Thursday’s opening of the Juneteenth Jamboree marks the 11th year of this local festival of plays focused on the African-American experience. And it will also be the last. This year’s Juneteenth Jamboree runs through June 19.
Lorna Littleway, who cofounded the Juneteenth Legacy Theatre and the festival with others from the University of Louisville’s graduate program in African-American Theatre, says this festival is going to showcase some of the best new work from the festival’s history.
“This year we’re going to underscore legacy,” she says, “the company’s own personal legacy here in the city and the legacy of stories being told by the plays, and calling it the best new plays. And we wanted to do full productions.”
The lineup includes Till, a one-act play by Ifa Bayeza about Emmett Till and his mother. Till was murdered in 1955 for allegedly whistling at a white woman. The one-act was expanded into the play The Ballad of Emmett Till, which ran at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre and The Fountain Theatre in Los Angeles.
Also on the schedule are three other plays: Juneteeenth Blues Cabaret, which includes blues singers Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters, Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington and Lena Horne; Passing Ceremonies about the the repsonse of New York City’s African-American community to the to AIDS; and How Long Have I Been Dead Anyway?, a play by Kentucky writer Carrider Jones about an elderly couple trying to convince the U.S. Social Security Administration that they are still alive. The production choices came after Littleway decided that this festival will be the last.
Littleway says a showcase for African-American theater was a new to Louisville when the festival made its 1999 debut.
“There really were not theater companies paying much attention or producing plays about the African-American experience,” she says, “and there was not a non-community black theater company in Louisville. And I thought that Juneteenth could play a role in the national black theater landscape.”
Littleway cofounded Juneteeth Legacy Theatre and it’s annual Jamboree just several years after playwright August Wilson gave a much publicized speech for more support of African-American theater, including funding. (For more about Wilson’s ideas and his debate with Robert Brustein, founding director of the Yale Repertory and American Repertory Theaters, click here [pdf].) Littleway says although she decided to end the Jamboree to help care for her elderly father, the funding that came after Wilson’s appeal is harder to raise these days.
“Private funding follows government funding; they all follow each other in a cycle,” she says. “And when the idea of multiculturalism got established, multiculturalism was going to include black theater and it became something the opposite of ethnic-specific theater.”
Littleway says funding groups now support organizations that address many ethnicities through art. She says Juneteenth Legacy Theatre will continue to stage productions in New York, as it has done since its inception.