Part One: 50+ years of Being Black in the “Industry”

In my most recent interview, I had the privilege of speaking to two accomplished theatre and music professionals, Hattie Mae Winston and Harold Wheeler. This couple, in their respective fields of performance and orchestrations respectively, has worked for 50+ years in the industry. In addition to speaking about their training and career paths, our conversation detailed the ins and outs of the culture of the industry, especially from the perspective of Black theatre professionals. I could write pages and pages about this informational interview, but I will concentrate on two of the most intriguing aspects of the conversation: the values, attitudes, and expectations about this kind of work and methods of communication used by theatre professionals.

Mrs. Winston spoke about her early theatre experiences with 12-hour workdays at the Negro Ensemble Company, in which she took theatre classes during the day, had rehearsals in the afternoon, and performed almost every night of the week. Theatre, in my experience, has always been extremely time-intensive but hearing about her time at NEC also reminded me of the community one can form in a creative space such as this one. Mrs. Winston shared that this community was bolstered by a set of shared values (that later became the foundation of her theatre technique). This instrumental theatre company created “outlets for the wealth of black theatrical talent in America” (NEC). It was one of the first of its kind in our country, laying a foundation for all theatre written, performed, and produced by black artists. Their values and goals surrounded the ideas of discipline, dedication, and concentration. For example, even though each actor was only required to arrive at the theatre 30 minutes before the show began, many company members from NEC would often get there an hour or earlier and go over their scripts. Mrs. Winston would read her script every single day before she had a performance. Furthermore, the company members’ dedication was not only to earnestly telling the stories of black Americans but also to each other. “It wasn’t about competition. It was more about support,” shared Mrs. Winston. Much of this support also came from the fact that, in the 1960s, there were not many African American actors in the industry, so it was imperative that they could support and trust each other. Later in her career, Mrs. Winston shared with me that the support waned in more mainstream theatre companies and jobs.

As an orchestrator for multiple Broadway musicals as well as television and award shows for the last 60 years, Mr. Wheeler has dedicated his life to telling stories through music and song. In his part of the industry, he finds that there is a clear hierarchy of communication. For example, when he works as an orchestrator, he communicates solely with the director and producers of the production. If he has comments about the way the music sounds or has ideas about changes the actors should make, he may work with them, but always in front of the director. It would be inappropriate to do this any other way. One time, he explained to me that he made a comment to an actor in a musical without the director present and the producers called him into his office to “reprimand him”. The director, as well as the producers, are the main liaisons for communication between the cast and musical directors/orchestrators, stage management, and house management. Both the directors and producers are the ones with the money and the “artist vision”, and it is vital that their vision is respected through this structure that has historically been used in mainstream and commercial theatre productions.

Finally, both Mr. Wheeler and Mrs. Winston shared that overall, they have found that black actors, even those with “classical training” (a formal theatre training program), do not always get the accolades they deserve. Even when they have the highest awards in the industry, they can still struggle to find work, or simply the respect and dignity that their non-black peers receive. That being said, it was overall really inspiring to hear about this part of their experience and the ways in which their identity as black people has impacted their work over the years. They both shared that the theatre is a continual learning process. Even in their late 70s, the couple truly believes that this was instilled in them by their mentors and continues to influence all that they do today.