Dialogue Summer 2018: Black Arts Initiative

Black Arts Initiative: Inclusivity, Art, and Community

By Cara Lockwood

Over the last two decades the School of Communication has identified and implemented a key strategic goal: nurturing innovation, computation, and global visibility among students and faculty. A large component of this plan is creating a more connected community, one that reflects the school’s global reach and that values inclusivity and representation.

The School of Communication faculty is increasingly diverse—racially, ethnically, and in research focus—and the student body craves curricula that explore underrepresented stories. Providing opportunities for learning communities to collaborate, create, and celebrate art has been a hallmark of this key strategic goal’s realization and is the seed from which many of the school’s successful projects grow. The Black Arts Initiative is one such success story.

When E. Patrick Johnson first arrived at Northwestern in 2000, he found a number of faculty, students, and staff working in the black arts, but mostly in silos. As the University kicked off its We Will fundraising campaign in 2011, Johnson capitalized on an opportunity to unify these independent voices, submitting a proposal for what would later become the Black Arts Initiative (BAI).

“Because of my own interdisciplinary research and practice, I wanted to find a way to connect with other folks across campus,” says Johnson, the Carlos Montezuma Professor of Performance Studies and African American Studies. “The Black Arts Initiative launched in spring 2012 to address several needs: the existence of a critical mass of faculty and students at Northwestern pursuing research and artistry within the black arts; the need for a productive way to bring these scholars together; and a desire for cross-departmental and cross-school collaboration.”

Since its inception, BAI has held three conferences, bringing together a multitude of artists, performers, and scholars to discuss black arts, trends, and the future of expression on film, stage, screen, and paper. BAI also offers special opportunities for students, scholars, and performers to connect—more so than is common for African American groups at other universities—and does so by reinforcing its four-pronged mission: research, pedagogy, practice, and civic engagement.

“The program has grown enormously in terms of its impact on campus and in the community,” says Johnson. “We have also expanded programming to include more collaborations with students and student groups, including a student-curated film series that examines issues of race relations. We hope to expand BAI to add more collaborations with international institutions, including a summer institute and artist-in-residency program.”

The group’s 2018 sponsored events included a Black Arts in the City performance of BLKS at Steppenwolf Theatre Company; a lecture series featuring Brown University’s Jasmine Johnson, an expert on black movement politics; “Reggaeton’s Queer Turn,” a brown-bag-lunch lecture by performance studies chair Ramón H. Rivera-Servera; and “South Africa on Stage,” a cosponsored performance festival.

Last fall BAI hosted “Black Arts International: Temporalities and Territories,” its third biennial conference—sponsored by the Lambert Family Conference gift, which is funded by a generous donation from Bill and Sheila Lambert. The event drew a diverse mix of professionals and scholars (including Tarell Alvin McCraney, who penned the source material for the Academy Award–winning film Moonlight) to tell stories, share experiences, and tackle complicated questions: How has history shaped black artistic production outside the US? How do non- Western forms of black art disrupt concepts of time and space? How might we conceive of black diasporic artistic forms outside a US context? How does the valuation of black art change within a global context?

“Given the hostile political climate in which we currently live, art is one of the key sites for social change,” says Johnson. “Theatre, film, literature, visual art, and music are all forms that provide a platform for marginalized people to offer counternarratives about what it means to be a citizen of the world. Given their particular history as a group of people, black artists around the world have been exemplary in proving this point. More than just creating art as a form of resistance, however, black artists also create art as a form of creative expression that exists on its own terms—as art.”

Steadfast leadership

Huey Copeland—associate professor of art history, faculty affiliate in the Department of African American Studies, and a BAI advisory board member who has played an active role in the organization—credits its success to Johnson’s peerless guidance.

“E. Patrick Johnson has been a phenomenal leader,” says Copeland. “He’s someone who has an amazing energy and passion, and he’s such a good advocate for the black arts. He’s not just a leader in the arts, but he’s also a professor in the African American studies department and has worked with gender studies as well. When we approach black arts, we can’t really do it in a vacuum, and Patrick understands this, because he’s already engaging black arts in a holistic way.”

