Monday, February 7, 2011

Not so sunny days for the National Black Theater

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....


  1. I couldn't find a photo of the Liberation Temple.

    I think that the octagon was echoed throughout the building. The roof was octagonal. There was also a theatrical production (see the second photo in this article) that appears to have included a small stage-upon-a-stage that might have been octagonal (although it might be hexagonal).

    The same article that mentions the octagonal roof also says that Teer referred to her productions as "rituals" and has this fantastic quote from Teer, spoken (written?) prior to this theater's existence:

    "We must begin building cultural centers where we can enjoy being free, open and black, where we can find out how talented we really are, where we can be what we were born to be, and not what we were brainwashed to be, where we can literally 'blow our minds' with blackness."

    Also, wanted to say that I remember our trip to Oyotunji Village fondly; hard to believe we go back that far.

    And regarding that "B" -- I think that was actually a good grade for a rigorous BA program in the 90s. You only think it's a knock because you held yourself up to a higher standard that most. I distinctly remember, in fact, being inspired by your good grades, and which I consciously modeled, finally, the year after you graduated.

  2. Gaw! Typos. Why does typing elicit a pattern of errors that is so distinct from handwritten errors?

  3. Yeah, that 1st article says: "Everything about the NBT was steeped in blackness, from the design of the building, with its octagon roof...."

    I don't know how the octagon reflects "blackness". Any ideas or that just a stupid thing to write?

    But it's certainly not too much of a leap to imagine it reflects the "ritualistic" nature of her performances. Teer was intimately involved in every aspect of the building, one would assume that included the design.

    Funny, just for kicks I looked for the origin of the name Teer and one site said it meant "stairs", another "wild animal" and another "one who traded in tar." Take your pick!

    Oyotunji was pretty cool. Did we plan for you to come along or was it kind of a spontaneous, "sure, why not" thing at the last minute? And did we go and come back in one go?

    As for the good grades, I don't know what to say!

  4. Weird, my first link won't load right now, so here's a link to Google's cached version, which does load.

    I can't figure out what the octagon roof has to do with blackness.

    Oyotunji ... my memory's a bit blurred. I think it was a spontaneous thing, although perhaps hatched late in the previous evening? I don't remember staying anywhere overnight, but I don't remember driving straight through, either. It would have been pretty long for a drive-straight-through, but not, I think, impossibly long?

    I do remember being amazed, absolutely amazed that the place existed and we could drive to it.

    I also remember that I bought a mix tape from the guy who gave us a tour (?there was one guy who toured us, right?) b/c I recognized Coltrane on the tape and b/c I liked the sound of some 70s (?guessing?) African funk tune on the tape.

    And listening to The Stooges, loud, in the truck. Which actually probably didn't happen, b/c I think the only Stooges I owned back then was on vinyl...

  5. Yeah, I suppose this was a straigh shot, Google only puts it at about 5 hours. A long day but totally conceivable. I did more rigorous trips in those days.

    A guy did give us a tour and I interviewed him on tape....but I had to make a donation to do it. And you bought a mix tape? That stirs some very vague recollection. As for the Stooges, I can't say.

    I always think that it was indeed porbably what an African village is like....that sentence seems grammatically challenged but fuggit.

  6. Research Sungazing it will clear things up.
    P.S On the 1 dollar bill - pyramid(triangle side) with an eye on top of it. its esoteric knowledge deliberatly lost as i think.
    Sungazing recharges your enegetic body and so on and so on.

  7. Sungazing surely must be bad for your eyes?

    Re: research:

    "Basic research is like shooting an arrow into the air and, where it lands, painting a target."

    Homer Burton Adkins


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