The INTO Interview

Jonathan McCrory Is Ensuring That Black Artistry Is Nurtured and Uplifted at the National Black Theatre

· Updated on October 4, 2023

Since its founding in 1968 by Dr. Barbara Ann Teer, the National Black Theatre (NBT) has been a haven for Black artistry and culture. The NBT became the first revenue-generating Black art complex and is the longest running Black theatre in New York City. Five decades later, NBT is still a bastion for Black art, culture, and stories that enrich lives, empower communities, and educate the masses around social justice issues. 

With over 350 original theatre works touring globally, $10 million invested in Black artists, and a slew of awards for their work, NBT’s mission enhances Black artistry and Black culture with each work it produces. And its reach is vast. Beyoncé added an excerpt from a speech given by NBT’s founder onto her Renaissance album (listen to the end of “Alien Superstar” for it) and native New Yorker Alicia Keys calls NBT one of her favorite places. Ensuring this mission stays consistent is the Executive Artistic Director Jonathan McCrory

Born in Washington, D.C., the Obie Award-winning creative commits his time and efforts to telling Black stories at NBT since starting there in 2012. McCrory earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Acting and Africana Studies from New York University Tisch School of the Arts and has directed numerous productions, including Dead and Breathing, Blacken The Bubble, Iron John, How the Light Gets In, and Klook. McCrory has founded numerous artistic collectives, including The Movement Theatre Company and the producer collective Harlem 9, and sits on committees for both the Black Theatre Commons and the New England Foundation for the Arts (NEFA) National Theatre Project.

With two main stage productions coming up, in addition to the Pulitzer Prize-winning play FAT HAM transitioning from off-Broadway to Broadway, NBT has a great year ahead. INTO spoke with McCrory about his time with the art complex, the future of NBT, and how it has cultivated Black queer artistry. 

How long have you been working at the National Black Theatre and what drew you to it? 

I’ve been working at National Black Theatre for 11 years, and during those eleven years I have been able to be transformed, molded, shifted, and invited to live inside of my purpose and to cultivate spaces leaning into a Black woman’s mission and vision – to illuminate my own. What drew me to NBT was really an opportunity to peer into and manifest a personal desire I had for my life and my career.

At a young age in junior high school, I was invited by my department chair to speak into what my ultimate plan was. I told him, at that time, that I wanted to go to NYU and study musical theatre, I hadn’t yet applied, and would ultimately get the opportunity to go to NYU for musical theatre. Lastly, I wanted to help run a theatre in Harlem that owned their own space dedicated to doing Black work. 

I think that NBT is continuously fighting for that space for humans to be transformed through the space of Black liberation.

So, what attracted me to NBT was a clarity of what my destiny will ultimately be. And in order to meet that destiny I would be connected and interconnected with Sade Lythcott, the CEO of the National Black Theatre, daughter of Dr. Barbara Ann Teer, and our fearless and dynamic, compassionate leader. Through a co-partnership where we have “co-doula’d” a cultural institution for the 21st century for Black artists, I have been able to not only manifest my wildest dreams, but be able to architect futures that will make sure that if a Black artist is looking for a home away from home, that they have one waiting for them to peer into, vest in, and for us, to invest, ultimately, in them.  

What’s your vision for the National Black Theatre? 

The vision of the National Black Theatre is clear. It’s a vision that is looking at this theory of change and figuring out, “how do we animate that day in and day out?”. That vision is looking at what is Black liberation, plus art, plus placemaking, equal the conditions for humans to be transformed. We’re in the business of human transformation, and we seek to do that day in and day out with the intellectual property that I just expressed.

Forged out of the wisdom of Dr. Barbara Ann Teer, this is a daily call. We live in a system, in a society, that continuously looks at silencing and actually stopping Black bodies in this country from feeling liberated – making us feel like we do not have a place, and making us feel like we are not given the space to allow for our creative brilliance to heal the world. 

How has NBT supported Black queer talent? 

I think that NBT is continuously looking at the vestiges and spaces where the Black body has been shut down, shut out, and not given space. I think that NBT is continuously fighting for, again, that space for humans to be transformed through the space of Black liberation. Too often we have, as a society, silenced many queer Black folks from being able to righteously and fearlessly sit inside of their own body, skin, [and] intellectual property. 

We no longer have to hide inside the historical bondage because we don’t have to fear the reflection of ourselves – no longer trying to silence that revolutionary voice within us [nor] having to think that we have to fit inside the box of someone else’s playground. 

NBT does this in many different ways. We do it by celebrating those queer pioneers who have generated profound transformative culture shifts inside of our society like Bayard Rustin, or James Baldwin, or Marsha P. Johnson. We look at how we can, as a Black institution celebrating culture, celebrate the space of how culture shines, not deepen the silos that have divided us, but mend them with a salve of witnessing, seeing and healing. 

NBT is continuously not looking at, “what is your sexual preference?”, yet what is, and how is, your work liberating the psychic distance of a society? And I think that’s how we support queer folks. 

As a Black queer creative, what does it mean to you to celebrate and support other Black queer creatives? 

There is a beauty when you’re surrounded by and work with other Black queer creatives who are actually your kinfolk. I think there is a lot of power in that “all skinfolk ain’t kinfolk”, and that there is a need for anyone who’s deciding or trying to find their home or their place in society, that they scratch at the really necessary question of “are the folks that look like me sitting with the values that I embody and embolden?”. 

So often we excuse the spaces of erasure that many of our skinfolk create. And I think that it is necessary and very important that as we generate new spaces, new ways of understanding, that we eliminate that age old adage, or that we illuminate that age old adage, and start to take one step further to understand, “what are the values we hold and are the people that we’re surrounding holding those values?”. 

When we are surrounded by those people, we breathe faster, we run faster, we breathe longer, we start to generate new opportunities in new worlds, and we do that because we are seen wholly and completely. We no longer have to hide inside the historical bondage because we don’t have to fear the reflection of ourselves – no longer trying to silence that revolutionary voice within us [nor] having to think that we have to fit inside the box of someone else’s playground. 

What do you hope for the future of the National Black Theatre? 

My wish for NBT is that it gets everything it deserves, everything that it needs, [and] everything that allows for it to soar. It deserves it. [It’s] a half century institution forged by a Black woman, crafted to be the vortex for our liberation to show up through a cultural phenomenon of placemaking in our society. This institution deserves every bit of resources it can possibly attract, so that it continues to pour those resources into the artists we serve, back into the community we love, back into the culture that is needing more cultural beacons to help our society to truly be the fulfillment of our wildest dreams. My wish for NBT is to help eradicate the psychic distance that generates harm for all Black and Brown bodies on every street, every city, and ultimately, in the world. ♦

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