Ivy Wilson, associate professor of English with a joint appointment in communication studies, teaches courses on US literary studies and the comparative literatures of the black diaspora, with particular emphasis on African American culture. A BAI advisory board member since its inception, he says Johnson’s democratic leadership style helped the initiative grow.

“One of the hallmarks of Patrick’s leadership is how attentively he listens as a matter of transparency and democracy. He also has subtle ways of building buy-in from all of BAI’s advocates and participants,” says Wilson. “Patrick was the principal investor of BAI, yet he’s never said it’s been his vision alone; it’s a shared and collaborative process.”

Citing BAI’s significant impact in bringing together students, researchers, and professors from across the campus and community, Wilson says, “This initiative is so important because it’s given Northwestern the centrality of black artists across multiple schools, including the phenomenal work done in the Department of Performance Studies, and it’s given both scholars and practitioners a way to share a platform of conversation and dialogue. That platform extends from undergraduate teaching and experiential learning to faculty research.”

Such collaboration across disciplines and schools could lead to new discoveries. “A few of us have been talking about collaborative research and teaching modules, where faculty in literature, art theory and practice, and music may work with a poet or playwright,” he says. “We’re exploring ways the University can support not just joint teaching but also collaborative research.”

A strengthening force

Wilson sees BAI as bringing visibility to the University.

“I’d love to see more collaborations on the city, national, and international levels, because what we already have here at Northwestern is a fantastic center for the exploration and study of black arts,” he says. “We’re really helping to create the next generation of scholars, makers, and doers.” In remarks preceding the fall BAI conference’s keynote address by Harvard professor Homi Bhabha, Northwestern provost Jonathan Holloway praised Johnson’s efforts to bring BAI to life. Having known Johnson professionally for 20 years, Holloway is especially happy to support BAI and its work.

“We do this because it’s the right thing to do,” he said. “I salute all of you for being here for this important work. … Let’s look at the world with all of its complexity and through a lens that’s expansive and not limited. I’m a historian by training, but I’ve learned that being a historian is not enough. We have to ask questions that an artist would ask, that a sociologist would ask, that a film critic would ask…Teaching in new ways for a new future [is] the hope I have for this gathering. It’s a signpost for possibility.”

Miriam Petty, associate professor of radio/television/film and another BAI board member, said that BAI’s work to give voice to those who historically have been disenfranchised is essential collaborative activity that must continue.

“When we don’t tell a full story of this country, then we get moments like the one we’re in right now, culturally,” she said. “By continuing to myth-make about what the country is or has been, we don’t do ourselves or anyone else any favors.

“Take the #MeToo movement that’s coming out of Hollywood and so many other quarters right now,” she continues. “Those stories about institutional gender discrimination and abuse are incredibly old and are deeply rooted in uncomfortable truths about America. Stories about egregious imbalances of power—of race, of gender, of sexuality, of class—permeate not just Hollywood but the country in general. And ignoring those stories hasn’t made them go away. Telling them won’t necessarily make them go away either, but it can help us be more equipped to deal with them in a real and meaningful way when they do come out.”

Wilson hopes that other institutions will look to BAI as the blueprint for bringing groups together to tackle complicated issues.

“I think the model that has been created by BAI can help other institutions in Chicago think about the arts,” he says. “It’s not just the Arts Circle on Northwestern’s campus, but how a group of practitioners and students and scholars curious about and invested in black arts can provide each other with different models for how other arts-based institutions can collaborate.”

Hoping that BAI continues to grow and connect more artists and scholars, Johnson believes it’s more important than ever that the University and other institutions invest in providing a platform for diverse voices.

“In a time when funding for the arts is being curtailed and a relentless wave of cultural conservatism rules the day, it is vital that institutions like Northwestern double down on their values of creating a space for diverse expression as well as sharing the bounty of resources they have been afforded by supporting those who may not have the same kind of access,” he says. “Today more than ever, underrepresented voices need a platform to be heard.”


