The University of Louisville’s African American Theatre Program celebrates its 20th anniversary this week with a Creole adaptation of a Molière classic. “Monsieur Baptiste, the Con Man” is based on Molière’s satire “Tartuffe.” Set among 19th century Haiti’s free Black community, this comedy of manners depicts a seemingly-devout confidence man who infiltrates a wealthy household and ends up falling in love with the lady of the house. It opens tomorrow and runs through Sunday at the Playhouse.
The performance is part of a number of events celebrating the program’s anniversary, including a gala on Saturday and a series of workshops featuring notable African American theatre professionals, including actor Jasmine Guy and Broadway director and producer Woodie King.
“Monsieur Baptiste” is a perfect convergence of academic interests for director Lundeana Thomas, the chair of the African American Theatre Program. Thomas says in her own school days at the University of Michigan, when she studied 17th century French Neoclassicism (including Molière, in-depth), there were no classes in African American theatre for her to take.
“But I had a white professor who told me you’re going to have to learn African American theatre because you’re black. I’m like, no kidding,” she said with a laugh.”And he said, you know, people are going to look at you and they’re going to expect you to know.”
(The University of Michigan now boasts an African American Theatre minor.)
Thomas sought out mentors at professional and academic conferences instead, and when she performed in a 1986 professional production of “Monsieur Baptiste” in Detroit, she held onto her script and promised herself that one day she would direct a production.
“So it’s been a labor of love,” she says. “In helping to teach students about period acting, this period of Molière, and infuse it with the Caribbean flair of this particular play.”
Thomas has taught and directed African American theatre at U of L since 1996. She will retire at the end of this year, but she says she leaves the program with a strong foundation for her as-yet-to-be-hired successor (the university will hire a full-time tenure-track professor to lead the program).
“We have produced over fifty plays in less than twenty years. We have had nine premieres. We have also taken three trips to the National Black Theatre Festival, which shows that we are nationally known. And we have had two international tours as well,” says Thomas.
One of those tours, a 2007 student trip to China, has inspired a return to Asia this spring for March tour dates in Singapore, where the program will remount their production of “The Orphan’s Revenge,” an original hip-hop adaptation of the 13th century Chinese classic “The Orphan of Chao.”
Founded in 1993, the African American Theatre Program, which teaches a mix of undergraduate and graduate students, produces plays by established and emerging African American playwrights and offers an in-depth curriculum focused on the theory and craft of acting, directing and designing specifically for Black theatre. Programs like this fill an industry-wide need, Thomas says, for trained actors of color.
“That’s one side of it,” she says. ” The other side is as we become a universe that’s no longer monolithic, it’s important that everyone understands about African Americans and their contributions to theatre. So we are training all of our students, not just the African American ones about themselves and their experiences, but also others, so they can learn the history of African Americans, not only in the United States, but in theatre.”
Along with fellow retiring theatre arts professor Rinda Frye, Thomas will perform a staged reading of Carolyn Gage’s “Mason-Dixon” in March to benefit the AATP’s trip to Singapore. And though she is retiring, she’s not slowing down. Thomas has signed on to be a consultant for the development of a new Spanish-language theatre program at Texas Southern University.