Mellon Foundation to Provide $5 Million to Aid Black Theaters

Black theaters across the country will receive a significant financial boost thanks to a multimillion-dollar program announced today by the Billie Holiday Theater, a Black-led artistic institution in Brooklyn.

The initiative, known as The Black Seed, is described as the first national strategic plan to provide financial support for Black theaters across the country. It is backed by a $5 million lead gift from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which, according to a news release, is the largest-ever one-time investment in Black theater.

“The Black Seed stands on the shoulders of Black theater leaders who came before and centered the work by us, for us, about us and near us,” Indira Etwaroo, the executive artistic director of the Billie Holiday Theater, who conceptualized and worked with others to create the initiative, said in a statement.

The Billie Holiday Theater was founded in 1972 in response to the civil rights and Black Arts movements. The plan will be administered by that theater in collaboration with three other Black-led artistic institutions: the Craft Institute in Massachusetts, Plowshares Theater Company in Detroit, and WACO Theater Center in Los Angeles. The group will award up to 50 one- to three-year grants to Black theaters in the coming months, in amounts ranging from $30,000 to $300,000.

According to American Theater magazine, there were 88 Black theaters in the United States in 2019. The initiative focuses on empowering them, rather than targeting diversity and inclusion at historically white institutions, Ms. Etwaroo said. Grants will aid in developing and leveraging national partnerships and supporting new artistic commissions.

The group announced several other prongs of the plan: The Black Seed National Leadership Circle, which will invite donor investments in Black theaters; a cohort of six national networks and coalitions that will meet twice a year to collaborate on advancing the Black theater field; and a national marketing campaign to share the story of Black theater in America.

“We are deeply moved to be a part of a field-wide endeavor that would bring institutions and coalitions together to link arms, to find strength in one another, and to dream out loud, as a collective,” said Kenny Leon, who co-founded True Colors Theater Company in 2002 and went on to win a 2014 Tony Award for directing “A Raisin in the Sun.”

Strengthening the country’s Black theaters has been a priority as institutions consider how the art form must change after the killings of Black men and women by police officers, and in the wake of demands to diversify the American theater ecosystem from coalitions of theater artists like “We See You, White American Theater.”

Sarah Bellamy, the artistic director of Penumbra Theater in St. Paul, Minn., told The New York Times in June that Black theater “is alive and well; it’s just not funded.”

“I invite these Black artists who have been wounded by their efforts with the Great White Way to come back home,” she said.

The Black Seed group hopes to raise $10 million for the three-year initiative, a spokeswoman said. A request for proposals from Black theater institutions will be announced in October, and the group hopes to announce grantees in December.

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