While theatre at William & Mary is nearing its 100th anniversary, the history of the African American presence on the mainstage is much more recent – and much less known.

As an alumnus and faculty member, Professor of Theatre and Africana Studies Omiyẹmi (Artisia) Green ’00 has both witnessed and played a significant role in shaping that history. Now, she is working to develop a comprehensive historical narrative through archival research and interviews with other key figures.

Professor of Theatre and Africana Studies Omiyẹmi (Artisia) Green ’00
Throughout the years, Professor of Theatre and Africana Studies Omiyẹmi (Artisia) Green ’00 has helped lead a significant evolution of both W&M’s theatre curriculum and productions. (Photo by Tyneka Flythe)

Green will share what she has discovered in the spring 2024 Tack Faculty Lecture, “A History of African American Theatre & Black Theater at William & Mary.” Scheduled for March 6 at 7 p.m. in the Glenn Close Theatre of Phi Beta Kappa Memorial Hall, the lecture will also cover the differences between African American theatre and Black theater (with theater/theatre intentionally spelled differently) and the incorporation of both into the William & Mary curriculum. The event is free and open to the public with a reception to follow. Attendees are asked to RSVP.

This will be the first public lecture given in Phi Beta Kappa Memorial Hall since it reopened last fall following renovations. As the theatre department settles into its new space and the university continues its celebration of the Year of the Arts, Green says that now is the perfect – and necessary – time to capture this aspect of the university’s history.

“This is the second memorial to the original Phi Beta Kappa Hall. With each new building, graduating class, retirement, death or departure of a contributing faculty member, we lose a bit more of the historical narrative,” said Green. “When I interviewed Dr. Omi Osun Joni L. Jones, the first Black faculty member hired within the department, she reiterated the importance of recording history, ‘because it fades away.’ Somebody should tell this story.

During William & Mary’s Charter Day ceremony earlier this month, Secretary of the Smithsonian Lonnie B. Bunch said that “the embrace of African American history and Native American history is central to understanding who William & Mary is,” Green noted.

“The movement and pause in African American theatre and Black theater initiatives are part of William & Mary’s history,” she said. “As we near a century of progress in William & Mary Theatre it is the perfect time to devise action steps to build on the legacy of students and faculty who’ve endeavored to position this institution as a viable and affirming artistic home for all students — but especially Black students — interested in the performing arts.”

African American theatre and Black theater

There’s a significant difference between African American theatre and Black theater, said Green, and — to quote playwright Dominic Taylor — calling one the other is like calling a dog a cat.

African American theatre may be about realities of African American life: slavery, integration, discriminatory housing practices, racialized oppression or police brutality, said Green.

“These are lived and painful realities for many Black people, and these are all themes engaged in work on and off the William & Mary mainstage,” she said. “As Taylor argues in his essay, ‘Don’t Call African American Theatre Black Theatre,’ African American theatre builds a play around this type of data that does nothing to ‘set the world right’ for Black audiences or raise its consciousness. This is one way to distinguish the form from Black theater.”

Black theater, according to author W.E.B. DuBois, should be by, for, about and near Black people. Throughout the 20th century, Black critics and practitioners such as Alain Locke, Amiri Baraka, Larry Neal and Paul Carter Harrison expanded on this early definition with clearer aesthetic markers for both structuring and staging a text, Green said.

“Most of the plays I’ve directed for William & Mary Theatre are informed by values of the Black theater tradition. Considering our general audience demographic, the experience can be an illuminating one for anyone who attends. However, those who possess a sharpened cultural eye and attuned ear will see a different value system operating in Black theater. Among other things, this work amplifies cultural practices and beliefs of the African diaspora.”

One distinct characteristic of Black theater is its fusion of the spiritual and material worlds, which is a dimension Green explores in her own work. Another is that its Africanist dramaturgical values are recognizable to those who are informed, Green noted.

“An audience member with cultural knowing, can say, ‘This is a true and authentic representation of Black culture,’” said Green.

That doesn’t mean that African American theatre is “less meritorious or has no value in an educational context where we often seek to build bridges between communities,” noted Green — it is just a different form.

“A thoughtful engagement of the two forms, especially in production and particularly in historically white educational contexts, is essential,” Green added. “Because of the tradition out of which my education and scholarship originates, I seek to help my students develop a more nuanced vocabulary about the two forms so that they can clearly articulate what the work is and what it’s not.”

Learning to make that distinction is something that Green learned under her mentor, playwright Paul Carter Harrison, who visited W&M in 2018 with the support of the Center for the Liberal Arts. She also credits her time as a director and literary reader for the Playwrights Development Initiative with eta Creative Arts Foundation in Chicago and a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute on Black aesthetics, which she attended with Taylor.

