Teaching Artist Nafeesa Monroe spoke with lighting designer and theatre historian Kathy A. Perkins about Alice Childress, her books about Black American theatre professionals, and her work on Trouble in Mind.
NAFEESA MONROE: What's your theatre origin story?
KATHY A. PERKINS: I grew up in Mobile, Alabama during the civil rights movement. During that time, the communities were always in crisis, so theatre was a big part of my life. I performed at church and in school. I was also part of a civil rights organization where we did social issues theatre; that's not what we called it back then, we just called it “civil rights theatre.”
I went to Howard University in the '70s. Pursuing acting just seemed natural. Ironically, the very first play I worked on at Howard was Alice Childress’s Wine in the Wilderness. I was working backstage as part of the freshmen requirement—you work in lighting, sound, costumes, and other production areas. I'm sitting backstage with a friend, who is still a good friend of mine, who was a second-year lighting major. We were talking, and he says, "What are you going to do with a BFA in acting?" This is 1973. I looked at him, and responded, "I'm going to graduate and go to Broadway. What do you expect?" He looked at me and said, "Mm. There are no roles for Black women. Why don't you try lighting? There's so much work, we just don't have enough Black people in the technical fields. We have this big road house next door and there's so much work there. Why don't you come and give it a try?" After I got over my bruised ego, I said, "Okay, I'll try it." And so, the rest is history. I stayed in lighting.
NM: What drew you to Alice Childress in particular?
KP: I've always loved her work. Like I said, Wine in the Wilderness, that was the first I'd ever heard of her, and I just loved the play. At Howard, we would produce and read her plays. 11 years later, I had a chance to meet her. This was in '84. I was teaching at Smith College, and a friend of mine, Roberta Uno, had a theatre called New World Theatre, and she brought Childress to do a workshop of her new piece Gullah. Roberta asked, "Do you want to light it?" I said, "Of course." That's when I had a chance to actually meet Childress. It was just a wonderful experience, working with her, getting to talk with her.
NM: You’ve edited multiple anthologies of work by Black playwrights, including Black Female Playwrights: An Anthology of Plays Before 1950 and Selected Plays: Alice Childress. Why did you decide to research Black artists in non-performing roles in the American theatre?
KP: Every goal I set for myself in life never happened. And that's good for the most part. My plan was to be an actress, and I ended up being a lighting designer. I did not plan to be a historian or anthologize plays, but I’m thankful this also happened. My first day of orientation at University of Michigan—this was 1976, for my MFA—I'm looking for the orientation room, and I stopped this young white guy in the hall and asked, "Can you tell me where the designers’ orientation is?" He said, "Oh, the actors are over there." I [thought] maybe he misunderstood me. I said, "I am looking for the design orientation." He said, "Why?" I said, "Why? Because I'm a design major." He says, "I didn't know Black people did anything other than perform." He wasn't being facetious. I said, "No, that's not true. I just came from Howard University, an HBCU in Chocolate City, DC, and 90% of the people I worked with were Black, so I know we exist. You're looking at me, so we do exist."
Then he went on to say, "Well, I have a PhD in theatre history, and I've never read anything about Black people other than performance." As I had to go, I said, "Thank you, I have to go to my orientation." I just remember being furious that whole orientation session, which was about five hours. After dinner, I went to the University of Michigan’s extensive theatre library. I was there from about 7:00pm until about 1:00 or 2:00am. I literally went through every theatre history book on the shelf, and I left even angrier because he was right. There was nothing about Black people behind the scenes.
I just remember going home and calling my sister around 2:00am; she was in grad school. She was a real scholar, working on her PhD. I explained, "This is what happened to me, and I can't believe this." She said, "Well, it sounds like you need to write a book." I said, "I'm not a scholar." She said, "But you know the people, why don't you just start by interviewing all the ones you worked with in DC?" So, that's how that started.
KP: But it wasn't until around 1981, while teaching at Smith College, that I seriously began to pursue research. I was awarded a large grant from the Ford Foundation, which took me to New York for a whole year. I started interviewing people, from the earliest lighting designer/technician. It was Francis “Doll” Thomas who had come to Harlem in 1918. He was in his 80s. I also [interviewed] many of the members from ANT [American Negro Theatre].
