I caught up with one of New York theatre’s charismatic leaders, National Black Theatre’s AD Jonathan McCrory to discuss how they face a pandemic and support community. This Harlem touchstone founded in 1968 by Dr. Barbara Ann Teer set out to “produce transformational theatrical experiences that enhance African American cultural identity by telling authentic stories of the Black experience.” They’ve produced 300+ original productions and garnered 47 AUDELCOs. (Spoofing a Harlem theatre and calling out a white, male kingmaker, playwright Radha Blank’s film, The 40-Year-Old Version, should be required viewing for us all). The conversation was edited for space by Winter Miller.
Winter Miller: NBT’s virtual series Unbought and Unbossed is an immediate creative response, and Ngozi Anyanwu’s monologue You’re Going To Be Okay really reverberates. What else is working about NBT’s crisis response?
Jonathan McCrory: NBT’s superpower is being great curators: We’re intentional about creating spaces for Black artists to live in a liberated, uncomplicated space. We have a hole in our capacity to do it all, so we partner with someone like “When We All Vote,” connecting our community to the “experts.” When we work as a coalition, we build community.
WM: How is NBT changing for the better during the pandemic?
JM: NBT is leaning into what does it mean to create a virtual home? How do you embolden and embody the things we value in-person, and translate that into a digital form? We’ve created NBT@home, a wildly successful conversation series translating what people felt in-person to something virtual.
WM: What’s on the horizon?
JM: I’m excited about expanding this notion of a free Black space as we prepare for a major capital redevelopment. Also, as we amplify beyond four walls, how we take the pedagogy that Dr. Teer forged over 52 years ago and amplify that locally, nationally, and internationally, through partnerships, intentional productions and strategic planning.
WM: If a chunk of change fell into NBT’s lap?
JM: I’d invest in the digital sector for our institution as a valuable asset to generate a global platform for NBT. It’s important that as we build the digital narrative and communication that the Black person/culture/idea has autonomy and entrepreneurship over how that space is curated and self-reflects.
WM: What should everyone know about NBT?
JM: NBT was founded by a Black woman, forged out of the experiment of what does it mean for Black people to create an autonomous space against the American experiment of capitalism that built its wealth, its ideas off Black bodies’ labor and the genocide of indigenous people. NBT holds a mirror up: Our space is asking for humanity to come breathe what liberation can look like if we face who we are, instead of running away from what we have done.
WM: How is NBT learning from other BIPOC organizations?
JM: We’re learning the necessity of calling folks or situations in, instead of calling people out. We have the opportunity to understand that our revolution can be done through love, grace, and ancestral wisdom. We must center the feminine within ourselves because the masculine hasn’t worked.
WM: What might you say to those who demand white male leaders step aside? Asking for a friend, or 10,000…
JM: I’d say keep it! We’ll build the world we want without you. I’d bend the question: Why do we as a community need to invest in those spaces? Why do we go to spaces that don’t uphold our values? Why can’t we generate the space we want for ourselves? Why can’t we invest in our legacy bought, owned, and operated by our wisdom?
WM: Who are some theatre critics you’d like to see elevated?
JM: Anyone BIPOC.
WM: In under a dozen words, what’s kept NBT going for more than 50 years?
JM: Black liberation for human transformation.
WM: The way you build a community and light up a room is undeniable, what words of advice would you give to new and old leaders of arts presenting organizations?
JM: This crown is not for you to own. This is a home; you’re not building an empire. Learn how to mediate or you will rob yourself of personal growth you have to take. This is deeply personal work and yet don’t take the results personally. You are allowed to fail! Find a partner like Sade Lythcott to lean on.
NB: Sade Lythcott is NBT’s CEO and Dr. Teer’s daughter.
WM: What one thing on your website sums up what’s unique about NBT’s credo or mission?
JM: Watch the QUEST.
The last thing I want to draw your attention to is NYC: Write Now, a twice-weekly Zoom session for playwrights to gather and write in silence in community. See the website for details about how to join. Sessions are Wednesdays 7 pm – 9 pm, Fridays 9 am – 11 am. You must register (RSVP) in order to receive the link. As we head into phase 703 of COVID-19, please stay safe, sane, and sanitized.