National Black Theatre’s Sade Lythcott: Optimism is a Superpower

Sade Lythcott

In 1991, Dr. Barbara Ann Teer, the founder of the National Black Theatre in New York City, wrote a letter that she called, The Letter to the Future. In it, she wrote about what she hoped for Black people in the year 2000. “Although we came to the new world in slave ships, by now I’m sure we are leading the world in a righteous direction. We are the power source, the energy machines need[ed] to keep souls alive in the world,” she wrote. 

These words, written almost 30 years ago, are gaining so much more urgent meaning now, in light of the renewed conversation around racial justice and increased support for the Black Lives Matter movement. So when Teer’s daughter Sade Lythcott, who has been the CEO of National Black Theatre since 2008, was trying to figure out how NBT can still fulfill its mission during the COVID-19 shutdown, she turned back to her mother’s words.

“When we look at the history of the National Black Theatre, and what my mother was building, you know, 50 years ago, there’s so many similarities,” Lythcott said. “So how do we use the blueprint of Dr. Teer, teachings and the blueprint of Dr. Teer’s activism, to create a modern, 21st-century manifesto for what the future can be for Black liberation through theater arts.”

NBT was in the middle of its production of Skinfolk: An American Show by Jillian Walker when New York City shut down on March 12. Then in June, the outside of the theater was the site for one of the many Black Lives Matter protests in NYC (it’s situated in Harlem on East 125th Street). Then in the past few weeks, in honor of Founder’s Month celebrating its 51st anniversary, NBT has been hosting virtual conversations with Black artists such as musician Toshi Reagon and playwright/actor Ngozi Anyanwu. And on July 14, NBT was the recipient of an Obie Award for its work in developing Black artists and advocating for the Black community (full disclosure: I was an Obie judge this year and a longtime fan of NBT’s programming).

Below, Lythcott talks about NBT’s current fundraising campaign, how optimism can be a powerful force and how she’s keeping hope alive right now.

Can you tell me about the digital programming you have coming up?

In NBT’s radical commitment to human transformation, and bettering our communities, we’re really looking at this November as probably the most important election of our generation. And so we’re doing a micro commission of seven black, self-identified women artists in a series of micro conditions in the fall called Unbossed and Unbought. It’s kind of building on the legacy of Shirley Chisholm and her famous quote, and that series Unbossed and Unbought: Reclaiming Our Vote will be seven micro-commissions that deal with, and interrogate, our rights, our voting rights. 

We will couple that with a civic organization. Right now we’re looking at When We All Vote, Michelle Obama’s organization which we’ve partnered with before, to couple the artistic output with civic engagement and really putting in people’s hands, not only amazing new work, but a call to action of how we can empower ourselves as we reclaim our vote in November. So those are some of the micro-commissions coming up. 

NBT has launched the Vision Forward Fund, what will that money be used for?

That’s really looking at fortifying our organization from a capacity standpoint, building capacity, investing in the infrastructure of NBT. As we look towards launching a capital campaign [Ed note: NBT was in the middle of constructing a new home when COVID hit], it is to amplify the voices that we do currently support. One of the things that became acutely clear for us is that so much of the artists community, our gig workers, our artists are the ones who are being forgotten to some extent—they don’t have a voice at the table. And so NBT really is looking to double down on the investment in Black artists during this period of time. So commissioning, engaging more, creating deeper impact in the our residency programs. So the fund will support that. 

And then we are looking to also raise money for an archival project. NBT is more than a half century old. And we sit in this very unique space in history, where we presented some of the most defining voices of the Black Arts Movement. Through that we have evolved two generations of work that really captured the American experience of black theater. And so what we want to do is raise money to properly archive the work and our history. As the old African proverb goes, and what my mother used to always say to me, “If you know the beginning well, the end will not trouble you”. And for us, there’s a real service that NBT’s archive can have not just for our organization, but for the public to really learn about Black theater in such an intimate and powerful, impactful way. So those are like the three buckets that the vision forward fund is supporting.

