New Federal Theatre just ended its 2010 – 2011 season with Cool Blues, a play about the life of legendary jazz saxophonist and composer Charlie Parker. Its 2011 – 2012 season’s productions have yet to be announced, but theatergoers can look forward to more of the same: high-quality plays on Black life, written by new Black playwrights, especially women, and featuring Black actors and Black directors. As in the past, the upcoming season’s productions will be mounted at Henry Street Settlement’s Abrons Arts Center, located at 466 Grand Street in New York City.
The company operates with grants from the New York State Council on the Arts, National Endowment for the Arts and Shubert Foundation, and with contributions from numerous individuals. Under the leadership of founder and producer Woodie King Jr., New Federal Theatre has survived for 40 years and marked the occasion on May 22 with a gala at the city’s Edison Ballroom that attracted a who’s who of the stage and screen. Among them were Ruby Dee, George Faison, Danny Glover, Tommy Hicks, Alicia Keys, Spike Lee, Pia Lindstrom, S. Epatha Merkerson, Sidney Poitier, Robert Townsend, Lynn Whitfield, National Black Theatre Festival’s Sylvia Sprinkle-Hamlin and Mary Schmidt Campbell, dean of New York University’s world renowned Tisch School of the Arts New York.
In its four decades, NFT has presented 280 productions — at least one play a season — and countless free readings of new and established plays. The trend now, King says, are one-man or one-woman shows, such as Daniel Beaty’s Emergency and Through the Night, or shows on different “sheroes and heroes.” He recently spoke with TNJ about surviving at a time when Black theater companies are going out of business.
“With all the negative things happening in Black theater, you have to be able to foresee what will happen in the future to Black people, whether in Chicago, Detroit or Cleveland, then you can avoid running into the traps,” he says.
A huge setback for Black companies is the lack of coverage by the Black press. “If you are capable of doing plays and you’re not being reviewed by the local media in the Black community so that they can distribute information to audiences, then audiences dwindle,” King says. “In the 1960s, radio stations were letting people know. But today, no one can pay $300 a minute [for advertising] when you charge $25 a ticket. The means of getting information out there just no longer exists. You have to have the foresight to do mass emailing, and get white papers like The New York Times to come out. You try to find new ways to bring in new directors, playwrights, new costuming, you bring in new people and new blood.”
Industry changes in the past 40 years have hurt Black theater, King says, citing “an unbelievable influx of up-and-coming startup organizations” and larger Black theaters being “forced out of business.” Shifts in financing have been especially painful, he notes. “Funding that was earmarked for Black theaters and theaters of color has dwindled — cut and redistributed to Asian and gay and lesbian theaters, but the pie isn’t bigger so everybody gets a lot less.”
While NFT’s 40th anniversary gala was packed, it did not serve its intended purpose, King laments. “We wanted to make money to pay bills and produce two plays. We didn’t make any money, we got a lot of good will and publicity, but each person who attended cost us $145. No corporation underwrote what we did. We approached American Express, Ford Motor Co. and Coca Cola, and they turned us down.”
For information of NFT’s upcoming free play readings and the fall season, call 212-353-1176 or go to www.newfederaltheatre.org.