Rooted in the response by colleges to the politically driven Black Arts Movement of the turbulent 1960s, the Black Theatre and Dance Collective (BTDC) — part of Wayne State’s Maggie Allesee Department of Theatre and Dance — continues to amplify the voices, onstage and off, of communities, experiences and lives that are too often ignored in mainstream works.
Led by Assistant Professor Billicia Charnelle Hines (left), the program has continued to establish itself locally as both a crucible and showcase for exceptional student talent and as a respected ambassador for the university abroad. In July, for instance, nine actors in the Freedom Players — one of the ensembles in the Black Theatre and Dance Collective — traveled to Scotland for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the largest international theatre festival in the world.
Hines, who has overseen the program for the past five years, sat down for an interview to discuss the state of the BTDC and where she sees it heading as it continues to find new ways to grow its work, its audience and itself.
CAN YOU GIVE AN OVERVIEW OF THE HISTORY OF THE BLACK THEATRE AND DANCE COLLECTIVE?
Yes. It began as the Black Theatre Program. A year after the rebellion in ’67 happened, that’s when the Black Theatre Program started. And it was because of the fact that black people were not
given the opportunities to be on the stage. There were some whites at that time who felt that black students could not play those roles in white plays. And as a result, those students were not given any opportunities. So some of those students, and even some students from other departments, stood up and responded by fighting for a black theatre program. Since then, we’ve had some ups and downs, some ebbs and flows, depending on how the program was being run. But we’ve always tried to remain close to the artistic community here in Detroit, especially the black theatre community, as a way of upholding the ideals that led to the program being founded.
Now we have an opportunity. We have the support within the school to really push. A lot of people in my department right now are really supportive of trying to improve things and really make the department more diverse. And we have a minor, Africana Theatre and Dance, which is three years in existence. I’d like to emphasize how great it is to collaborate with Ras Michael Courtney and Karen Prall. They are the other two professors in the Black Theatre and Dance Collective. Dr. Courtney’s focus is Ethio-modern dance, and Ms. Prall is the artistic director of the To Sangana African Dance Company. The three of us have been working tirelessly this year to continue to create a program that allows another standard to be celebrated.
HOW HAVE YOU TAKEN ADVANTAGE OF THOSE POSSIBILITIES? WHAT DO YOU THINK HAVE BEEN YOUR BIGGEST CONTRIBUTIONS AS WELL AS SOME OF THE BIGGEST CHALLENGES?
I think that some of my biggest accomplishments are finding ways of being inclusive. Many times, black history has been taught within this confined box, this “other.” It’s done in secret or in some confined time. However, it is never mainstream and seen as American history. There is never enough acknowledgement, funding and, of course, respect that it needs and deserves. It is time that new standards be interwoven and uplifted. We need greater diversity and inclusion, and that’s one major goal I am pursuing.
And with the black students, I’ve been spending time teaching self-worth. So within the world of theatre, studying Shakespeare is not the only way to a professional career. It’s great to know that, but what about studying August Wilson’s plays as high-stylized language? There are so many African rituals and traditions that are not acknowledged as the beginning of theatre. Greek theatre is viewed as the beginning. There is so much worth in knowing and embodying black theatre — and it makes such a big difference when students of color can train where they can see themselves. I am so glad that the Maggie Allesee Department of Theatre and Dance here continuously supports what I do in creating change.
WHAT DREW YOU TO WAYNE STATE UNIVERSITY?
I come from North Carolina, and I worked at Elizabeth City State University, a small HBCU in the northeastern part of North Carolina. I was the director of that theatre program. It’s a small program, and I was trying to make it a major there because it was only a minor. I was building things over there, but I wanted something better for myself. While applying to other places, I saw this job opening, applied and was eventually hired.
I was immediately attracted to this position; I was told they were trying to rebuild this black theatre program. It was inactive for four years. I thought that was something I would love to do — make a difference. This area seemed like a place where I could be able to do something, and I felt like the energy around here exuded positive change. I felt the “possibility.” I love the possibility of creating change.
WHAT’S YOUR VISION FOR THE PROGRAM’S FUTURE?
I want to take the program to where it has an international presence. I want it to be self-sustaining. I want it to be beyond one person. I want it where we have an endowment specifically for the program so then, when people come in, we have scholarships specifically for people who are going to minor in it and who are a part of that program.
And I would rather not settle for an “itty-bitty” endowment where you have to pass the plate around for $5. I want millions! Basically I want the program to eventually be self-sustaining. Going to Edinburgh, Scotland, to perform was such a phenomenal experience for the students and the program as a whole. I hope in the future we can take a yearly trip to a country of the African Diaspora where they can train and perform, so when these students graduate, they would have had an opportunity to see performances, train and network throughout the country and abroad. Ultimately, the students will be able to use these experiences to develop their professional career.