T. S. Banks believes that black artists from Madison are the most extraordinary and talented people in the country. For three weeks in June 2020 at a brand new black theater festival, he’s going to put that talent center stage.
“I’m trying to give black artists I know an opportunity to express themselves through art,” Banks said. “That’s not going to be hard. I know my people.”
Broom Street Theater will host the Loud ‘N Unchained Black Theater Festival, a showcase of poetry, dance, theater and more. Submissions are open until Jan. 31. Auditions will be in late March/ early April, and the festival is set to run weekends, June 12-28, 2020.
There’s been one story in Madison365, and organizers have already received some 15 submissions.
“As black people, as black artists, we deserve platforms and spaces that cater to us, that are uplifting and affirming,” Banks said. “We deserve a space to express ourselves in the art forms we have not only created but studied.”
Banks is a poet, playwright and community organizer with deep Madison roots. He identifies as queer and transgender, and he’s active as a disability advocate. Born in Chicago, Banks grew up here, graduating from Madison East High School and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, honing his craft in the First Wave program.
“Growing up in Madison, I’ve had the opportunity to have some of the best music and theatrical education,” Banks said. “I was able to really dive into a lot of black artists and writers and playwrights in high school. In the First Wave program, I had mentors and professional development and a chance to write my own pieces.
“I wanted that for other black artists in my community.”
For a year, Banks and Doug Reed, artistic director of Broom Street, tried to plan a production of one of Banks’ plays. By the time they coordinated their schedules, Banks had something bigger in mind.
The artists had been struggling to find accessible space to rent and perform. That’s where Broom Street came in. The volunteer-run community theater company, now in its 50th season, produces original work for next to nothing in its small black box at 1119 Williamson St. Broom Street has owned its building since 1977.
“If somebody’s doing a show at Broom Street, we hand them the keys and say, ‘We’re here for logistical support, but you do what your heart tells you to do,’” Reed said. “We’ll support that. We won’t fret over a spreadsheet because we didn’t get enough butts in the seats.”
Banks connected with Janine Gardner, a member of Broom Street’s working board who recently directed “Sister Girl” at Broom Street and “A Lady and A Woman” with StageQ. Dana Pellebon, a local performer and director (including of “Detroit ’67” with Kathie Rasmussen Women’s Theatre) made a fourth. Pellebon has been working with Sandra Adell to launch a Black Theater Collective, which is still in the grassroots planning stages.
“We are trying to keep the black artists in town,” Pellebon said. “We’re going to lose our black artists the same way we lose young black professionals, who look for cities more welcoming to their experience. We want to create a community.”
The current plan for the first-ever Loud ‘N Unchained Black Theater Festival is to have a full-length theater work every Saturday, one of which is a play Banks wrote and has produced before. Friday nights will be dedicated to specialty acts. One Friday night should be dedicated to spoken word and music, with another for drag and burlesque. The third Friday will be “more of a variety show,” Banks said. On Sunday, organizers hope to stage short plays.
Pellebon is set to direct all but one of the theatrical performances. She appreciates that Broom Street has been open with its resources, allowing the festival to create whatever it wants with the people it wants.
“That allows for a freedom that I won’t have at a place where I have to pay $1,000 a week to rent,” Pellebon said, “and still not have the infrastructure to do the work myself. Putting your money where your mouth is is not, ‘I’m going to do a black show.’ It’s ‘I’m going to create a space and give opportunities … for people disenfranchised within the community.’”
Broom Street is in a “Willy Street white lefty bubble,” Reed said. That’s something he’d like to shake up in its next 50 years.
“It is very easy to preach to the choir at Broom Street,” Reed said. “Lord knows I’ve been guilty of that. The more range of human stories we get, and the more we’re getting points of view that shake us out of our complacency … I’d like to squirm once in awhile at a Broom Street show. I want to be made uncomfortable.”
Funding is still a question mark for the black theater festival, which is currently volunteer-run. Pellebon and the others plan to write grants and solicit sponsors. There will be a drag/ burlesque fundraiser at the Crucible on the third Sunday in February, with more to come. Pellebon plans to apply to the city and county for funds.
“The prevailing thing that is said in public (by grantors) is they would like to fund projects that deal with underserved populations,” Pellebon said. “This is it, the perfect thing to fund.
“We want to pay the artists, the tech crew,” she added. “One thing that happens to black artists is we are expected to do our work for free. … I feel strongly about paid work, especially paid work for black women.”
The Loud ‘N Unchained Black Theater Festival follows in the footsteps of UW-Madison student Shasparay Lighteard’s Black Arts Matter Festival, held on and off campus last spring. The Black Theater Collective is meeting on Dec. 8 to talk about where it’s going next, and what model it might use.
“These are all very new things that are exciting and not fully formed,” Pellebon said. “But we have a lot of people with will and energy to make it happen. We can say, ‘We’re going to put on a show’ and use the resources we have to get it done.”