PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — In 1988, after an early career spent working with a veritable “Who’s Who” list of Black artists in New York, Karen Allen Baxter took her unparalleled theater knowledge and expansive Rolodex to Brown University — where, for 32 years, she has served as senior managing director of Rites and Reason Theatre within the Department of Africana Studies.
Then, as now, Rites and Reason was dedicated primarily to telling stories by and about Black people and the African diaspora. Born out of a growing national Black Arts Movement and rising demand for increased Black student and faculty representation at Brown, the theater was founded in 1970 by the scholar, director and playwright George Houston Bass.
Today, Rites and Reason remains one of the longest-running continuously producing Black theaters in the United States. It has gained national recognition for its unique Research to Performance Method, which brings artists and scholars together to develop thoroughly researched and artistically unique plays that are as academically rich as they are entertaining.
Colleagues have described Baxter as the beating heart of Rites and Reason and the engine that’s kept the theater running for decades. In addition to overseeing more than 250 productions, Baxter has managed the theater’s budget; applied for and won multiple prestigious grant awards; curated the Black Lavender Experience, an annual week of theater and conversation sparked by queer artists of color; and read and evaluated scripts alongside the theater’s artistic director, Elmo Terry-Morgan.
At a virtual event on Tuesday, Dec. 15 at 6 p.m., Rites and Reason will have two occasions to mark: its own 50th anniversary and Baxter’s retirement. The event will mark Baxter’s final production with the theater — but this time, she’ll be front and center rather than behind the scenes.
Ahead of the celebration, Baxter answered questions about her background, her time at Brown and her favorite moments with Rites and Reason.
Q: What drew you toward a career in the arts?
I grew up in New York City, and my father was an actor with the American Negro Theater. He did two plays on Broadway, then he began working in television stage management. He was the stage manager for “The Ed Sullivan Show” for many years and associate director of “The Garry Moore Show.” He was the first Black member of the Directors Guild of America. So I was surrounded by people in theater and TV — actors and directors would come over to our house; we always went to the theater to see plays.
In high school, I tried to act for about 30 seconds and didn’t enjoy it at all. I couldn’t remember the lines. I said, “I don’t ever want to be caught on stage again.” I knew there were backstage jobs, but I didn’t want to get dirty. I just wanted to be in theater; I liked the atmosphere. When I started working at the New Lafayette Theatre in Harlem, there were two women who basically ran the company and would sometimes get help from female actors in the company. But as soon as the actors had rehearsal or a costume fitting, they were gone. That’s where I came in — I picked up where they left off. That’s how I began to learn everything that needed to be done: how grants were handled, how to order supplies, how to pay your artists and your crew.
Q: Where did you go from there?
Well, one of the actors in the company at the New Lafayette Theatre was Whitman Mayo, who starred in “Sanford and Son.” He and I took the theatre’s literary agency downtown and made it into its own business. We were mostly representing Black playwrights; we had clients like Roscoe Orman, who played Gordon on “Sesame Street” and who is also a director, and playwrights Ed Bullins and Richard Wesley. It wasn’t lucrative work, but it was important. After that, I worked with Bob Marley and the Wailers, Jimmy Cliff and other reggae artists and traveled internationally. And I worked with AUDELCO, an organization that promotes Black theater audience development. I became a producer of the annual AUDELCO Awards, which recognize Black theater excellence.
In the 1980s I also resurrected, with Pat White, the Frank Silvera Writers’ Workshop in Harlem, which every Monday night produced a reading of a new play. Because we were in New York, the workshop drew some amazing A-list actors. The founder, Garland Lee Thompson, one day said he was giving up the workshop. I said, “You can’t let this die,” and he handed me the keys.
Q: What brought you to Brown?
One year, I was working with Loni Berry, a Brown alumnus, on the AUDELCO Awards. He said, “There’s a position up at Brown that you’d be perfect for.” I just rolled my eyes, like, “Brown? Where’s that?” But then I was invited to Rites and Reason and was really intrigued: I would be going from running a writers’ workshop to developing new plays into productions, which I’d always been interested in doing. So in 1988, I moved to Rhode Island and started working at what was then the Afro-American studies program and Rites and Reason Theatre. I thought I’d stay there maybe three to five years.
