Black arts matter to Tina Knowles-Lawson and Richard Lawson.
The power couple’s Los Angeles theater center, Where Art Can Occur (WACO), is currently producing the latest adaptation of Richard Wesley’s classic play Black Terror in partnership with Yendor Theatre Company (YTC) at Newark Symphony Hall, the largest Black-led arts and entertainment venue in New Jersey. TYC is the venue’s first company-in-residence.
“We’re tremendously excited about the virtual staging of Black Terror and know audiences will appreciate its timeless themes,” said Taneshia Nash Laird, president and CEO of Newark Symphony Hall and producer of the show.
Lawson, a veteran of TV, film, and theater, is serving as the director of the bicoastal presentation. The show will be filmed across venues and will be available later for streaming.
Originally released in 1971 at the New York Shakespeare Festival’s Public Theater, Black Terror is a gripping tale of a guerrilla revolution taking place “in America’s near future.” The plot follows a group of youths named the Black Terrorists that arm themselves against their oppressors, Keusi, a Vietnam vet and the group’s most lethal assassin, who questions the group’s methodology. When the members hatch a plan to assassinate a Black politician who promises to bring an end to the insurgency, he’s torn about his involvement with the band of revolutionaries. Kesui has to decide if he will continue enacting violence with the Black Terrorists or seek another alternative for freedom.
Wesley, who also penned screenplays for Uptown Saturday Night, Let’s Do It Again, Fast Forward, and Native Son, noted the significance and enduring legacy of Black Terror.
“Black Terror was one of my first plays but continues to resonate both culturally and historically. I very much look forward to seeing it staged for an entirely new generation,” Wesley said. “I’m grateful to the teams at Yendor, Newark Symphony Hall, and WACO Theater Center for making this happen. I believe this is an important work, thematically, for audiences in Newark, LA, and across the country.”
EBONY spoke with Tina-Knowles-Lawson, Richard Lawson, and Richard Wesley about the power of Black arts and the reimagining of the classic play for a new audience.
EBONY: When it comes to the arts, there are not many spaces for Black artists to express their gifts freely. Was this a part of your vision in creating WACO?
Tina Knowles-Lawson: It has always been a dream for me to provide a safe space for art to happen, a dream ironically shared by my amazing husband, Richard Lawson. So when we got together, we decided to make that dream come true by co-founding Where Art Can Occur (WACO) Theater Center. Our vision for the future is to continue to expand our mentoring program for inner-city youth and to continue to provide a platform for all forms of art.
You have always been passionate about the arts. Why is it so important for you to produce this adaptation of Black Terror?
Knowles-Lawson: Black art has played the biggest role in all of American culture, fashion, music, dance, visual art, style, and decor. It is the color in the fabric of our lives. We are art. Even though we don’t get credit for our contributions, the world would not be what it is today without Black people. We must protect and conserve our art and fight for our due credit.
I remember following the Black Panthers, and Black Terror has always been a favorite of mine. I’m a huge fan of Richard Wesley, and I’m excited about being a part of this project.
Black Terror is one of the seminal works that emerged from the Black Arts Movement of the late ’60s and early ’70s. When you first wrote the play, did you imagine that it would be just as relevant to the plight of Black people 50 years later?
Richard Wesley: I had no idea. I was confident that the play would have an impact in the early 1970s, when it was written, because everything in the play, I took from what I had experienced directly or was extrapolating from some books on the Black revolution that was popular at the time. There were things that I was hearing, things that I was seeing at Black Panther Party headquarters on 125th Street in Harlem or the Spirit House in Newark, where Amiri Baraka was. I never expected 50 years later that we would still be facing some of the same issues and that the play would still resonate with today’s audience. I always had the feeling that if the play was ever done this late in the game, it would be some kind of a retrospective. But Richard said to me, “Do you realize how many issues in the play that are still relevant right now? We need to be talking about this play in a completely different kind of way.”
The pandemic has had a major impact on the theater world. Not only are you bringing Black Terror to the stage for a brand-new audience but you are also curating a virtual theatrical experience. How was the creative process like in pulling off such an ambitious project?
Richard Lawson: Let me first say, I’ve been knowing Richard since I was in his play The Talented Tenth. I can’t tell you how much pride I take in terms of having those ideological, philosophical conversations about the play, and he’s brilliant.
When I first started my school, Richard Lawson Studios, my mission was to have an old-school philosophy delivered with 20th-century technology. I’ve been virtual in classrooms since 2005. So when the pandemic hit, I was already working with the technology. Broadway has been down for a while and just starting back. I think because of where we are, this pendulum is gonna swing back and forth because the world is driven by greed. It’s not driven by people and what’s best for human beings but what’s best for people’s pocketbooks. Therefore, we are going to go through other stages of having a drought of intellectual information, opportunities, talent, art, and so on. So the inspiration for me was to be able to create something that’s not affected by the things we can’t control.
The play is going to be done virtually with actors from all over the country. All the actors will appear to be in the same place, interacting with one another. In one scene, the actors are making love with one person on the East Coast and the other person on the West Coast. So in terms of doing the play, my concept is very different. It’s a “plim.” P- I – L -M. It’s a play film.
Black Terror vividly depicts the varied and complex ways in which Black people have envisioned revolution and freedom. What is the message that you want the audience to leave with?
Richard Wesley:As we were rewriting and doing some touch-ups, I thought to myself that this is more present today than it was in 1971. We can’t fight this way. We can’t fight the traditional wars. Brute force won’t do it alone. We have to outthink them. We have to outmaneuver them. We have to resist in different ways. We can’t resist the same way. We’re going back to where we were so we can go forward. We have to look at which side of the fence we fall on. I want the audience to understand that these same issues are still confronting African Americans.
Lastly, Ms. Tina, I must ask you this: How was it to make a guest appearance in Chloe’s “Have Mercy” video. When the video was released, everyone was saying, “Did you see Ms. Tina?“
Knowles-Lawson: It was so much fun to be the nosy neighbor in Chloe’s “Have Mercy” video! I simply adore her, and I am so proud of her and Halle. They are huge talents, but just as important, Chloe and Halle are also kind and generous humans. They are really special girls, and they remind me of Kelly and Beyoncé.