I wasn't attempting to do any research on Childress because I knew there were others conducting studies on her. Our relationship was more like friends, and I knew she had grown weary of people researching her; she talked about that all the time. "Everyone thinks they know me, and the biography is going to all be wrong." So I said, "Well, let me just leave this alone." But she did want me to anthologize her work, so her plays could be available in a single volume.
NM: The more I learn about Alice, the more I understand how your wonderful friendship grew. I know Alice is well known for being a big proponent of unions onstage and offstage. She was passionate about everybody having a chance in all parts of theatre. And from what I’ve learned about your scholarship and advocacy around diversity in the technical areas of theatre, it seems you would have a lot to discuss.
KP: That's exactly where we connected, because I was telling her about the work I was conducting with the unions. I wasn't trying to change the unions, I was just putting all their dirty linen out there, whereas she was actually picketing and petitioning to get Black actors paid Equity wages. We talked a lot about the racism in the business.
NM: How does all of this incredible history and knowledge that you've gotten from primary sources like Childress influence your lighting design process?
KP: Oh, it does in a great way. I'm thinking about Trouble in Mind and what Childress said about the play. I know I'll feel her presence there, and I know she's very much into realism. When I design these plays, they're special to me because I know the playwrights.
NM: You know, as brown folks on stage, we are often not lit correctly. How do you approach designing for multiple skin tones?
KP: My mentor was Shirley Prendergast. She was the first and only Black woman to design lighting on Broadway. I loved her philosophy. She said, "If you work with what's called primary colors, where all your colors mix to white, you can light anybody." And that's pretty much what I do. Yes, there's certain colors I like to use. I like to use certain ambers, and mix it with blue. So if it becomes too amber, I can tone it down with the blue. My front light is always what I call complimentary colors. Everything else, I can utilize more saturated colors if required by the play.
I always tell people, "I'm not just lighting faces. I have to be concerned about the costumes, scenery and all the visual elements. I have to tie everything together, so it's not just that face on stage. And even if it's just the face, I always tell people, "When you light a Black cast, it's a multi-racial cast, because we come in different colors."
NM: How does your lighting make a statement in each production you design?
KP: For me, every play is different. My job is to support the work of the playwright. I'm not an ostentatious designer. My work is very subtle, and I find it very interesting, because when friends leave the theatre [they say], "I really didn't notice the lighting." I say "Oh, that's good. That means it worked."
NM: What advice do you have for aspiring artists in the theatre?
KP: I think you have to be passionate about it. I've always been passionate about theatre. I still am. And I know people have to make a living. So always have a backup plan.
I really encourage—not that I have anything against acting—but there's just a need for more Black people behind the scenes. We need more designers, producers, directors, business managers, and stage managers. We're lacking behind the scenes. I think it's gotten better. I think this coming season is going to be better. I'm seeing more young people going into graduate programs in these fields, which is really good. If you're in lighting, there's just so much work out there.
I've always told my students, "There's work beyond New York," because I do a lot of international theatre. Early in our career, we’re told, "If you don't succeed in New York, you're a failure." No. I work all over the world. Now people are designing regionally, and designing atriums in hotels, museums, cruise ships, etc. The reality is, everybody can't make it on Broadway. That's very unrealistic.
NM: What does it mean to you to be a part of this play finally, finally getting its Broadway debut?
KP: This was the last thing in life that I thought would happen. Even going back to Wine in the Wilderness, when I [first] heard about [Childress] and how she wanted this show to go to Broadway in ’57. Who would have thought that, 65 years later, I would be designing it. It's like a dream, it's almost unreal. I'm just sorry that she's not here to be part of this event. What's really interesting, a couple of months before she died, she was busy working on three projects. She was trying to revive a play that she had written back in the '80s, to see if it would get produced...She died in August '94, so this was early '94. She was saying how she hadn't had a hit play since the '80s, which was the piece on Moms Mabley, which I never saw. I distinctly remember her saying "At this point in my life, I'll never get to Broadway. So let me at least see if I can get this show done at the Public Theatre or some off-Broadway theatre."
This would be so unbelievable for her, that Trouble in Mind is on Broadway, because she had just given up the thought this would ever happen. Oh, but she knows, she's going to be there with us in spirit!