Q: And instead you stayed for 32 years! What kept you here?
I say, where Rites and Reason lives, and how it lives, makes it unique in the world. There is no other Black theater that is part of an academic department at a university, and therein lies its uniqueness. We have a method of developing new works that isn’t static or standard. We have the freedom to work with all kinds of people, from students to community members to award-winning professional artists.
We had some very exciting and important projects over the years. One of my favorites was a play we developed in partnership with the American Heart Association, and with funding from Lifespan, about heart disease in African American women. “Heart to Heart” toured Rhode Island, North Carolina and California.
Every 18 months or so, something really exciting comes up. We’ve developed experimental plays with a poet. We developed a play based on Rosa Guy’s novel, “The Disappearance,” which was co-directed by the Emmy-winning actor Ruby Dee. We did a play about discrimination and profiling called “Profiles and Shadows” — all the characters were birds, and we performed it for middle school children in partnership with the Providence Performing Arts Center. We twice produced Elmo Terry-Morgan’s “Ophelia’s Cotillion,” a beautifully opulent musical about well-to-do Black Americans at the onset of the Jim Crow era.
Q: Rites and Reason is one of dozens of theater companies across the U.S. dedicated to working primarily with Black playwrights and Black artists. Why do you think it’s important that these companies exist and continue to thrive?
Black lives matter and Black arts matter — not only for Black people but for everyone. Black theaters like Rites and Reason have been involved in diversity and inclusion work for a long time, long before “diversity and inclusion” became a mainstream priority. We are telling stories about people and topics that have been overlooked in mainstream theater, and not just Black stories. We’ve done a play about Chinese foot binding, we’ve done a play about Jewish boys being conscripted into the Russian Czarist Army, we worked on a play about the Tuskegee syphilis experiment. If it’s a good story with good ideas and a willing and able playwright, we’re interested — period
Q: What impact do you think Rites and Reason Theatre has made, both locally and nationally, in the 50 years since it was founded?
I think theater can make people think about big issues in a way that a lecture or a news article can’t. It’s literally in your face — once you’re sitting in the audience, you can’t turn it off or turn it down or choose what you want to hear and what you don’t. All art forms can send messages and feelings implicitly, and that’s why I think art is the language of change.
When I first came to Rites and Reason, there was a post-play discussion about whether Cape Verdeans were Black or white. The Cape Verdeans in the audience were so divided about how they identified themselves that a fight almost broke out. Some of the people who disagreed were even related to each other. It brought forward a subject Cape Verdeans in Southern New England were reluctant to talk about.
When we did “Heart to Heart,” we had volunteer medical workers in the lobby offering screenings. They would take your blood pressure, take your blood sugar and assess your risk of stroke, and they would offer resources for those whose numbers were abnormal. When audiences first came into the theater, they would walk right past these medical workers. But when the play was over, they would rush back into the lobby to get those tests. We had to add an intermission to the play just to accommodate the demand. We’d call people three months after they had seen the play to ask whether they’d changed their behavior; they would say, “I park my car farther away from the store, I read the nutrition labels, I’ve cut back on smoking.” It was extraordinary, maybe even life-saving.
Q: A half-century past its founding, what’s next for Rites and Reason?
In the spring, Rites and Reason will have its 12th annual Black Lavender Experience, a week of theater and conversation sparked by queer artists of color. That will of course look different than usual
The theater has several plays in development, which will probably be virtual. Taking plays to a virtual space is very challenging; we learned that in the fall when we did a Zoom performance of “Songs of a Caged Bird” by Christopher Lindsey, which was about the Black Panther 21 who were wrongfully accused of a bombing and a rifle attack in New York. It was like flying an airplane while we were building it.
Q: And then, of course, there’s the tribute to you happening on Dec. 15.
Yes, and it’s turned into a major production. It was originally planned to be 30 minutes long, and now they’re promising music and multiple costume changes.
Q: Who’s changing costumes? Is it you or someone else?
Good question. I can’t wait to find out.