Northwestern’s history of black students in theatre is at once complicated, fascinating, and problematic. With the assistance of University Archives, second-year interdisciplinary theatre and drama PhD candidate Gabby Randle highlights notable students and the societal climates in which they studied and performed.

African American students and alumni have been a documented part of Northwestern’s theatre community for nearly a century, and they have played a crucial role in the success of some of the University’s most treasured traditions. From Waa-Mu to Winifred Ward’s Children’s Theatre of Evanston, black students in the School of Speech (now the School of Communication) helped shape the emerging culture of theatrical production at Northwestern and, in turn, the world.

Robert Dunmore in the 1930 Syllabus photo of Delta Epsilon professional fraternity

Though black students were working on and in campus theatre productions from as early as 1927, an integrated stage was a complicated reality. The Northwestern University Archives show that the earliest black performers found success through their experiences at Northwestern—and sometimes in spite of it. Barred from much of campus social life (such as prom and other coed social functions), they made communities of their own, performing in Evanston, in Chicago’s Loop, and eventually in New York City and Europe.

Robert Dunmore was one of the first African American graduates of the School of Speech’s dramatics program. After the Chicago native earned his Northwestern degree in 1930, he went on to work as an actor, playwright, and director. Although as a recent alumnus Dunmore continued to appear on Northwestern stages, he also became involved in the Harlem Experimental Theatre and the Negro Little Theatre of Evanston.

Dunmore initially became involved in University theatre as a crew member on a 1927 production. He first appeared onstage on April 10, 1929, in the Town and Gown Playhouse production of Quagmire by School of Speech student Anne Frierson, who drew on her upbringing in South Carolina and the Gullah community living near her family. A narrative indicative of its time, the play tells the story of an archetypal “tragic mulatto,” a young woman trapped between the civilized nature of her whiteness and the savagery of her blackness. The play employed over 30 black actors from Evanston and Chicago; Dunmore was cast in a principal role as “Black Boy Ben” (later billed “Big Boy Ben”). Although by coincidence Quagmire premiered the same night as the very first Waa-Mu Show, it sold out to capacity crowds for three nights in Annie May Swift Hall’s theater.

At Northwestern, Dunmore played Brutus Jones—the title character in Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones —no less than four times: twice in 1929, again in 1933, and once more in 1939. In both 1929 productions, 25 School of Speech students made up the rest of the cast, with white students playing the roles of convicts, slaves, native revolutionaries, and planters.

In November 1929, Dunmore starred in a children’s theatre version of Aladdin. The following March he finished first among all speech seniors in the school’s dramatic poetry reading contest, and just before graduation in May he led a cast of almost 500 in celebrating the 75th anniversary of Garrett Seminary. In little over a year, his star power at Northwestern had soared; but after graduating, Dunmore had trouble finding acting work in the midst of the Great Depression. He then tried playwriting, cowriting Romey & Julie, an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet centering on two Harlem families, one black and the other West Indian. It played in Hyde Park’s Ridgeway Theatre as part of the Federal Negro Theater Project and featured Kelsey Pharr, a black School of Speech student from Miami whose father, Kelsey Pharr Sr., was a well-known civil rights leader.

Pharr entered the School of Speech as a 16-year-old in 1933, the same year as Mary Louise Foster (sometimes billed as Louise Foster). The two costarred in multiple campus productions with alumnus Dunmore, including a 1934 children’s theatre production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin directed by Winifred Ward.

In 1937 the three actors appeared onstage together again in graduate student Albert Randall Crews’s master’s thesis, Let My People Go. (Crews went on to a prolific career at NBC Radio.) The Daily Northwestern ran a review by Charles Nelson praising the show: “I never saw a better coordinated group of actors of any race.” He was especially complimentary to one actor: “Robert Dunmore dominates the entire action, turning in the sincere, well-rounded performance that has come to be expected of him.”

Nelson goes on to give an interesting critique of Foster’s performance, betraying the slippery nature of racial formation during that era: “Louise Foster as the ill-fated heroine does a great deal to adjust herself to a role to which she is not especially suited. La Foster belongs in no pedestrian role: she is an exotic, and as such is above race.”

