"Finding Wakanda Within", American Theatre Magazine

Feature | March 2019 | The State of Black Theatre February 26, 2019

Finding Wakanda Within

Last fall’s International Black Theatre Summit looked for ways to capitalize on Black cultural success.

By Monica White Ndounou

History repeated itself, and the possibilities for the future were revealed, as we organized the 2018 International Black Theatre Summit, “Breaking New Ground Where We Stand,” which took place at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., last Sept. 26-29. That this 20th anniversary of the 1998 National Black Theatre Summit, “On Golden Pond,” came in the wake of the stellar box-office performance of the film Black Panther felt like timing that was beyond serendipitous.

Constanza Romero, August Wilson’s widow and executor of the playwright’s literary estate, gave me her blessing to proceed with my plans to reconjure the touchstone moment in Black theatre history when Wilson, Victor Leo Walker II, and William Cook convened the earlier Black theatre summit. In 1998 I was just becoming familiar with Wilson’s plays; Ntozake Shange had been the writer who first helped me find my voice. While studying the rich history of Black theatre and performance, I learned about Wilson’s advocacy and self-proclaimed “seamlessness” as a race man. When my negative experiences as a Black woman in the industry led me to consider other career paths, August Wilson was a lifeline leading me back to acting and directing. He died in 2005, before I had a chance to tell him how much his work inspired my own seamless approach to life, craft, and pedagogy.

But by 2018, the planets aligned for me and others to revisit “On Golden Pond,” both as a tribute to Wilson’s legacy and as an opportunity to break new ground. Bringing together international scholars and practitioners in theatre, film, television, and related media platforms, and striving to foster intentional collaborations for sustainable Black cultural production throughout the African diaspora, the 2018 International Black Theatre Summit was poised to seize this potentially watershed moment as one that might turn the tide for Black cultural production across platforms. My book Shaping the Future of African American Film: Color-Coded Economics and the Story Behind the Numbers provided the organizing framework for the convening. What follows is an overview of my opening presentation at the summit, interspersed with highlights from a range of summit sessions and participants.

“Wakanda forever!”

The rallying cry from the Black Panther film continues to reverberate on social media and in pop culture. In the film it’s a declaration of undying support for the fictional nation ruled by King T’Challa, the Black Panther, along with his surrogate mother, Queen Ramonda, his sister and tech whiz Shuri, and a fearless army of women, the Dora Milaje, led by General Okoye. Heard with a more attentive ear, this rallying cry becomes more than a line from the film; it is also a call to action.

Wakanda is a utopic, Afrofuturist rendering of the rich tapestry of African history and culture that also confronts some of the complexities of African Diasporic relationships. King T’Challa and his court offer a welcome contrast to our current reality, offering a sense of hope for a better world. But Black Panther is a film, and after the credits roll we are all catapulted from the psychic refuge of Wakanda into a reality where the sitting president of the United States has referenced countries from the African continent and its diaspora as “shithole” nations.

The 2019 awards season has reignited debates about the implications of Black Panther’s success as an indicator of change in Hollywood’s treatment of African Americans. My research for Shaping the Future of African American Film indicates that, as with so much Black-produced popular art, a hit film like Black Panther may exemplify the cultural capital and economic vitality of Black storytelling, but it cannot by itself change the system that produced it. Historically the economic success and cultural significance of a single project does not lead to sustained changes.

This does not mean the film cannot become a catalyst for the change we wish to see. In fact this would call for a revolution, if you will, loosely modeled on the anti-colonialist message in the film.

Several attempts to capitalize on Black Panther’s success have not yet yielded the ideological and structural changes needed to have the desired effect, but they are a step in the right direction. Filmmaker Ava DuVernay (Selma, A Wrinkle in Time) is partnering with HBO, Netflix, and the city of Los Angeles on an inclusion initiative designed to provide training to young women and people of color so they will have greater and earlier access to opportunities in the industry to help shape its future. Similarly, a Change.org petition called upon Marvel to invest 25 percent of the Black Panther film’s billion-plus worldwide earnings into Black communities by supporting STEM programs for Black youth. That petition was answered with a one-time donation of a mere $1 million and a single $250,000 scholarship award.

The limitations of these efforts do not minimize their relevance, but they do shed light on the need for a more comprehensive outlook, a strategic plan, and collective, tangible action steps that can bridge the disconnect that happens in training and access in the industry. Black Panther is not the anomaly it appears to be in terms of economic success. In fact, Black films tend to receive smaller budgets and generate a higher return on investment in the domestic market than predominantly white cast films that receive global distribution. How can we build our own version of a Black cultural production and distribution network spanning global markets so that we are not beholden to persistent exclusionary industry practices, repeating the same patterns that make the scale of a success like Black Panther an exception rather than the rule?

The 2018 IBTS executive committee, including myself, Nicole Hodges Persley, Ekundayo Bandele, Keryl McCord, and Anthony Meyers, and summit participants served as a think tank to answer this question. Using the four days to examine Black theatre and its positioning within the current state of American theatre as a case study, we sought to identify and strategize solutions to some of the biggest challenges facing Black cultural producers across platforms. Each day  we explored a variation of the larger theme: Day 1, Where We Stand; Day 2, Where We Can Go;  Day 3, How We Get There; and Day 4, Onward! We attracted a range of people with expertise in every area of the ecosystem of Black cultural production to begin to conceptualize and build an African diasporic network with Black theatre and artists at its core.

To encourage solution-driven conversations, the summit began by setting a tone of abundance and positivity, with closed sessions attended by invited speakers. Day One began with my presentation, “Wakanda Forever? Shaping the Future of Black Storytelling Across Platforms,” which envisioned the future of Black storytelling as intersectional, international, and interdisciplinary. I called upon funding agencies to equitably redirect resources to support culturally specific theatres, while encouraging participants to look within ourselves and our networks to develop resources and culturally nuanced stories in collaboration with Black audiences in Black theatres—stories that can translate across platforms for the widest possible audience without industry pressures of “crossover” appeal. I also encouraged participants to shift from thinking of African Americans as 12-14 percent of the U.S. population, and instead to think of us as part of a larger global community of people of African descent throughout the diaspora, with creative expertise and the ability to circumvent historical barriers in the industry through new media and technology.

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