As I sit like most of you, sheltered in place, with questions swirling around my head about COVID-19, the killing of George Floyd and protesters in the streets all over the world demanding change ... I am looking into my own mirror, as I hope you are looking into yours.
So I, as a longtime Queens resident, write this message as a call to action to eliminate the historical barriers that have segmented our Queens communities for too many decades. As the founder and CEO of Black Spectrum Theatre Co., a 50-year-old African-American theater in Queens, I’d like to think that the many races and ethnic communities that make up Queens are ready for a reboot in how we perceive organizations like Black Spectrum Theatre and the many other African-American arts organizations like us.
Queens as a whole has suffered from the disproportionate distribution of city funding. Evidence of this is demonstrated by the COVID-19 crisis. African-Americans have suffered a double hardship because our support during the pandemic has been inadequate. Coupled with our community’s lack of access to big donors, or sustained foundation support, institutions like Black Spectrum Theatre have always lagged far behind institutions of favor and white privilege. Yet we have endured because we always believed that there might come a time when the oxymoron of our name would not be necessary.
If New York is ever to truly live up to its reputation and its creed as a melting pot, then let’s throw out the stereotypes and capture this moment in history, when the society is not only realizing that Black Lives Matter, but that we share more commonalities than differences. Now more than ever is the time to eliminate fences and change the paradigm on how we view each other, as well as the perception on how an African-American theater company like Black Spectrum Theatre can be an asset to Queens, instead of an appeasement.
Did you know that we’ve presented more than 350 theatre productions and trained over 5,000 artists? Did you know that Sarah and Jim Brady of Handgun, Control Inc. (now the Brady Campaign) in Washington, DC, chose Black Spectrum to create a film to eliminate gun violence — a problem that plagues every community — long before Sean Bell, Eric Garner or the children of Newtown, Conn. lost their lives? Did you know that our award-winning 1999 film entitled “What To Do If Stopped By The Police?” might have benefited all teens across all races, had it not been perceived as a “black” thing? Or that a play by medical Dr. Gerald Deas, who wrote musical performances about obesity and its impact on health years ago, could have saved lives if not for segmented messaging that, more often than not, confines and distributes information by culture and race? Information that historically never crossed the color line, because it was presented by a “black” theater company that had an important message which could benefit everyone.
In short we are reaching out during these tumultuous times imagining a new vision for all our communities in Queens. We are on the verge of creating a new sense of community and society, and we believe Black Spectrum Theatre has a universal message all of you would enjoy. It’s inclusive, reparative, crosses boundaries and shifts paradigms. Yes! This is the vision I see. It’s a vision for the future I want to be a part of. It’s a future vision that is imperative, if we are all to survive the 21st century.
So when do we start? Now! How do we start? We start with truth! We start by dismantling racism and words like privilege and minorities. We start by looking at the maps of the world and show the true land masses of the continents, because they hide an untruth that needs correction. We start by showing more than animals and wildlife in Africa; we start by acknowledging the hidden figures who have made enormous contributions to this country. We start by acknowledging that our educational system is broken and our communities need reparative spending that can save future generations. We start by reimagining our police force. We start by doing exchange programs between communities so that all our children do not grow up isolated from each other’s culture.
It starts by demanding Hollywood be held accountable for hiding and distorting African history. It starts with an investment in the future of African-Americans because our stock in America was stolen from us. It starts with all of us understanding that our futures are now intertwined together. It starts with you! It starts with me!
Carl Clay is founder and CEO of Black Spectrum Theatre Co.