it to the top
King '74 (MA) not only revived The Academy of Black Arts and Letters,
he is spreading its spirit across the nation.
ran high as Curtis King '74 (MA) headed north from his home state
of Mississippi for a conference in Chicago in 1972. The aspiring Jackson
State University actor knew it would be a spectacular event: a gathering
of the best and brightest in the black arts world.
King didn't know was that this groundbreaking conference, sponsored by
the New York-based Black Academy of Arts and Letters, would become a critical
juncture in his life.
one might call it fate. King was one of only three students from Jackson
selected to attend the conference. The group, a reincarnation of the legendary
American Negro Academy once led by W.E.B. DuBois, had big aspirations
and, at the time, strong supporters.
five years, the Academy fell victim to internal strife and closed its
Jump to 2002.
Think Bill Cosby, Eartha Kitt, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee. Think Dionne
Warwick, Maya Angelou, Jennifer Holliday and Cicely Tyson. And then think
The Black Academy of Arts and Letters (TBAAL). And Dallas. And Curtis
King, director of the acclaimed arts group.
is the only black arts contingent in the country with its own 250,000-square-foot
facility, complete with a 1,750-seat theater, a dinner theater that seats
216, art gallery space, a gift shop and rooms for meetings, weddings and
anything else someone might need room for. With a budget of $1.7 million
and international recognition, TBAAL has made a permanent mark in Texas,
the United States and the arts world by providing a venue for quality
Curtis King again. How did a boy from a Mississippi family led by a farmer
father and a school teacher mother get to be a power player in the black
arts? Curtis, who is generally filled with enough moxie to power a small
army, turns quiet when asked.
and ministry is in theater, in the artistic world," he says. "This is
how I give back to life."
always so humble. At 40-something, the ebullient King has learned some
hard lessons as he's built something important from nothing more than
landed in Texas in 1973 with a fellowship to TCU. While earning a master's
in theater, the ambitious student served as the artistic director for
Sojourner Truth Players, Fort Worth's first African-American theater and
the precursor to the Jubilee Theater.
and worked briefly in New York and Los Angeles after graduating, but could
not forget his experience in Chicago. So he started asking around about
the defunct Academy. He soon found himself the startled keeper of 45 boxes
of documents and pictures -- all that was left of the organization.
So in 1977,
with a meager $250 and lots of yet-to-be-focused energy, King revived
the idea of a group dedicated to preserving and supporting the black arts -- and
founded the Junior Black Academy of Arts and Letters, Inc. (JBAAL). He
immediately began recruiting performers and supporters.
home or support base, the fledgling group operated out of his small Dallas
apartment, later moving to a steak house for performances before finally
renting space on Peak Street in East Dallas near Fair Park.
"I may not
have understood what I was doing, but my passion and commitment attracted
the support from some big names," King said, laughing at the thought of
his naive ambition.
his way through myriad challenges, including criticism from some within
the black community.
city officials until they started to listen. He wheedled support from
unlikely sources, including a couple of white businessmen who persuaded
others that supporting JBAAL was good for the city of Dallas. It was a
turning point for JBAAL, and King, in many ways. Dallas and JBAAL began
to work together within the wider community instead of facing off.
come from the Deep South, if you're wronged or discriminated against,
the only thing you know to do is fight," King said. "So I used to be a
rebel, a revolutionary. If I felt what happened was wrong, I took it personally.
But I always kept fighting for what I believed in."
way, as the organization grew in scope and dropped Junior from the title,
King learned to soften his approach. He is still vocal, but in a different
"Now I ask
his style, the results are impressive. With a slate of 137 performances
and art displays with an African, Caribbean or African-Amer-ican flair
for 2001-2002, TBAAL is celebrating its 25th year. And support has never
out of his cluttered Dallas Convention Center office, where TBAAL is housed,
King promotes the black arts throughout the country. On Sept. 23, he produced
"Symphony with the Divas" at the Kennedy Center, a star-studded event
hosted by Cicely Tyson that featured Nell Carter, Oleta Adams and Erykah
Badu, a Dallas vocalist who grew up attending classes and performing at
King was recognized for his work with two national awards: the Unsung
Hero Award from the Congressional Black Caucus and the Leon Hamlin Producers
Award at the National Black Theater Festival in North Carolina.
and says the work is his way of improving the world.
"I see culture
as a language to help people understand differences. The arts will bring
people together on social levels when nothing else will," he said. "It
brings them together on common ground." --NB
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