Pharr and Foster were the breakout stars of the 1937 Waa-Mu Show, Don’t Look Now. Pharr also was a lead vocalist in the 1939 show Guess Again! Foster went on to a stage career in Chicago, and Kelsey Pharr became an international star as a member of a popular vocal group, the Delta Rhythm Boys.

Mirroring the conservative climate of the country, the number of black actors on Northwestern stages dropped significantly through the 1940s and ’50s—with the notable exception of William Branch, later a producer, actor, screenwriter, and Guggenheim Award–winning playwright. Fittingly, worldwide student activism in the ’60s extended to black students on Northwestern’s campus, bringing diversity back to campus theatre.

In 1967 dancer and School of Speech student Ernest Morgan appeared in the Waa-Mu Show and as the only male dancer in Northwestern’s Orchesis dance concert, where he danced the solo “Wounded Bird.” Black Folks Theatre (BFT), a satellite of the black student group For Members Only, was founded in 1970 to provide black students—especially those in theatre—with opportunities to produce, perform, and support black plays.

From 1970 to 1975 most plays that the group produced were student written. In 1972 School of Speech first-year student Renee Ward led a group of 25 black students to Joliet Prison to perform for the inmates. In 1978 BFT was at risk of being absorbed into a larger student theatre group but successfully advocated for the importance of its specific role on campus. BFT also coproduced work with the Northwestern theatre department.

During the 1980s theatre professor Phyllis Griffin helped advocate for students of color, especially for expanded options in casting. In 1983 she directed Sam Shepard’s Buried Child, casting a black woman and a Japanese American man in lead roles traditionally cast as white. Griffin also worked as a production supervisor for many student productions. Harry Lennix a 1986 graduate now known for his work in Hollywood (including The Blacklist and Batman vs. Superman), was an active School of Speech student and the president of For Members Only.

In collaboration with actor and student leader John Marshall Jones, who graduated in 1984, Lennix oversaw the name change of Black Folks Theatre to African American Theatre Ensemble. Jones also lobbied the University to produce Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, and the production was ahuge success. He has gone on to a career boasting nearly 100 high-profile film and television credits.

Today’s black theatre students share many of the same experiences as their predecessors. There is warmth and community, but there are also struggles. Central concerns among students include limited access to roles and the perceived burden for those who are cast to represent black students well so that more will be cast in the future.


Assistant professor of communication studies Aymar Jean Christian seeks to offer diverse voices to a wider audience through his OTV|Open Television platform. One of the first series he helped launch, Brown Girls, was nominated for an Emmy in 2017 and subsequently picked up by HBO.

“When I was researching the web TV market, I saw tons of innovation, but there weren’t many independent distributors focused on intersectional voices,” says Christian, who turned that research into a book. “Intersectionality, rooted in black feminism, provides a way for people who have multiple identities to create a platform that values folks marginalized by race, class, sexuality, and on and on.”

Christian sees OTV as a way to overcome traditional barriers raised by TV and cable. “A lot of these institutions like TV and film weren’t built to be democratic and open; they were built to be restrictive,” he says. “Many people in Hollywood have sincere interest in diversifying programming, but to solidify the deal, to actually get shows sold, they have to go by these very traditional metrics of worth. For instance, they ask: Are you represented by a leading talent agency or management company? Do you have credits? Have you worked on shows beforehand? Played at festivals? All of those metrics are reliant on decades of discrimination. We live in a segregated society, and all of our systems are discriminatory.”

** Friends and Northwestern graduates Morgan Elise Johnson (C11), Tiffany Walden (J11, GJ12), and David Elutilo (WCAS14) were similarly dismayed by this culture of creative discrimination. So, like Aymar Jean Christian, they did something about it.

“The TRiiBE is a platform and movement for black millennials to take back the narrative of Chicago,” says Johnson. “We realized that there is a void of creative content focused on stories depicting the Chicago that we’ve experienced as black women. We hoped to build a platform to help black millennials share stories, events, and ideas under one united entity, the TRiiBE.”

