrespectful to that culture.

Monét Noelle Marshall on how black art is used in the global economy: 
Because we've commodified it, we can't separate it from the racial underpinnings of capitalism in our country. So even when when we want to say that: Well it's just art. That's actually a very dangerous statement, because then we're saying that I actually don't want to do the work to unpack how race and class and gender and sexual orientation and all of our socio-economic markers impact my relation to your art.

Monét Noelle Marshall on what’s lost when black art is commodified:
What often happens with popular art and popular culture is that really it's started in an underground way, and then it's almost like shifted and pulled and modified in enough ways so that when it gets to the top, Coca-Cola can use it to sell things ... The blackness or the root or the reference to what it actually was is taken away through that process. 


Laura Pellicer is a digital reporter with WUNC’s small but intrepid digital news team.
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.