I read an article the other day about the risk of foreclosure for the National Black Theater. LoS readers won't be surprised when I did a double take upon seeing the sculpture above the entrance to the building. A man raising his arms to the sun in front of a triangle. The arms form a downward facing triangle of sorts, but what jumps out most is that the sun, like a halo around the mans head, radiates outwards from within the triangle like an eye in glory.
I imagine that the triangle and the sun both could refer back to ancient Egypt, an evocation of a glorious African past. Given the mission of the NBT, I would also wager that the sun here is also a symbol of regeneration. I think it important to add that the triangle does not figure in the NBT's logo, but only on the building itself, so I'm going to focus on the man and the sun.
I recently stumbled across the fact that the symbol of Tanit, a Carthaginian goddess with Egyptian predecessors, may represent a woman raising her arms to the sun. The gesture is probably of a most ancient origin. Early Christians adopted a similar stance, known as orant, for praying. Pentecostals and charismatic churches still use this gesture quite a bit. (In my sole visit to a pentecostal church years ago this was definitely the style, as opposed to the praying hands of my scattered youthful visits to the Episcopal church).
The sun is a natural symbol of regeneration and "waking up" in the literal and metaphorical sense. Every day, the sun rises and so do we, the world begins to rumble. People hit the streets and the buzz of the day begins. When it goes down, we go inside, have dinner, watch TV then go to bed. Likewise for the seasons. When the Sun returns in Spring, nature comes back to life, the worms wiggle, the grass grows. Regeneration.
It's only natural than that the Winter Solstice was/is celebrated by our pagan forebears/friends. Whew, the sun is coming back. We can eat again this year! Even today, the memory of this gratitude to the sun is celebrated in our Christmas rituals: burning the Yule log, festooning trees and houses with lights. Why do you suppose Jesus is called "the Light of the Universe?" To reverse the Uhura thing: "Not the Son, but the Sun." (Star Trek episode 54).
Not into the Jesus thing? Well, light your Menorah! Hanukkah is, after all, the "festival of lights." And the list goes on.
So, I would argue that the sun symbol evokes both cultural/spiritual regeneration of the African-American people as well as a symbol of enlightenment, highlighting the educational mission of the Theater.
In my researches into the meaning of the symbol I turned up nothing, but I did come across some interesting factoids. On the third floor of the building is an octagonal-shaped room known as the Liberation Temple. If anyone could snag a photo of this room I'd certainly be interested in seeing it! Of course, this title piqued my curiosity.
The Cambridge Guide to American Theater supports some of my conjecture and reinforces the spiritual component of the Theater's mission: The theater was founded in 1968 as "temple of liberation." The Guide actually quotes that its mission is "to educate and spiritually enlighten the people it serves." Furthermore: "Initial performances took the form of rituals based on the black experience." What more can I add? It was created as a temple with a mission to spiritually enlighten people and began its work by performing not plays, but rituals.
Unfortunately, I can't find any info on Barbara Ann Teer, the Theater's founder, which indicates her involvement in anything esoteric other than her involvement in the Black Arts Movement (BAM). That said, many "black nationalist" groups of the 20th century did in fact contain significant spiritual components and indeed are fundamentally religious movements: Moorish Science Temple, The Nation of Islam (cited as an ideological influence on the BAP), even Rastafarianism. This is a topic unto itself and I make just a superficial mention here. Expressions like black power or nationalism are too reductionist to encompass the meaning of these groups, but I would propose that the idea of black liberation in America has inextricably been combined with a strong spiritual dimension since before abolition.
I should add I wrote a 50 + page paper on this topic back in '92 in order to receive my BA. Full disclosure: I only got a B!
Finally, I've read that Teer was especially interested in Yoruba culture and considered Nigeria to be her second home. In researching my Senior Thesis I visited Oyotunji Village [with The Gid, as he reminded me in his comment], founded in order to "reclaim ancestral Yoruba custom and traditions." Its founders came from various black nationalist backgrounds. Yoruban and Fon spirituality play an important part in the life of the village. I think it's natural that black nationalism would draw upon African spirituality as opposed to European Christianity, but I'm not sure to what extent Nigerian traditions play into this other than the examples cited.
I'd like to get back to the sun and look at precedents which, as we shall see, makes linking this sun to the triangle and eye within not so far-fetched. But that's another post....