Now, she wants to pass that understanding on to students.

Dr. Jacquelyne McLendon, Dr. Susan Chast and Professor Hermine Pinson who developed and team taught the original African American Theatre History and Performance freshman seminar arranged a continuum of literature in which Black writers and performers were the center,” Green said. “I expand on their legacy with a conversation about aesthetics and staging and evaluating Black theater on its own terms.

“Students must have the capacity to evaluate a phenomenon on its own cultural premise as opposed to reading everything through a Euro-American lens. It will serve them whether they are production personnel, critics and connoisseurs of Black expressivity, museum curators or members of the professoriate or the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, as well as those who develop and bear the culture in their work.”

Into the spotlight

When Oscar Blayton came to William & Mary as the first African American undergraduate in the 1960s, he was told to keep a low profile. Instead, he took center stage — literally.

He became the first African American to appear in mainstage theatre production – and then another and another, until he ultimately appeared in four productions his sophomore year. In an interview with Green for her research, he called the theatre department “the most judgment-free environment” on campus.

Oscar Blayton (left) in the 1964 production of “The Time of Your Life” (University Archives photo)

The department was still in its infancy at that point. While the first theatre class was taught at William & Mary in 1926, the department was not established until 1963 — the same year Blayton arrived.

Throughout the years, the department has included theatre, speech and dance in various forms, and many Black students followed Blayton’s footsteps into the limelight, whether on the mainstage or in student organizations.

But the first Black faculty member in the department was not hired until 1982, and since that time, six more African and Black professors — Green included — have followed. Three of them stayed at William & Mary for only a short time, Green said.

“With each departure, the department’s cultural wealth decreased. In this void of curricular leadership in African, African American and Black theater, Black students interested in identity affirming course work and performing engagements within the department also missed out on mainstage and second season opportunities,” she said.

“There is a history of Black student activism at W&M in telling their stories beyond the mainstage and even partnering with local HBCUs (historically Black colleges and universities) to do so. Like the students at Clark Atlanta University where my mentor and another interviewee for this endeavor teaches, Dr. Eve J. Graves (Jasmin Lambert) says, ‘Find a way or make one. … That is the mantra of Black students all over, especially at PWIs (predominantly white institutions).”

Based on her research in the William & Mary archives, Green says it is clear that Black students found ways to make theatre before iPAX in 2007, the African American Theatre Club in 1996 and the Multicultural Performing Arts Society in 1994.

“This ingenuity coupled with productive and safe mentorship through the mainstage and second season can be crown jewels in the educational life of the W&M student,” she said. “The developmental rigor that characterizes these spaces is often a crossroads which leads students to graduate school and/or the profession.”

Throughout the years, Green has helped lead a significant evolution of both the curriculum and productions. She became the first Black woman and alumna to become a tenured, full professor of theatre, and most of the Black theater productions that have been performed at William & Mary have been directed by Green, including “The Children’s Hour” and “Crowns.”

Some of the productions that standout to Green include “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” which was one of the first plays she directed as a faculty member, and “Gem of the Ocean,” the last theatre production to be staged at William & Mary prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. “Gem of the Ocean” was the first production in the history of William & Mary Theatre with a nearly all-Black production team, Green noted.

“Three of the team members came to W&M with Black Theatre Alliance nominations or awards among other accolades. That was just four years ago. I want our students to see what is possible for them in this work,” Green said.

“But this is a collective duty of the faculty and administration. I am so glad to see another Black professional, Tia James, sharing their gifts with our students on the mainstage for the current season with Lynn Nottages’ ‘By the Way, Meet Vera Stark.’ In Nottage’s own words, this play deals with the ‘history of omission’ from mainstream conversations. My lecture, which follows James’ production, is perfectly timed.”

Green hopes that the history she is compiling will serve as a foundation on which the theatre department can build.

“What’s important to me is the institutionalization of this work not just at my alma mater, but all historically white institutions,” she said.

“William & Mary is the second oldest university in the nation and the fifth university according to research by Althea Hunt, inceptor of our university’s first dramatic club, to offer courses in theatre in the early 20th century. I am confident that we can be a regional theatre leader in this work.”

The Tack Faculty Lecture Series is made possible through a generous commitment by Martha ’78 and Carl Tack ’78. Initially launched in 2012, the Tacks’ commitment has created an endowment for the series of speakers from the W&M faculty.

, Senior Associate Director of University News