In 1977, the Kennedy Center, led by Founding Chairman Roger Stevens, identified a need to rethink how it was encouraging diverse participation in the performing arts. The lack of arts engagement from marginalized communities locally and nationally was evident through performance attendance, as well as the demographics of staff, volunteers, and performers. To help foster an environment in the arts that was more inclusive for underrepresented constituencies, especially the Black community, Stevens initiated a task force. The Black Commission was created with the goal of expanding Black participation and access to the performing arts by way of new programming that highlighted Black voices.
The Black Commission was headed by Dr. Archie L. Buffkins, who was the Assistant Dean for Graduate Studies at University of Maryland, College Park as well as a composer, author, and researcher of African American Culture. Eager to be appointed as president of the Commission, Buffkins stated that, “the opportunity to provide new directions for Blacks in the performing arts at the national level is a rewarding challenge.” Icons across all genres of performing arts were invited to become members of the Commission including dancer Katherine Dunham, singer Roberta Flack, and playwright Richard Wesley.
Under the leadership of Dr. Buffkins, the Commission proposed nearly one hundred public-facing programs for their first year, such as launching a radio show featuring classical music by Black composers and hosting poetry festivals, dance classes, and music tributes at the Center and nationwide. The Commission also outlined proposals for internal hiring and programming selection processes to achieve more diverse representation on the Kennedy Center’s stages and among its staff. Out of the dozens of program proposals, three major events came to fruition: the Black Playwright and Theater Project, the Black College Technical Assistance Program, and the National Black Music Colloquium and Competition.
The Black Playwright and Theatre Project
The earliest of the national events launched by the Commission was the Black Playwright and Theatre Project in December 1977. The program sought to fund and produce original plays by Black playwrights in Black-owned theaters across America. The Commission reached out to 187 theaters to encourage them to participate, and a committee of nine playwrights, producers, and university theater leaders selected six theaters that would receive the funding out of over 60 applications. By providing funding directly to the theaters, rather than selecting playwrights outright, the Project would allow the theaters to “expand and sharpen their own programs for developing new plays and playwrights” and give local control over the productions (Final Report of the KCBTPP, 1980). The theaters were awarded grants totaling $56,000 to develop new productions over the course of 18 months, a pace designed to facilitate the new play’s integration into the theater’s planned seasons. The selected productions were in varying stages of development, with some nearly ready for premieres and others still in workshopping stages. The Theater Project task force collaborated with the theaters throughout their development to schedule readings or workshops for some productions at the Kennedy Center.
In 1978, the first work sponsored by the Black Playwright and Theatre Project, Vinnette Carroll’s But Never a Jam Today, was produced at the Urban Arts Corps in New York City. The musical was an adaptation of Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll and had twelve performances in New York. The sixth and final play sponsored by the Project was The Invasion of Addis Ababa, produced by the Inner City Theatre of Los Angeles. This work went on to be performed as a staged reading at the Kennedy Center’s Theater Lab in August 1980. Even after the six plays funded by the Project had ended, the continued impact of the program was evident: the participating theaters reported communicating with over 60 playwrights throughout the process of play selection, strengthening the visibility and interest in new works by Black playwrights across the country.
The Black College Technical Assistance Project
The Black Playwright and Theatre Project focused exclusively on professional theaters, but members of the Black Commission recognized a need to aid student theater at HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) as well. Partnering with an existing Kennedy Center program, the American College Theater Festival/Black College Technical Assistance Project was launched in April 1980 to expand HBCU participation in the activities, programs, and competitions of the regional and national college theater festivals. Howard University and Grambling State University were two of the few Historical Black Colleges and Universities that had participated in ACTF throughout the 1970s. The Technical Assistance Project aimed to increase participation of eight to ten HBCUs in the Southeastern Regional Festival that were not previously active in the program.
The Technical Assistance Project was led by Winona Fletcher, a committee member for the Black Theater Project and the Director of Theatre and Drama at Indiana University, who set out to investigate the needs of HBCUs in order to encourage participation in ACTF. She and other members of the Project attended conferences, conducted interviews with students and staff, and traveled to schools so students could gain awareness of the project and she could assess each program’s need for resources. Fletcher and her team’s work for the Project led to the entries of twelve HBCUs for ACTF XIV in 1982, including Prairie View A&M University, Shaw University, and South Carolina State College. One of Prairie View A&M University’s two plays even went on to become a finalist at the national ACTF held at the Kennedy Center later that year.
