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Rising Stars Dr. Elvin Holt and Dr. Sandra Mayo

Texas State professors launch groundbreaking research on black theatre in Texas

Dr. Sandra Mayo and students
Dr. Sandra Mayo, center

By Mary-Love Bigony, University Marketing

Drs. Elvin Holt and Sandra Mayo are conducting a statewide research project to preserve the history of black theatre in Texas. Their research will yield two books, a Web-based library of archived materials, and a six-city touring exhibit.

Holt is Professor of English and a specialist in African American literature, and Mayo is Associate Professor of Theatre and Director of Texas State’s Center for Multicultural and Gender Studies.

“Texas has a rich history of black theatre, but it is not well known,” Mayo said. “The Austin newspaper published a list of Texas playwrights, and there were no black playwrights listed. Even the Black Theater Network, a national organization, put out a book on contemporary black playwrights, and they didn’t include a single Texas playwright.”

Mayo said the work of the late Sterling Houston, about whom she has produced two books, is virtually unknown outside of Texas. Nor is the work of other accomplished playwrights. “[Texas State alumnus] Eugene Lee’s plays have been produced all over, including at the Royal Court in London,” she said. “Ted Shine was editor of one of the most-used theatre anthologies, Black Theatre USA.”

Dr. Elvin Holt
Dr. Elvin Holt

Holt and Mayo are focusing their research on seven theatres: ProArts Collective in Austin, Hornsby Entertainment Theatre Company and Renaissance Guild in San Antonio, The Black Academy of Arts and Letters in Dallas, the Jubilee Theatre in Fort Worth, and the Ensemble Theatre and the Encore Theatre in Houston.

“Right now, we’re traveling the state and collecting primary documents such as programs, photos, and reviews,” Mayo said. “The program tells you who directed the play, who acted in it, who did the tech work, the dates it was performed. For each theatre we’ll look for a watershed moment or turning point to begin the story. Then we’ll show the breadth and depth of the theatre’s work, how did they did it and how they survived. For example, the Black Academy of Arts and Letters, which now offers star-studded events at its home in the Dallas Convention Center, began by presenting standard theatre performances in small rented spaces from which the troupe was sometimes kicked out.

Mayo and Holt will produce two books. The first will be a historical narrative that documents the origins and development of black theatre in Texas, with an emphasis on contemporary theatre companies and playwrights. The second will be an anthology of original plays by black Texas playwrights.

“We’ve read more than 25 plays so far, trying to make a decision about which ones will be in the anthology. Sometimes plays are great for production but don’t have literary value. We’re trying to pick the strongest pieces in terms of literature. There are a number of playwrights whose plays have been produced but not published. We will celebrate them in the anthology.”

The professors will also archive the theatres’ programs, photos, reviews, posters, flyers and scripts—pieces that will also comprise a six-city touring exhibit and a web-based archive. Participating archives include the Alkek Library at Texas State, the Carver Museum in Austin, the Black Academy of Arts and Letters in Dallas, Prairie View A&M University, the Fort Worth Public Library and the Institute of Texan Cultures in San Antonio.

According to Mayo, “People from around the world will be able to access this information. We will have links to each of the archival sites, and people will be able to see pictures and documents that tell the stories.”