What do you think about the conversations going on right now around institutional racism in predominantly white organizations? Do you think Black and POC-run institutions are being left out of the conversation in terms of, these are the places where we should direct our resources, instead of trying to fix white spaces? After all, BIPOC-led organizations are still underfunded in comparison to white organizations.

We’re all using the same words, but we’re defining them all very differently. For almost a decade there have been initiatives for diversity, equity and inclusion and we’re all using these words. And yet what we can see is systemically and structurally, they mean different things to different people. And one of the things that I think NBT really works hard at is coming to the table with a value proposition that isn’t based on deficit. I think a part of the reason why marginal communities stay marginalizes is that the dominant culture perceives anything as charity. Or, you know, you should be so lucky to have this because you’ve been underprivileged, under-invested, all the unders. 

And as a Black community, I say immediately, we need to get over being under. And so how do we communicate that equity is important, not in service to whiteness, but in service to humanity? When we say equity, we don’t mean a few new programs here and there. What we mean is a fundamental dismantling of structural racism, in order to build a new table. We don’t want more seats at your table, we want to imagine collectively create a table, by which each and every one of us can come to the table as our full selves. And so this is going to be a hard period of time. 

I’m not a Pollyanna about what this moment is, because I think that the discomfort of this moment really scares folks away from systemic change. And I think systemic change is possible, but we have to be talking from that perspective, and not just aesthetic, in which one extra person gets invited into the room. I don’t know if that answered your question.

But I think that it’s an exciting time because people are listening differently. And I think if you can tell your story—not the story they’re familiar with, or the story they feel comfortable with, or the story they want to hear—but really tell your story, in the fullness of your value proposition, there’s more of a chance today that it will be heard, and that change can happen. I think that you have to keep banging on the door. 

I think the other thing is: we as artists of colors, institutions of color, we have to be very strategic. We have to think smarter, not harder. And I think that there is a banal beat to the drum of oppression. Everyone’s responding to it, but it isn’t necessarily a different beat than the drum that was beating in 1968, when my mother founded the National Black Theatre. The difference was in 1968, she built the theater, right? And so it’s inviting our funders to build, not just to say, “You haven’t been doing that.” So we should get these reactionary dollars, but really paint the picture of what one deep investment looks like and why it’s essential. And through that lens point out we’ve been under-invested in or divested in—NBT has been divested in, from a space of real philanthropic support.

And how do we use our digital platforms, like what we’re doing with Founders Month, to create conversations because in one way, we will not gather for quite some time. In another way, we’ve seen with all of our conversation series with our artists is where people would gather in our theater. We are now getting 1000 people per conversation. So really looking at, wow, there’s a real opportunity to speak to a broader audience about the work that we do. And that can be very powerful. So really like figuring the digital space out, figuring out really, instead of calling people out.

I think that some of the challenge with what we’re seeing in this day and age with cancel culture, and calling folks out—NBT is really leaning into calling people in. So this is how we’re going to call the funding community. This is how we’re calling our audience. And we’re not going to call you out because there’s so much shame attached to that. And there’s some reactionary behavior attached to that. But if you feel invited in, we’re calling you in, we’re pointing out where  we fell short in the past, or where they fell short in the past. This is new for us to like, right-side our relationships with each other. 

I was raised thinking that there was no limit or no possibility, no limit to possibilities in terms of what we could accomplish.

Sade Lythcott

What I’ve always noticed when I’ve heard you or artistic director Jonathan McCrory speak is how both of you kind of glow with this positive energy. Would you say that was a positivity you inherited from your mother, and also from not having to work in white-dominated spaces?

