True Colors Theatre Company: Keeping The Black Storytelling Tradition Alive in Atlanta

By Kimberly Dijkstra

 

“I believe that True Colors thrives at the intersection of artistic excellence and civic engagement.”

This is the vision that Artistic Director Jamil Jude has for True Colors Theatre Company, a nonprofit regional theatre in Atlanta, Georgia. Founded in 2002 by esteemed director Kenny Leon and longtime friend and colleague Jane Bishop, True Colors celebrates the rich tradition of Black storytelling through its preservation of African-American classics, producing of original works, and uplifting of Black voices.

In the 90s, Leon recognized that Atlanta was on its way to becoming a majority African-American city and wanted to create a theatre representative of the population. While many regional theatres start with a wide storytelling lens and add diversity in the fringes, True Colors centers on Black storytelling and uses it as a way to open up conversations about other cultures, as intended by the founders.

It was important to Leon and Bishop that professional Black artists would have a place at True Colors.


Jamil Jude, Artistic Director — True Colors Theatre Company


 

“Having that relationship with Actor’s Equity helped us cement that professional standard and ethic, and make sure that Black artists, whether they were based here in Atlanta, or national artists that we had a chance to work with, still received the same benefits,” Jude explained.

In its 20 years, True Colors has done it all. In the beginning, they focused on Black classics, such as August Wilson’s ‘Fences’ and ‘The Wiz,’ to ensure that stories from the Black Arts Movement weren’t lost to the sands of time. Then they started to add in productions of plays that typically are done with white actors, such as ‘American Buffalo’ and ‘Proof.’

They’ve also produced some new plays. Jude, who has been with True Colors for five years and at the helm since 2019, has spent his career in new play development and is most excited about bringing original theatre to the public.

“I think we have a really great opportunity to inspire new work of Black artists here in the red clay of Georgia,” he said.

A 2020 New York Times article exposed the dearth of stories about Black people being told in the performing arts in Atlanta. Despite Atlanta’s reputation as a Black mecca, there is a large disparity between the number of African-Americans in the city – about 50 percent – and the audience – about 80 percent – and in the number of plays performed that are written by Black playwrights – about 14 percent.

“Our audiences look to be affirmed by the stories that we’re telling,” Jude said. “Hopefully over the course of the season, or two or three seasons, an audience member at True Colors will feel affirmed, will feel challenged, and will feel inspired through the work.”

The 2021-22 season represents this aim well. ‘Marie and Rosetta’ enlivened, entertained, and inspired audiences with the story of the godmother of rock ‘n’ roll, Sister Rosetta Tharpe. ‘Raisin the Musical,’ canceled due to the pandemic, was replaced by a series of readings inspired by Lorraine Hansberry’s classic tale of ‘A Raisin in the Sun,’ which seeks to challenge audiences, and make them feel acknowledged.

‘Fannie,’ scheduled for the summer, is about Fannie Lou Hamer, a voting and women’s rights activist who spoke at the 1964 Democratic National Convention. Her story is especially relevant at a time when Georgia’s Republican state legislature is attempting to change voting laws.

“We’re hoping that a play like ‘Fannie’ can challenge our audiences to continue that fight,” Jude said. “Because that’s the legacy our people have been a part of over the last centuries – fighting for equal protection under the law.”

Productions like ‘Fannie’ directly relate to Jude’s oft-repeated motto above.

“True Colors believes in the civic engagement that we are inspiring people to think about the arts as a way to engage the issues of our time,” he said.

Looking to the future

During the pandemic, True Colors launched an initiative called Dihvinely Konnecked Commissions to, which seeks out and identifies young talent and brings them into the fold.

“Theatre is the most collaborative art form out there,” Jude said. “Our industry works best in a symbiotic relationship with early career artists.”

The program identified 10 early-career artists from a variety of disciplines and provided them with small commissions to produce short pieces inspired by a central theme. Since then, the fellows have served in various roles at the theatre.

Another similarly successful program found four apprentices, two of which work full-time at True Colors, while the other two are active in the Atlanta arts administration community.

“We’re constantly trying to find ways for young early career professionals to get involved with True Colors through a variety of our entry-level programs,” Jude said.

While the pandemic affected their ability to serve local students to the extent they want to, they had a literacy program for third-graders and a mentoring program for young women in middle school.

“I think as we emerge out of this pandemic and as True Colors moves forward, I want to do more to focus on theatre for young audiences and continue to do our work for school-age kids,” Jude said.

The flagship program for the theatre is the Next Narrative Monologue Competition, conceived of by Jude. Not only open to the youth of Atlanta, the competition is a national program open to high school students in participating regions around the country. Jude commissioned original monologues from 50 contemporary Black writers and students perform the material. Those who surpass semi-finals and regional finals earn a place at the national finals, including an all-expense paid trip to New York City, workshops with theatre professionals, networking opportunities, scholarship money, tickets to Broadway shows, professional headshots, and copies of scripts so they can further their arts education.

“We know that all of the students that participate in the program won’t go on to be professional actors or directors or playwrights, but what we do hope is that we are developing art patrons,” Jude said. “I’m proud of all the work we do at True Colors, but if I had to only say one thing, it would be that program.”

Jude has a clear vision for the future of True Colors and regional theatre in general.

“I really do feel that in the next five years, we will have a commercial future,” he said, noting active plans for plays that start in Atlanta to move throughout the country.

He hopes to add a second stage to complement the 375-seat proscenium theatre True Colors currently has and is excited about growing the national reputation of the theatre beyond its current distinguished reputation.

“One thing that we’ve been advocating for is this idea of transformational funding for Black arts organizations,” Jude explained. “Yes, there has been a lot of focus on Black arts, or just Blackness in general in a post-Breonna Taylor, post-George Floyd world, but funding has not always gone to smaller arts organizations.”

Despite its national presence, True Colors is considered a small arts organization and Jude would love to see enormous growth.

“I’d love to see resource equity, that Black theatres, especially True Colors, is resourced at the same level of our peers,” he said, pondering why the theatres that artists of color feel marginalized at are more well-funded than the organizations that nurture them. Funding equity, to Jude, won’t benefit only his theatre, but the industry at large.

Behind the scenes, Jude hopes True Colors is a model for theatres nationwide.

“Administratively, we’re trying to show the American theatre that the way in which they have been doing business is not necessarily the way they have to keep doing business,” Jude said. “You can take big swings on diversity, you can have a majority minority arts administration team and still be highly successful, and it doesn’t just have to be about telling stories about people of color. That’s our thing, but that doesn’t necessarily mean artists of color and administrators of color can only tell stories about people that look like them.”

For more of Jamil Jude’s wise words, check out the True Colors Podcast, and for more on Kenny Leon’s True Colors Theatre Company, visit truecolorstheatre.org



 




True Colors Theatre Company - Atlanta, GA

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