Last week the West Las Vegas Arts Center was buzzing. The Performing and Visual Arts Camp for Kids was nearing the end of another successful summer, and the kids were preparing for a series of performances around town that would culminate in a weekend show next door at the West Las Vegas Library Theatre. Started by Marsha Robinson 14 years ago, the arts camp runs five days a week, eight hours a day. Eighty kids, ages 10-15, participated this year, and the application to get into the camp demands that kids demonstrate what they can offer the program, not just what they bring. The kids study visual arts, music, theater, dance and theater tech. Artists from local companies and Strip shows come to give workshops. Character-building is as important as learning artistic chops. Most of the kids are black.
As kids chattered in the halls, their instructors reflected on the camp’s accomplishments. “It’s very important for children to see excellence. When they see that there’s no excuse for them not to pursue excellence,” said actor Walter Mason, who made a name for himself as both the longtime production manager for Sammy Davis Jr. and the first black head of entertainment services for a major Las Vegas casino (the Hilton). Actor Antonio Fargas, who portrayed immortal character Huggy Bear on TV’s Starsky and Hutch, added, “The library theater has created spaces for those hungry enough to occupy.”
The future of black art in Las Vegas likely starts here—who knows how many of these kids may develop their artistic talents and make a home in the city? Of course, we are in a moment when the future of black art in general is, perhaps, in a bit of a state of flux. Hip-hop is undoubtedly the preeminent black art form in the country (and probably the world), but the status of other forms of black artistic production is a little more nebulous. Alive and well, yes, but not exactly taking the world by storm.
The presumption of the Obama era is that race is behind us. I mean, not really totally behind us—no one really believes that—but mostly behind us, receding from view. After all, the problems of the last two presidencies—terrorism, health care, global warming, the recession—have sort of trash-compacted both black and white people into just struggling, bewildered, what the fuck is going on? Americans. Perhaps we can finally start to think simply in terms of American arts.
But as the recent arrest/media circus/beer date at the White House with black professor Henry Louis Gates and white cop James Crowley indicates, we’re still living in a world where racial suspicions die hard and where racial differences matter. And as long as they do, black arts matter, everywhere.
Like much else in the city, black arts are usually conceived of in connection with entertainment. And so people talk of that initial six-month run in 1955 of the Moulin Rouge hotel, when luminaries such as Nat King Cole and Louis Armstrong helped desegregate the casino business in Vegas. “The whole romanticism of the Moulin Rouge was only in that five months,” says filmmaker Stan Armstrong.
But black artists have been thriving away from the casinos for years. As befits a city of 2 million, there are black writers and musicians, painters and dancers, actors and filmmakers here. The problem is that there just aren’t many, and in a transient city such as Las Vegas, it can be a challenge for them to coalesce into a dynamic and coherent group.
Armstrong himself knows this firsthand. In addition to teaching film at UNLV, he has made several documentaries about the Civil War, as well as a film about the history of West Las Vegas. “There’s enough black artists here to start a movement, but the word isn’t really out,” he says. “I think with the African-American community, in a sense it is very split.” Armstrong, like others, talks about the lack of unity in the scene, or the sense that people are reluctant to support each other’s success. Of course that assumes that there is a scene. Many observers point to the success of the West Las Vegas Arts Center and Library Theatre as the central hub of black art, not unlike (if you’ll forgive the stretch) Harlem in New York. Others suggest, off the record, that the arts “scene” in Vegas’ historic black heart is just a small piece of what an exciting artistic community should look like.
“The million-dollar answer is unity,” says Armstrong, “getting all the artists together and actually doing something. Working with numbers and groups rather than being mavericks. That’s always been our problem, as black people, and people.”
“There are a lot of very serious black artists in this city who truly want to raise the bar,” says actor Lanyard Williams. “The answer is to keep putting it out there. It’s hard to get people to come out and review the shows, or just have them marketed correctly.”
Some of that is at the feet of the local media. But the rest has to do with the nature of the city itself. Vegas, as Williams notes, is a “let’s go out and have a good time” kind of place. “A lot of people don’t want to go to the theater to be educated or depressed or moved. They want to go in and skin and grin and laugh.”
This is a thought echoed by Miko Montgomery, owner of the Movie Brat poster shop. Montgomery is part of a rich artistic heritage: One of his uncles is jazz guitar legend Wes Montgomery; another is jazz bassist Monk Montgomery, who founded the Las Vegas Jazz Society in 1975. Montgomery himself dabbles in writing and music and considers his shop another gathering place for black artists.
As he explained in an e-mail, “If there’s a problem with black art in Vegas, it’s not so much that the problem is a ‘black’ thing. I don’t see the problem as being necessarily racial. The problem is the city itself. All cities, like people, have their own particular mentalities. And the Vegas mentality has historically been ‘anti-art’ in that art has never been considered important or valuable. A lot of this stems from the Vegas business attitude, which is to appeal to the lowest common denominator in order to make money. Art doesn’t (or shouldn’t) appeal to the LCD.”
Robert Connor, who runs Trinity Entertainment Group and teaches theater at Las Vegas Academy high school, is probably even more pessimistic. “We’re nowhere near there.” Connor, who came from Atlanta five years ago, describes the state of black arts here as a “very frustrating void. The pickings are slim.”
