'We are the griots': Local partnership formed to give Black Milwaukee theater a second act

’We are the griots’: Local partnership formed to give Black Milwaukee theater a second act


MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- Milwaukee has a long and rich history in the arts, and much of it is thanks to the Bronzeville neighborhood.

For decades, Bronzeville was the go-to space for Black artists, such as Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong.

The artists were known to stay in the then developing neighborhood, to grow and cultivate their gifts and talents.

Now living icons, they are trying their best the preserve the legacy of Black theater in Milwaukee.

In 2013, a theatrical partnership was formed between Barbra Wanzo, Executive Director of Black Arts MKE, along with Sherri Williams Pannell, founding member of Bronzeville Arts Ensemble.

The partnership was formed to shed light on Black theater in Milwaukee.

"When I met Bronzeville Arts Ensemble, I thought we need to provide that platform we need to make sure that they are around for a very longtime," said Wanzo.

Wanzo and Williams Pannell are like Yin and Yang.

Wanzo, all business, crossing T's and dotting I's; and Williams Pannell the Creative side, bringing life to the stage.

The two, African American women, met by chance and would eventually nurture a relationship which would change the way modern-day Black theater is viewed in Milwaukee.

"There was just this, spark of understanding and respect, and, so we said, ah yes, this can be a very good thing," said Williams Pannell.

The thespian went on to say, Milwaukee is a key chapter in the history of Black theater.

"This started in the late 60's with Gerald Wallace's People's Theater, that's one of the root theaters that existed here in Milwaukee," said Williams Pannell.

The two women continued their dialogue. They said, they know the spotlight on Black theater, has shifted and changed over the past five decades.

"We stand on the shoulders of greats, but all of those greats have gone out of business, that is probably one of the biggest business issues we are trying to solve," said Wanzo.

Through the years, Wanzo along with her executive board took a closer look at what needed to be done, to give Black theater a second act.

"It quickly became obvious, to our board, and to myself, that our organization, our individual artist who were capable of producing needed the business and finance help. I approached it, with my corporate background; what are the business issues I need to solve for these artists, to help them get to the next level? And so, we began attacking that," said Wanzo.

One approach to bringing Black theater center stage, was programming.

"The next thing we are doing is Harlem renaissance, we are walking our talk. Harlem renaissance was written by an artistic associate of Black Arts MKE, and recent graduate of Marquette university, "said Wanzo.

At the head of the writers table for Harlem Renaissance, is African American female playwright, Malaina Moore.

Moore is a Milwaukee based actress, playwright, and director.

Moore, a lover of the arts, is scripting her name next to the best for Black theater, bringing Black history to the stage.

"She is writing about Ella Fitzgerald, Zora Neal Hurston, Langston Hughes, and Jacob Lawrence, "said Wanzo.

Wanzo and Williams Pannell paid homage to those who made Black history in the past, and to the Black thespians, making history today, like Emmy award winner, Sheryl Lee Ralph.

"You sit a little taller, as she said, you're in love with what you see in the mirror, said Williams Pannell.

The strides of iconic Black performers setting the stage for the next generation.

"We are the griots, and if we don’t record it and tell it, as barb said, it's not necessarily going to be recorded in the history books, but it will on the stage, it will on our page, those scripts that we write, it will be recorded and then it exists for the next generation to tell it again," said Williams Pannell.

For more information on Black Arts MKE, click the link here.

For more information on Bronzeville Arts Ensemble click the link here

Share this article: