Douglas Q. Barnett, a local pioneer of African American theater, died on Oct. 22 from kidney failure. He was 88.
Mr. Barnett is perhaps best known in Seattle for being the founder and artistic director of Black Arts/West, a local theater company that produced socially relevant theater by and about African Americans and provided artistic training to youth from 1969 to 1980.
Mr. Barnett became active in local theater in the early 1960s, first performing at Cirque Theater and eventually ending many years of employment with the postal service to pursue theater full-time, becoming the performing arts director for the anti-poverty Central Area Motivation Project (CAMP), according to his essay on HistoryLink.org. In the 1960s, he started several theaters, one of which — The New Group Theater — eventually became Black Arts/West, he wrote.
Mr. Barnett was always interested in theater as a tool for social change. In a 1969 Seattle Times article that called Mr. Barnett “probably the most important man in Seattle’s black theater,” Mr. Barnett was quoted as saying, “We should use any technique that will get across the point that we’ve got to change the system into an equitable society.”
Mr. Barnett was a vocal advocate for contemporary theater, pursuing funding for new work and training and opportunities for African American performers. He worked tirelessly toward the vision of an independent black theater in Seattle.
During his tenure at the helm of Black Arts/West, Mr. Barnett produced and directed dozens of socially relevant plays, several of which he wrote himself. Also under the umbrella of Black Arts/West, Mr. Barnett administered a dance education program and an art gallery with funding through CAMP, according to the website Blackpast.org.
“He was a risk-taker, but he acted like he knew what he was doing, and he was a leader. He had a vision few people had,” said Anthony Hill, associate professor emeritus of theater at Ohio State University. Hill co-wrote with Mr. Barnett the 2008 encyclopedia “Historical Dictionary of African American Theater,” which includes entries on those involved in black theater in the U.S. dating back to the early 1800s. As a University of Washington student, Hill performed with Black Arts/West under Mr. Barnett’s direction.
After leaving Black Arts/West, Mr. Barnett was the company manager for the nationally known Negro Ensemble Company’s 1973-74 tour of “The River Niger.” He was also a manager for Geva Theatre in Rochester, New York, and worked for the Seattle Arts Commission. While continuing to be involved in local theater, Mr. Barnett eventually returned to the postal service, where he worked until his retirement in 1997.
Kathleen Fearn-Banks befriended Mr. Barnett when she was serving on the board at Seattle Repertory Theatre. She remembers that Mr. Barnett and playwright August Wilson used to meet at a restaurant on Broadway and talk about theater. She said it was Mr. Barnett’s idea to rename a street near the Rep for Wilson.
A third-generation Seattleite, Mr. Barnett was born in Seattle on June 14, 1931 into the large family of Powell and Katherine Barnett. He married Earline Montgomery and the two had six children in the 20 years they were married before divorcing.
In addition to his ex-wife, Mr. Barnett is survived by his children Victoria Barnett, Eric Barnett, Douglas Barnett, Jr., and Maisha Barnett, many grandchildren, and his longtime companion Carol Beach. He was preceded in death by his children Joyce Ward and Marcus Barnett.
A public memorial is scheduled for noon Sunday, Nov. 10 at Mount Baker Community Club, 2811 Mt. Rainier Dr. S., Seattle.