Black Arts Legacies: Defining theater, past and future

The theater has always been an important part of how Black communities narrate their history, beliefs, values, hopes and dreams. Throughout the massive shifts that Seattle’s Black population has experienced — from the huge influx of Black people from the South in the 1930s and ’40s in search of opportunities to the steady decline of the in-city Black population beginning in the 1990s — Black presence has been emphasized in theater groups like the Negro Repertory Company, Black Arts/West, The Hansberry Project and CD Forum.

Douglas Quinton Barnett (1931-2019) and Sharon Nyree Williams (b. 1975) represent the history and future of Black theater in Seattle — and in the historically Black Central District neighborhood in particular.

Barnett was a third-generation Seattleite who worked at the U.S. Post Office before pursuing his dream of making theater. His work in the 1960s and ’70s as an actor, producer and playwright was the product of a nationwide effort to link Black empowerment to economic initiatives (such as President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty) and cultural initiatives like performing arts programs. His pioneering Seattle theater company — Black Arts/West, founded in 1969 — grew out of his work with the Central Area Motivation Program, or CAMP, a community-led project that aimed to address poverty amidst the political, social and economic unrest of the 1960s.

Person in black and white photo wearing leather jacket, sunglasses and sporting a beardPerson in black and white photo wearing leather jacket, sunglasses and sporting a beard
Douglas Q. Barnett in Seattle, April 5, 1970 (Courtesy of MOHAI, 2000.107.014.21.01)

As a division of CAMP, Black Arts/West staged productions about race relations (such as LeRoi Jones’ play Dutchman, in 1969), damaging stereotypes, poverty, drugs and politics. Often, the company told stories about coming into an empowered Black consciousness, as when it staged Derek Walcott’s play Dream on Monkey Mountain (1971).

Barnett saw the theater as part of a larger effort to create opportunities for Black people to thrive. Black Arts/West had training programs for actors, dancers and playwrights — and also did prison outreach — while staging upwards of eight plays a year. Barnett died in 2019, and in 2020, a street sign commemorating his contributions was erected in Madrona, where Black Arts/West was housed.

Sharon Nyree Williams continues this work, as a Black theater artist and storyteller, and also as executive director of the Central District Forum for Arts and Ideas. “We present, produce [and] help develop Black artists,” she says of the CD Forum, housed in the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute. “It’s not about just putting work on the stage — it’s also about helping them through the process and really developing their body and their practice as artists.”

Person in front of black screen in a church-like environmentPerson in front of black screen in a church-like environment
Sharon Nyree Williams poses for a photo at the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Seattle’s Central District. Williams got her start as a performer singing and speaking in Black churches when she was young. (Meron Menghistab for Crosscut)

The CD Forum was founded in 1999 by Stephanie Ellis-Smith. Since Williams took the helm in 2013, programming has included “Sunday Dinners” with theater director Valerie Curtis-Newton; “Showing Out,” a Black choreography festival; the Kitchen Sessions featuring performances by female and nonbinary artists; and the Intimate Conversations video series pairing choreographer Dani Tirrell with artists from around the country.

In addition to fostering Black community via her work at the CD Forum — and in the conversations she hosts in her art series Shakin’ Shit Up — Williams has a vibrant solo practice as a poet and storyteller. The volume Dare to Claim the Sky (2018) collects her writing, and her album Shook (2020) is a sonic experiment that blends spoken word and music. But for Williams, solo work is part of a collective: “We have to create these opportunities … that bring us together. We need to know that there’s somewhere that we can come and be and look around and see our beauty.”

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