Amun Ra Theatre is ending an 11-year run on the Nashville theater scene. But for founder jeff obafemi carr and his colleagues there is much to celebrate as a new chapter in their artistic lives begins.
“When we started it, there was the idea that we would expose the hidden light of African-American culture through music, drama, dance and the spoken word. That was our mission, and today we can say mission accomplished,” carr says.
“When we first started, I would travel places and people would say, ‘Black folks do theater in Nashville?’” he explains. “Now I’m invited to lecture at universities, we’ve premiered and encored shows at the coveted National Black Theatre Festival, appeared in global media, and when I go to other cities and mention Nashville now, people know our name and brand.
“I’ve been blessed to live a dream because Amun Ra set a standard for excellence, ingenuity and inspiration. It was all spawned from a group of people with common vision, exceptional artistic skills and work ethic, and it’s my wish that some young people out there will be inspired by that legacy, get together on one accord and say, ‘We got next.’”
The actor/director/writer – among other professional roles – says Amun Ra had specific goals when it was founded in 2001. “We wanted to utilize African-American culture to tell stories of importance to the community and the world. We’ve done that,” carr says, noting such works as the company’s reimagining of Langston Hughes’ Black Nativity that has become a welcome fixture on Nashville’s performance schedule.
Another goal was to provide a resource and training center for performing artists of African descent where they could hone their skills. More than 70 artists, most of African descent, have taken advantage of that opportunity since Amun Ra was formed, according to carr. “If you look at the resumes of a lot of black artists in Nashville who are acting in shows, directing shows, writing shows,” he says, “…you’ll see Amun Ra is somewhere in the beginning or middle of their careers. That’s something I’m extremely proud of.
“We’ve reached a point where everybody’s out doing their own thing. That’s healthy for the community.”
Also high on the goal list was the objective of exposing young people to the performing arts as an educational tool for the building and maintaining of positive self-esteem. From a small group of 12 eight years ago, the organization’s Performing ARTs Academy for youngsters six and up has become a resounding success; this year’s academy finished July 12 with Give My Regards to Black Broadway, which featured acting, dance, and musical numbers from such shows as Dreamgirls, The Lion King and Ain’t Misbehavin’.
“We’ve had kids who could barely speak their name in public become forensics champions, 4-H speaking champions, actors and better students…We can say that we’ve been able to affect them in a positive way, and that’s extremely important to us,” carr says. While Amun Ra Theatre may end, there are plans for the annual academy to continue.
The final major goal was to provide Nashville “with a cultural venue that would serve as a window to the hearts, minds and dreams of its diverse African-American community.” When carr and his Amun Ra colleagues converted the structure at 2508 Clinton St. (which in the past had been a mosque and years earlier a pool hall) into the Amun Ra Theatre Playhouse in October 2008, he noted the facility was the first African-American owned and operated theater site in Nashville since the Majestic Theatre in 1906.
“And we hope the community will continue the facility as a home for artistic expression,” says carr, who plans to offer rental opportunities for individuals and groups that may wish to use the site.
Accomplishing what the organization set out to do is the primary reason Amun Ra Theatre will now disband. There is a very compelling personal reason as well.
“I’m an artist. Amun Ra has needed an artistic director for a long time,” carr explains. “…(American Theatre Hall of Fame member and New Federal Theatre Founding Director) Woodie King, Jr., told me, ‘carr, when you decide you’re going to become an artistic director, just know that it will take you away from the art.’ Now I know what he means. I increasingly became concerned with budgeting, fundraising (carr even went up on the playhouse roof at one point to raise money), board development, community relations, press relations and building maintenance and other matters, and it took me away from creating art.
“I’m at an age where I’m old enough to know what I’m doing but young enough to still have the energy to do it. So I want to turn the page and get back into the art.”
He’s emphatically done that by helming the film He Ain’t Heavy. The drama, which was shot in found-film style by carr, utilizes the talents of such Amun Ra collaborators as Kenetha Rogers Carr, Robert Fitzgerald II, Terrence TK Kendrick, Joel Diggs, James Rudolph and Bralyn Stokes. The 106-minute cautionary tale about the dangers of hazing played to sell-out crowds at this year’s Nashville Film Festival and won the Ground Zero Tennessee Spirit Award for Best Feature.
“It’s been exciting to be involved with this film that provokes such strong reactions from so many people,” says the director, who hopes to announce a distributor for the film soon. “And I think the future is bright.”
Indeed, with screenings at a National Town Meeting on Hazing in Charlotte, N.C., on Aug. 11 and the Peachtree Village International Film Festival in Atlanta, Ga., on Aug. 18, the future appears bright and busy for carr. But that doesn’t mean Amun Ra Theatre, which even provided the setting where he met his wife, will leave his head or heart any time soon.
“I’m extremely grateful for the opportunity to be at the helm of an organization that has done so much in the community of Nashville for the past 11 years because we’ve had so many great artists attached to it,” he says. “It’s been an incredible experience and I’m truly thankful for it.”