It’s Always Loud in the Balcony: A Life in Black Theater, from Harlem to Hollywood and Back

A Memoir By Richard Wesley

Reviewed by Brenda M. Greene

Richard Wesley ends his memoir, It’s Always Loud in the Balcony, from Harlem to Hollywood and Back, (Applause Theater and Cinema Books, 2019) with the words “My memories are a great foundation to build on and I remind myself that it’s okay to go there, as long as I don’t live there.”

His memories on the post-civil rights movement, the Black Arts Movement, the Black Theater Movement, and contemporary Black theater and film form the substance of this memoir.   He is the protagonist, the central character who reflects on how these cultural movements shaped his development as a socially and politically conscious dramatist. As readers, he takes us on an historical journey of the playwrights, actors, and dramatists who beginning with the 60s informed the many iterations of the Black Theater and Black Film Movements.

Memoirs offer readers a slice of a writer’s life and as such are not always written in a linear format. Thus, there is redundancy throughout this memoir, a reflection of the way the mind remembers.  The events and people that shape our decisions and life’s experiences are often remembered as episodes and are subject to variable cultural, political and economic factors. 

Wesley’s story reflecting his memory of the Black Theater and Film Movement is no exception.  As he recounts this story, he engages the reader by describing how these experiences have directly influenced and impacted him as the protagonist in the story and as the memoirist who ponders on the significance of these events in his life.  Whether introducing the reader to playwrights from the Black Theater Movement of the 60s who survived through the 90s and beyond or to those who are dominating this movement now, Wesley brings the reader into his personal space. 

As I read this book, I felt as if I were in a living room with Wesley as he told his life story and his place in the Black Theater and Film Movement.  As a listener and reader, I was a witness to his personal conflicts over whether to make a full-time commitment to the theater arts, his ideological conflicts with respect to nationalism in the Black Arts Movement, and his conflicts between writing for theater, film, and television. 

Wesley decided many years ago that he did not want to be placed into a box or defined by a particular genre and that as a dramatist he would have the freedom to select the form that was most appropriate for his writing vision.  His adaption of the term “dramatist” is the designation that captures his desire to write for the stage, screen and television. Owen Dodson, the Chair of the Howard University Drama Department, helped to influence his choice of the term dramatist.  After attending Howard University and finding out that he could not major in television writing, 

Wesley reflected on what Prof. Dodson told him “. . . if I can teach you to write for the stage, you will be able to write for anything.”  Thus, Wesley studied playwriting and applied his knowledge of these skills to screenwriting, scriptwriting and the libretto.  He accomplished all of this by writing from what Toni Morrison would call “the black gaze.”  His writing has focused on themes and characters immersed in the Black experience.

The last 50 years of Wesley’s life embody his vast repertoire of skills and his ability to “write for anything.” His work has been produced on stage and for screen and television. He has received the Drama Desk Award, the NAACP Image Award, the AUDELCO Award and the Castillo Award for his work in political theater. 

In 1971, his first play, The Black Terror, was presented at the New York Shakespeare Festival’s Public Theater and The Mighty Gents premiered on Broadway in 1978. In the mid-1970’s, he began writing screenplays and produced screenplays for Uptown Saturday Night in 1974, Let’s Do it Again in 1975, and Fast Forward and Native Son in 1986. Most recently he won the Pulitzer prize for his libretto of The Central Park Five by Anthony Davis. 

Mentors have played a vital role in Wesley’s life.  The maxims that faculty and playwright mentors gave to him are ever-present in his mind and have helped to guide his journey.  Amiri Baraka (formerly Leroi Jones), Ed Bullins. and Bob Macbeth were instrumental in launching his playwriting career and he describes his initial meetings with them and how they motivated him to find his place in theater.  

He remembers the words of Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee. “Show business was a matter of alliances and networking . . .. What you know will keep you in the room.  Who you know will get you there in the first place.”  

Ted Shine, the super cool faculty member in the drama department, was his primary playwriting instructor and had adages that helped him to form and articulate his philosophy about writing.   Shine emphasized the following to student writers:

“Form ever follows function. . .. No artist can, or should completely ignore the events of the world in which he lives; he must never allow himself to be so consumed by them that he loses sight of his craft. . . .Writing craft takes precedence over social or political considerations.” 

In reflecting on the animated lectures of Chair Owen Dodson, Wesley later realized that these lectures, filled with humor and descriptions, were probably the result of a professional career denied by the racial customs and restrictions firmly in place during his youth in the 30s and 40s. Dr. Benjamin Mays, the commencement speaker at his graduation, reminded him of a philosophy that has guided his stance as a Black dramatist.  In the words of Dr. Mays, remember your debt to those who came before you and those who will follow.  

In contemplating the current state of Black theater, Wesley reminds readers that relative to the number of people in the population, the number of artistic directors of color in mainstream theater companies across the US remain miniscule.  Although Broadway has boasted a larger minority representation among the nominees for its Tony Awards – and awards in the Outer Critics Circle, there is a need for more representatives of color. 

He notes that this issue can be addressed by building strong community-based arts institutions that are cultural anchors in the community.  For example, at one time there were 20 Black theater companies in the five boroughs of New York City.  The few that have remained include the Spectrum Theater founded by Carl Clay, the New Federal Theater, founded by Woodie King Jr., and the National Black Theater founded by Barbara Ann Teer. These cultural anchors have been sustained by private and philanthropic organizations, government agencies, and an intergenerational group of artists and individuals who are committed to supporting the Black theater arts.

Wesley’s memoir provides the reader with a window into the making of an artist and has a special message for contemporary playwrights, screenwriters, scriptwriters, poets, novelists, and essayists. He emphasizes the responsibility of writers, our documentarians and visionaries.  They do not have to change their style, but they should be willing to consider new ideas and new points of view and to find ways to challenge themselves.  This adage is important as writers chart the path for their future.

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