So I never actually worked at NBT while my mother was alive. I mean, maybe I costume designed a couple shows. My mom and I were best friends. I’ve lived in other places, but I always kept the majority of my stuff here in the house. I was acutely aware that I was a support system for my mother that she didn’t have anywhere else. So I absolutely grew up in a household and had a best friend that did not see any lack in our culture or our people or our communities. I mean, I grew up in Harlem in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. I saw crack, I saw AIDS, I saw gang violence. And yet, Harlem was and is, continues to be, a mecca for me. 

I mean, it really takes fortification just to preach the love supreme of your people, to be able to always see the rose instead of just the concrete. And so I would just say I was raised in a way that I always saw that. And I also was raised on the front lines of understanding that being able to see our culture through those rose-colored glasses was a privilege. And that if we could just find as many rose-colored glasses to give our own people, in order for us to believe in ourselves and invest in our communities ourselves, that we can all experience this net gain. 

NBT obviously is not the most resourced organization and 100% of what’s poured into the organization goes directly to the work which we’re working on. It’s like at some point, you have to put your oxygen mask on yourself, and hopefully that’s what this capital project will be—us putting the oxygen mask on ourselves in a different kind of way. Because, you know, everyone at the theater is a liberating force. 

And so I would just say, yes, I was raised thinking that there was no limit or no possibility, no limit to possibilities in terms of what we could accomplish. And that the importance of a free Black space outside of the lens, or the judgment, of white American dominant culture was the only way to truly survive. And not everyone feels that way. So we just needed to protect this kind of oasis, for folks to find us when they are at that place in their journey. To be able to say, this is what I’ve been missing my whole life. I always say when people like, “Oh my god, I didn’t know you even existed.” I never take that personally. I’m like, you found us when you were supposed to find us and I hope you never leave. Welcome to your home away from home. So it’s kind of the way we approach everything: this is your home. Sometimes you have to kind of traverse the world in order to find it. But when you do, like we will be there to embrace you. And that for us is really across the board. 

We look at LGBTQ+ community, we look at our deaf and disabled community, we look at our artists from every vantage point. We are slow, we are different and we are just as Black as anything else that’s qualified on the main stages of American theater or on film or television. We want to be that place for all of Black culture. And simultaneously, our audience members are from all walks of life, because I think they identify with the courage and the bravery of the stories that we tell. And that helps them be a little bit more courageous and brave in their own lives. And so yeah, sorry, that was a soapbox. I apologize.

No, this is so empowering. I love hearing you and Jonathan speak. So my final question for you is, considering what you said about the ’60s when your mother founded the theater is not so different from today, and we’re still having the same conversations around race and justice, what is making you hopeful right now? How do you keep on believing that change will happen?

Wow. This is not having to do with work but I’m a mother of a three-year-old Black boy. And so I can’t afford not to be radically hopeful about the future because his life and his survival depends on it. So one, being a mother makes me hopeful that I will continue to play a role in the frontlines, trying to make our community and our world a better place, for his well-being.

I would also say that with COVID in particular, there’s this very interesting thing that’s happening with the uncertainty. The uncertainty coupled with this revolution really is forcing folks to reimagine everything right, like the uncertainty of reopening, you know? Whether you’re Lincoln Center, Roundabout Theatre or NBT—this idea that we are all startups, all of a sudden. None of us know what we’re gonna do. All of the resources that we thought we had, or the principles in which by which we gathered, are all out the window. 

You look at startups that happen during times of crisis, some of the most innovative systems get built, and get put in place. And when you couple that with the revolution that’s happening, people are also needing to rethink their mission, their programs, how they see the world and relate to their leadership and to their staff. So there’s this idea of being a startup and really leaning into the innovation of our times, the creative innovation of artists to build a more sustainable world—both physically when we will reopen, but also morally and how we identify, who and what our family is, and who and what are our brothers and our sisters. Really question those spaces in which we haven’t seen each other as brother and sister in the past.

We get to write that now because we’re all startups. We get to remap it, reimagine it. And so that makes me very hopeful for the future—that work that we all get to do.

Support the National Black Theatre’s Vision Forward Fund here.

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