This is one of the reasons, he says, he developed his own theater troupe, Trinity, to try to widen audiences’ awareness of black art. But do black audiences (let alone audiences in general) want to broaden their horizons? Black churches in town have had success putting on Tyler Perry-esque melodramas with simple moral themes, but there seems to be less taste for more ambitious black theater. For instance, Connor’s Trinity troupe recently held auditions for a stage adaptation of Toni Morrison’s first novel, The Bluest Eye. He said he got more response from actors in New York, Chicago and Atlanta than Vegas. “This town has very low expectations when it comes to African-American art.”
And yet, the depth of black artistic talent in Vegas can be surprising. Like Connor, dancer Bernard Gaddis came to Vegas about five years ago, to perform in Zumanity. He spent seven years as principal dancer of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, one of the country’s premier dance companies. Gaddis later joined Mystère, and found time to launch the Las Vegas Contemporary Dance Theater three years ago. With twice-a-year seasons out of the West Las Vegas Library Theatre and the Summerlin Library and Performing Arts Center, the library district, Gaddis says, is considering making it a resident company.
His troupe is not specifically a black company—perhaps multicultural, if one is inclined to make such distinctions. “The company is about the human spirit. Our mission is to go into all communities of Las Vegas. Las Vegas is concentrated on the big huge Strip shows, but there’s not too much for the community.”
Still, Gaddis sounds more upbeat about artistic possibilities for people of color, and a lot of the intricate choreography of the summer camp bears his stamp. “Every artist that’s an acrobat or dancer or musician or singer all come from organizations like this. We train them to be able to do stuff like that. If we don’t cultivate these kinds of organizations, we won’t have those stellar artists onstage and be able to charge $150 for a ticket.”
The other hub for black artists in town is the Left of Center Gallery. It operates on the top floor of a corrugated steel building in North Las Vegas that’s the headquarters for Richardson Construction. One of its mainstays, painter Harold Bradford, says the art scene for African-Americans is “improved, but there still needs to be a larger awareness of black arts and artists in town.” He’s a regular at the gallery’s informal Saturday sessions, where artists, especially black artists, can get together and talk shop, critique each others’ work, get support.
Bradford came here in 1985 to work for YESCO as a sign director. But his biggest “sign” is a massive, 153-foot-long mural, “Triptych Passages,” which holds down the end of one wing of the D Gates at McCarran International Airport. It’s a curving work, 8 feet tall, sandwiched between glass windows and a glass roof that depicts natural scenes in Southern Nevada, including Red Rock, Valley of Fire and Mt. Charleston. It is the largest work at the airport. “Those were the areas that first attracted me when I came here.” A trio of wild mustangs graces the left side of the mammoth artwork.
But there need to be more places that showcase black art. “There are a lot of good black artists in this town, but they have no place to show their work,” says artist Frank James (see sidebar).
artists tend to chafe at labels—they’re usually the province of scholars, critics, journalists and marketers (except, one supposes, when it’s the artist himself who is supplying the label).
“Your art is automatically considered black art,” Bradford says. “Good art is good art. Certain art is inclusive to the black experience and the black environment, which I try to do in my own work.”
Which is why talking about black art and black artists can be tricky. Perhaps black art is simply now (as in some ways it has always been) American art. Black actors are common on television comedies and dramas—though predominantly “black-themed” shows are few and far in between, and they always seem to reach for a level well beneath, say, The Wire. Hip-hop thrives in Vegas, but jazz is nearly nonexistent. There are not many black writers. Cirque and new shows such The Lion King amply demonstrate the talents of black artists from across the global diaspora, and yet Connor says Trinity may not be able to stage its annual Black Nativity show at Christmas due to the bad economy.
But in Vegas’ push toward maturity, it seems as if more can be done, as if the city could aspire toward a richer and more varied black arts community. After all, the factors that attract talent here remain as strong as ever. Jani Jeppe, the performing-arts coordinator for the West Las Vegas Library Theatre, came here in 1988 from New York City, and worked as a dancer in production shows on the Strip. Las Vegas was bright, cheap and easier to live in. That hasn’t changed. “We’re not trying to claim to be validated by anyone else. Just to have the opportunity to present.”
Last weekend, the West Las Vegas Library Theater was packed; latecomers pressed themselves down the narrow walkway against one of the theater’s walls. The two-hour show was a tribute to the 100th anniversary of the NAACP, as well as the legacy of the civil rights movement. It comprised more than 20 numbers—dance, drumming, bits of spoken word, short, politically charged skits. It ended with an exciting tribute to Michael Jackson. The audience members cheered for their friends onstage. In all it was a reminder of Vegas’ capacity to surprise, to deliver the goods when you least expect it.
If we don’t think of Vegas as a mecca for black creativity the way we think of large cities with richer black histories, then certainly camps like this, along with the library theater, may provide some of the creative infrastructure the city needs. That is, if the youngsters can heed the advice of one of the performers in the show, who declared to the crowd, at the end of the show, “Nobody can stop a community organized and committed.”