Tina Knowles-Lawson and Richard Lawson are co-producing a run of Richard Welsey’s play “Black Terror,” at the historic Newark Symphony Hall through their WACO arts center.
The couple spoke with ESSENCE about their passion for the theater project. “I connected with Black Terror so much because growing up in Galveston, Texas, this little Southern Texas town, it was a lot of racial tension, a lot of racial prejudice, and as a teenager, police brutality was a real problem in that town,” said Tina.
Black Terror follows a group of young Black revolutionaries confronting questions about how far one is permitted to go in pursuit of justice. The text addresses issues like how one should be expected to respond to state sanctioned violence and the limitations of representational politics.
It debuted in the early 1970s.
Knowles-Lawson revealed the family history that inspired her to openly revere some of the type of Black revolutionaries presented in the play’s pages. “My family had an experience with the police that was, you know, really horrendous.”
That vulnerability ignited a girlhood desire to learn more about those asserting their rights to protect themselves and others in cities across the nation.
“As a teenager, I was obsessed with the Panthers. I read everything I could get my hands on about them,” she continued. “I had fantasies of joining the Black Panthers. So I followed Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver, Bobby Seals, the whole group.”
Richard, who will be directing the production, first worked with Welsley when he appeared in his play Talented Tenth.
He explained what drew him to the powerful story from the playwright.
“It’s really dealing with really what the central question is for us as a people, – us being African Americans in this country as a people, because it presents two different opposing ideologies – and it sort of harkens to Martin Luther King’s approach and Malcolm X’s approach to the same problem,” Lawson said.
The play’s themes are echoed in the current discourse on the Black Lives Matter movement. Lawson commented on the play’s continued relevance.
“It really speaks to the challenges that we’ve had from day one in confronting the reality of Black people in this country,” said the Grey’s Anatomy star.
Welsey, is also a screenwriter whose credits include Uptown Saturday Night and Native Son. He noted the continued relevance of Black Terror in a statement to ESSENCE.
“Black Terror was one of my first plays but continues to resonate both culturally and historically,” he said.
“This play is just amazing and I’m just a huge fan of Richard Wesley. So I’m so excited about this project,” said Knowles-Lawson.
The show will be produced in partnership with the Newark Symphony Hall’s first official company-in-residence Yendor Theatre Company. Founded by Rodney Gilbert and Andrew Binger, the company , “develops, produces and celebrates works by historically resilient Black and Brown writers, women writers and writers from the LGBTQ+ community.”
Tina shared her excitement about working with other Black community based organizations. “I’m so excited because I know the power of mentorship. I know the power of a community center,” she said.
“Both of my children, if it were not for the performing arts community centers that they went to as kids, they wouldn’t be the entertainers that they are today.”
The actors in the play will be performing in a venue that has hosted Dionne Warwick, Aretha Franklin, The Temptations, Richard Pryor, Patti LaBelle and other legends. It is led by Taneshia Nash Laird, the sole Black woman leading a major performing arts center in the state. During a fireside chat with author and ESSENCE Editor-At-Large Mikki Taylor held at Newark Symphony Hall Tina expressed the importance of Black women having a leadership role in the current arts landscape.
She believes it is important for Black organizations to work together. “It’s absolutely necessary,” she said. “As Black people, we always have to support each other. We are at a minority and you know, we gotta get things by kicking and screaming usually and making noise. So it’s strength in numbers and we’ve got to support each other all across the country.”
“This is the kind of place that can revitalize a community,” said Richard.
“When I came and toured this place- first of all, it’s magnificent. Beautiful. And you can only imagine Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan and Nina Simone and all the old greats, you can feel their spirit in here. And when I walked through that ballroom, I got chills,” Tina added.
The pair nurtures the artistic talents of over ninety children through a program at WACO. “They’ve been doing a lot of programs for kids here and that is what I do, my husband and I, we mentor right now,” said Tina. “I really am excited about the prospect of restoring this place and it being a place where Black people can come and enjoy it.”
Stage productions have faced hardships since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Productions like HBO’s Between The World And Me have relied on unique remote tactics to serve audiences but an industry-wide standard for hybrid format has not yet been established.
Performances of Black Terror will be filmed across venues. Later they will be available to stream.
“This is going to be a ‘plim’, a play film, P- I – L -M and it is going to be done virtually so that the actors are all over the country they will all appear to be in the same place, interacting with each other, and you will believe that they are together and that they can be intimate and really engage,”said Richard. “It’s a tremendous challenge, but you know, we’re creating something new, a new genre.”
“It is through art that really changes the world faster than anything else,” he continued. “A song can create a whole new way of life and living a whole new way of dressing, of talking of behaving. Cultural things change through art, political things change through art. Art is powerful, and we have a really, really important task.”
He broached the potential of a digital platform to stimulate change that extended beyond physical borders.
“In creating this form,” he declared. “Theater will never be down.”
“Virtually by whatever platform that it’s displayed on that same piece of literature can touch millions more. So my concept is I would like to have 100 asses in the seats, but I’d rather have 100,000 eyeballs on the project.”