“Does Black theater matter?”

For decades the African American Theater Arts Troupe (AATAT) at UC Santa Cruz has elevated and centered Black roles in the arts. It serves as a springboard for generations of Black alum and students who vie for the opportunity to answer this question with a resounding yes. 

In celebration of its 30th anniversary, AATAT will be hosting a virtual workshop “Does Black Theater Matter?” on Feb. 21 to explore the idea of Black theater and its influence. AATAT faculty, alum, and current important figures in the Black theater community will speak at the event, after the organization’s 30th anniversary gala on Feb. 20

Workshop Panelists Include:
Carl Clay: Founder and executive producer of Black Spectrum Theatre in Queens NY.
Donald Williams: UCSC drama department lecturer and founder of AATAT at UCSC
Dr. Ethel Pitts-Walker: San Jose State University Professor in the department of Film and Media. Founding president of Black Theatre Network.
Eileen Morris: Artistic director of the Ensemble Theatre in Houston TX. Actress, educator, and director.
Antonio Glass (MC): Alumnus of UCSC and AATAT. Director of Photography at Rolex retailer in DTLA

“[Black theater] talks about and dissects various issues that we have to deal with in such a way that we can all see it,” said UCSC AATAT director and founder, Don Williams. “It is a reflection of who we are, so for people to be able to hear that and hear conversations around that kind of issue and life patterns that we [all] have, we all grow from it, and we all take something away from it.” 

Williams brought this panel together to teach the community the importance of the Black theater movement.

The movement began in the mid-1960s in New York City. The movement, revolving around theater made by and for Black people, came alongside the Black Power movement and missing Black representation in mainstream theater.

AATAT alumnus Antonio Glass will be joining the panel, serving as the Master of Ceremonies for the workshop. He began his journey with AATAT and Rainbow Theatre in the winter of 2007 before graduating in 2011.

Glass compared his experience in theater to being on a spinning theme park ride – it is scary and exciting, but you are in it with the people around you. 

“Growing up, we’re told all these stories that have nothing to do with us,” Glass said. “There are so many stories that haven’t been told, and that’s AATAT and Rainbow Theatre — they’re telling stories.”

Glass worked on and directed shows at UCSC such as “The Who & The What” by Ayad Akhtar. He received his master’s degree in acting from the University of Missouri, Kansas City.

Alongside Glass and Williams, each panelist brings experience from the entertainment world. 

Panelist Carl Clay is the founder and current executive producer of Black Spectrum Theater in Queens, New York. Since 1970, the theater has been dedicated to producing productions that center the Black perspective.

Clay met Williams at a Black theater festival in 2015. He said they connected over their love for their work and their own experiences of marginalization in the academic and entertainment world.

Clay said it’s important to know the people in this industry who are dedicated to the tradition and history of African American theater, rather than those who are just in it for the money. He said building relationships with these people helps artists know that they aren’t alone, since the ‘mainstream’ theater world does not uplift Black voices as it does for others.

Carl Clay. Photo courtesy of Carl Clay.

“Coming together in these kinds of forums is a way to show that you have allies,” Clay said. “They’re out there to act as a shoulder to cry on or as a place to bounce ideas off of or just simply a place to uphold your work. These other environments, where this word ‘mainstream’ is used to identify the ecosystem for American theater, these ecosystems are completely different.”

Sunday’s workshop will provide an opportunity for participants to ask questions, hear from Black theater professionals, and gain insight into the history and significance of Black theater. The event will highlight the importance of non-standard theater in uplifting marginalized voices.  

Clay said that theater flourishes when actors, writers, and production companies believe in the value of their originality, making room for new perspectives to be seen. 

“[It is] just real enough that it goes beyond scratching the surface and goes into our souls and into our blood,” Clay said. “That resonates and helps people, and helps to change the world and make it a better place.”

The workshop will take place virtually on Feb. 21 from 4:00 to 6:00 p.m. and is open to the public. Register for the event here along with the Feb. 20 gala.