The TRiiBe began as a passion project that the creators self-funded before winning a 2017 Chicago Filmmakers Digital Production Fund grant last August. The project was officially launched the following February. Johnson, who was a radio/television/ film major, says now is the time to “share these stories about Chicago through a black lens,” lest history be lost—a legitimate fear in a volatile political climate. “Not only do we have to showcase traditionally underrepresented stories, but we have to own these stories so that they can’t be stolen or erased.”

** As Miriam Petty, associate professor of radio/television/film, embarked on the project that resulted in her award-winning book Stealing the Show: African American Performers and Audiences in 1930s Hollywood, she found that she hadto rely on nontraditional research methodsto discover answers to her questions.

Petty was especially curious how Bill “Bojangles” Robinson was perceived by black children, but children of color were never a focus of the era’s social scientists. So she took a step back and read autobiographies and memoirs by African American adults who had consumed media in the 1930s as children.

“It’s partially about creating knowledge where it might seem that there’s nothing to find,” she says. “And creating it out of trace elements, or trace deposits of information. It means researching around the edges of the known archive and bringing what you find into the center.”

Petty is currently working on a project about filmmaker Tyler Perry, star of the Madea franchise, “Here, as in Stealing the Show, I’m really interested in the spectatorship of black audiences, especially because Perry is so polarizing. People either love him or hate him. At the same time, there are certain elements of African American history and culture that he always plays with and engages, and that’s a central part of his popularity. I’m also thoughtful about the extent to which he is affected by this burden of representation he ends up carrying.”

** Tsehaye Geralyn Hébert (C86) has tackled representation through playwriting, touching both the black experience and the disabled community. In 2015 Hébert won the Alliance/Kendedad National Graduate Playwriting Award for The C.A. Lyons Project, about an African American choreographer from Chicago and the choices he must make after his AIDS diagnosis.

As she was working on the play, which debuted at Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre, Hébert fell gravely ill with critical organ failure that left her in a monthlong coma. She recovered but suffered from muscle atrophy, requiring a wheelchair, then a walker, and later a cane to help her move around. The experience enlightened her.

“I believe passionately that the American stage should look like America—19 percent of Americans are disabled, yet we don’t see enough people with disabilities onstage,” she says. “When we don’t include these stories, we have a false narrative about our country.”

As she returned to writing, she could barely hold a pencil. But as her healing progressed, she incorporated an advocate’s sensibilities into the production: part of the play, for example, is told in sign language, which immediately expanded its audience to include the hearing impaired.

“We need to widen the narrative,” adds Hébert. “It’s not about competing narratives or one being dominant over the other. There’s a place for everyone’s story onstage.”


Black student voices highlighted at second annual playwriting event

It began with a rousing call and response. “Black lives,” called the presenter. “Black words,” answered the audience. “Black lives,” said the presenter. “Matter,” the audience finished. Cheers and applause filled the room, setting the stage for a bevy of talented black artists to tell their stories.

Do black lives matter? The question was posed to black student playwrights last winter at a School of Communication workshop for the campus’s second annual Black Lives, Black Words event. Students had a single month to write, edit, cast, and rehearse their original 10-minute plays for staged readings on February 26 in the Ethel M. Barber Theater. The playwriting was coordinated and mentored by senior lecturer Laura Schellhardt.

“It’s my favorite event of the year,” said senior theatre major Allie Woodson (C18), who coproduced the show two years in a row in addition to writing, directing, and acting. “Last year it was so new, so we had fewer writers. It was still powerful but more specifically related to the question ‘Do black lives matter?’”

This year the question was taken further, in a less literal way. Plays tackled microaggressions, colorism, interracial relationships, personal spiritual reckonings, toxic masculinity, and more, laced with pop culture references and startling moments of vulnerability. About a dozen student writers participated.

The event was a collaboration between the international Black Lives, Black Words organization, the School of Communication, and the Theta Alpha chapter of Delta Sigma Theta sorority. The BLBW organization releases anthologies of its affiliated works, including these Northwestern performances. —Mira Wang (J18)