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Forging a festival for Black theater

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Bronze Collective Theatre Festival was created provide opportunities for Black theater artists. - PHOTO BY KAREN CULLEY
  • PHOTO BY KAREN CULLEY
  • Bronze Collective Theatre Festival was created provide opportunities for Black theater artists.
Making theater isn’t easy in the age of COVID, but giving up isn’t an option for the Bronze Collective Theatre Festival. Now in its eighth year, the festival was created to take on challenges.

“Artists are like superheroes,” says Reuben Tapp, one of the founders and curators. “They don't succumb to issues, they transform them. They find the beauty in them.”

The Bronze Collective Theatre Festival, scheduled to perform at the Multi-use Cultural Community Center on Atlantic Ave., from Feb. 16 to 19, began as a handful of Black theater artists meeting up over snacks. As co-founder David Shakes puts it, they were looking to “promote and solidify the identity of Black theater.”

Long before Shakes connected with Rapp and local playwright Robert Djed Snead about a new venture, Shakes had worked with legendary Black writers and artists, including Amiri Baraka, James Baldwin, Nikki Giovanni, and Samuel L. Jackson.

When he and Rapp met at Mood Makers bookstore in Village Gate with the bookstore’s owner and Sankofa Festival producer, Curtis Rivers, their initial goal was to share resources and knowledge among Black theater artists in Rochester.

At first, not much came of it. But as Tapp says, “When you don’t know what to do, think about it and put some action to it.”

In this case, action meant mounting a theater festival by seeking out Black producers, directors, and writers eager for an audience. The festival would provide support, including rehearsal spaces, artistic feedback, and publicity.

But first it needed a name.

Tapp was inspired by Antonio Maceo, the Cuban general known as “the Bronze Titan” who led independence fighters in their struggle against Spain. He was also drawn to the word “bronze” because it covers a spectrum of Black people, from fair skinned to dark.

As the name suggests, the Bronze Collective doesn’t shy away from the political power of art.

“Art is not just for art’s sake,” Shakes says. “It's to inspire, to educate, to uplift, to represent perspectives. There's much to be said about utilizing art as a shield and as a weapon to defend oneself, protect oneself, and hopefully inspire and educate others.”

Guided by this philosophy, the festival has featured an impressive range of artists and works, including cross-disciplinary theater pieces involving film, visual arts, dance, spoken word, and gospel.
Kesha Hartzog and Ashona Pulliam perform in "Dividing Line," as part of  Bronze Collective Theatre Festival. - PHOTO BY KAREN CULLEY
  • PHOTO BY KAREN CULLEY
  • Kesha Hartzog and Ashona Pulliam perform in "Dividing Line," as part of Bronze Collective Theatre Festival.
TAKING A CHANCE

One artist who has grown with the help of the festival is Karen Culley. A sixth-grade science teacher at Rochester Academy Charter School, she is also a frequently produced playwright and publicity photographer.

Culley honed her plays for years, but struggled to find a venue willing to take a chance on an emerging Black playwright. “I was trying to figure out: How do you do this?” she says. “How do you get your work out?”

None of her submissions led to opportunities until director Gary DeWitt Marshall heard an excerpt from her locally-inspired play “Monologues on Clarissa Street” at an open mic and approached her about doing a staged reading with the Bronze Collective.

“When I found out my play was accepted, I could have pushed my car home,” she says. “I was just that happy.”

Since then, the piece has been presented several times, which has inspired her to continue writing. The Bronze Collective has introduced her to several local Black actors and playwrights, whom she now follows and supports. “It’s a pretty close-knit community,” she says.

Culley has used her background as a mental health counselor to write about Black mental health, featuring characters with depression and personality disorders. She has also written about teenagers in 1960s Birmingham, Alabama, and is currently writing about the school-to-prison pipeline.

“Nobody can tell our story like we can,” she says of Black artists. “There are things that need to be said and discussed.”

For this year’s festival she’s presenting something a bit different. “The Legend of Double Ax Max” is a horror story performed as a 1940s-style radio play, with sound effects made by Foley artists .

The play tells the tale of an enslaved woodcutter who gets separated from his sweetheart, who is also enslaved, when she is sold. He exacts revenge by going on a killing spree with his ax. After he is hung for his crimes, he comes back to life.

“My daughter said, ‘I can’t believe you wrote this. Mom, you don’t even like horror,’” Culley says with a laugh. “I love a challenge.”

The play has already been presented virtually twice — once at the 2020 Rochester Fringe Festival and once on Halloween. The Bronze Collective Theatre Festival performance on Feb. 19 will be the first time it will have been performed in person.

The other pieces this year are “Mr. Soul!” a staged reading by Laura Thomas on Feb. 17, a youth theater piece using puppets and masks called “Anansi Tales REDUX” on Feb. 18, and “Spotlight on Jonah” by Almeta Whitis on Feb. 19.

For more details on the 2022 Bronze Collective Theatre Festival at the MuCCC, including performance times and ticket information, go to muccc.org. Proof of vaccination and masks are required to attend.

Katherine Varga is a freelance writer for CITY. Feedback on this article can be directed to Daniel J. Kushner, CITY's arts editor, at dkushner@rochester-citynews.com.