Decades ago, Douglas Q. Barnett realized how many Black playwrights were out there, smashing his preconceptions, he recalled in a Historylink.org essay. “They just need a venue.”
Barnett, who died last year last year at 88, gave Seattle that venue. In 1969, he founded the Black Arts/West Theatre, which became a nationally-known showcase for Black writers, actors and dancers until it folded in 1980.
Now, the Central District block where the theater was located — East Union Street between 34th and 35th avenues — is named in his honor. About a dozen family members and artists once part of the theater came together at its former location, now a glass shop, for a naming ceremony Wednesday.
Kibibi Monié, a former Black Arts/West actor who first contacted the city about honoring Barnett, poured libations, following an African ritual to honor ancestors.
Tee Dennard, another Black Arts/West alum, read a city proclamation recognizing Barnett’s work as a producer, director, actor and playwright in dozens of productions.
“I’m so proud,” Dennard said in an interview. “It was such a magnificent era. It was like it was magic.”
Gentrification has brought a new era to the Central District, one with far fewer Black residents than there used to be. The street naming is part of an effort to reclaim the neighborhood’s history and give community members a sense of place, said Stephanie Johnson-Toliver, co-chair of the Historic Central Area Arts & Cultural District, which worked with Monié on the effort.
Her fellow co-chair, Sharon Nyree Williams, put it this way at the ceremony: “We have been here and we will remain here.”
Eric Barnett, who attended the event along with his sister Vicky, pointed out that not only was their dad a theater pioneer, but their dad’s dad was an actual Northwest pioneer. Powell Barnett arrived in what was then the Washington Territory in 1888 at age 5, and a park named after him lies just a mile away.
Those who worked at Black Arts/West said Barnett was a gentle mentor to youth and adults like. “This is where my career started,” said actor Roy Ayers, who started at the theater when he was a teenager.
Dennard went on to work in films, including “An Officer and a Gentleman” and “Black Widow.”
He didn’t work directly with Barnett, who was on his way out by the time Dennard got a part in Black Arts/West play in 1973. Barnett became the company manager for The Negro Ensemble Company’s tour of “The River Niger.”
But Dennard said Barnett’s legacy lived on at the theater.
“We were doing plays that were making us aware of who we were as Black people,” Dennard said. A turning point for him was acting the lead role in Lorraine Hansberry’s classic play, “A Raisin in the Sun.”
Understanding the Black family portrayed, and the racism it encountered, “hit home,” he said. “It was a life-changing experience.”
Barnett had no theater experience when he tried out for an earlier Seattle production of “A Raisin in the Sun” and won a small role. It hooked him, eventually leading him to resign from his day job as a postal worker.
His desire to start a new Black theater came on the cusp of the civil rights era. “Black America exploded,” he wrote in his HistoryLink essay.
He started several theaters, one of which morphed into Black Arts/West and operated under the auspices of the Central Area Motivation Program. The theater was situated down the block from the local Black Panthers’ headquarters.
Under Barnett’s leadership, the theater performed such plays as “Slave Ship: A Historical Pageant” by Amiri Baraka and “Dream on Monkey Mountain” by Derek Walcott.
After years in the theater, Barnett returned to the post office. But his interest in the arts never waned, said daughter Maisha Barnett. In later life, he cowrote an encyclopedia of African American theater.
Monié said she founded the Nu Black Arts West Theatre in 1992 to continue Barnett’s legacy of nurturing youth through performances and classes in the arts and science.