Since the Black Commission recognized that the effects of the Technical Assistance Project wouldn’t be seen until the 1982 ACTF, they also organized an event shortly after the Project’s announcement that would highlight HBCUs in the meantime. In April 1980, a Performing Arts Tribute to the Historically Black Colleges and Universities was presented in the Eisenhower Theater to give public support and recognition to the many HBCUs in the country. The performance included readings by poet and English professor at Jackson State University Dr. Margaret Walker Alexander, internationally renowned soprano and Spelman College graduate Mattiwilda Dobbs, and the Howard University Chorale. Similar programs were presented at the Center throughout the 1980s.
The Black Music Colloquium and Competition
The Black Music Colloquium and Competition was a classical music outreach program announced in March 1979, leading up to a national competition in 1980. Not only did the week-long event at the Kennedy Center in January 1980 put a spotlight on young Black classical musicians, but it also sought to underscore the rich history of classical repertoire by Black composers. For the regional portion of the competition, Black pianists and string players under 36 years old prepared an hour-long recital, split between standard Western classical repertoire and the music of Black-American classical composers. Finalists from each of the six regions went on to perform at the Center’s Terrace Theater during the competition week and had the opportunity to attend master classes ahead of their final performances. Additionally, 17 semifinalists were invited to perform at the Kennedy Center for an audience of contemporary Black composers who were attending the Colloquium. After the final performances of the competition, workshops on topics from audition techniques to publicity tips were offered to not only the finalists, but all contestants who entered the Competition auditions, in order to help them build their careers as classical musicians.
The Colloquium portion of the event included a series of concerts and discussion panels titled “Meet the Black Composers” that showcased three Black composers each day. The day’s concerts featured nearly two hours of their music, followed by a half-hour discussion with the contemporary composers in attendance, musicians, and audience members. Featured composers included R. Nathaniel Dett, William Grant Still, and John W. Work, as well as living composers George Walker, Roque Cordero, and Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson. Over the eight-day Colloquium, “nearly 100 works by Black composers, many still unpublished, were performed during sixteen public recitals” (NMC Bulletin, 1980). To formally open the Competition and Colloquium on January 11, 1980, violinist Sanford Allen and duo pianists Delphin and Romain premiered the Second Sonata for Violin and Piano composed by Washington, DC native George Walker, which was commissioned by the Kennedy Center for the program.
Responses to the Black Commission and Later Activities
All in all, the projects developed by the Black Commission in the late 1970s and early 1980s received considerable positive feedback from participants and community members. Composer Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson extended his appreciation for the Black Music Colloquium and Competition in a letter to Chairman Roger Stevens, stating it was “one of the most positive occurrences ever in support of the Black Creative Musician in particular.” Floyd Gaffney, a professor of drama at University of California, San Diego, wrote to Stevens to “applaud the recent creation of your Commission to deal with improving programs and services for Black artists and audiences” and voiced his desire to see other cultural centers follow the Center’s lead.
As with many groundbreaking endeavors, the Commission was not without its limitations. The president of the National Music Council (who had assisted with the Black Music Colloquium) retrospectively asked if, going forward, Black classical musicians should continue to be presented as separate from the rest of the classical music community. An analyst from Time also criticized Stevens for not reaching the Black community sooner. Stevens and Buffkins actively responded to these letters and assured the community members that their responses would be considered as the task force continued their work and expanded programming.
By the mid-1980s, the Black Commission at the Kennedy Center had transitioned into the Office of Cultural Diversity Affairs with Dr. Buffkins leading the department as director. The Office maintained similar programs to the ones offered by the Commission, producing lecture series, workshops, and concerts for artists and audiences from underrepresented communities, collaborating with cultural institutions in Washington, DC and across the United States, and providing professional assistance to the Center to develop more equal recruitment practices and grow more diverse audiences.
From the Black Commission to Today
The goal of expanding diverse participation in the arts continued beyond the scope of the Office of Cultural Diversity through new educational and artistic programming that developed from the 1990s to the present. In 1994, Chairman Jim Wolfensohn invited his friend and jazz legend, Dr. Billy Taylor, to head a subscription jazz program at the Center to diversify stages and audiences and present a genre outside of classical artistic programming. Shortly afterwards, in the spring of 1997, African Odyssey was launched. This four-year festival featuring arts and artists from 44 of the 54 African countries was part of a 10-year plan to diversify audiences at the Center through international programming. Most recently, the creation of the Social Impact program solidifies the Center’s commitment to leverage the arts in order to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion within the arts and beyond. While separated from the Black Commission by decades, these programs promote many of the same goals as the Center’s earliest efforts to advance participation in the arts for all.