The Origins of Black Theatre Network

The story of the creation and development of the Black Theatre Network (BTN) can hardly be told with full accuracy by any one individual. BTN is an organization where the labor of many has come together to form the whole, where individual contributions are too numerous tofully recount. We stand on the shoulders of the many selfless artists & academics who have made BTN what it is today.

The seeds of BTN were planted by the African American educators of the National Association of Dramatic and Speech Arts (NADSA).

These educators joined the American Theatre Association (ATA) when it became more receptive to people of color. In 1965, the Afro-Asian Theatre Project was founded under the ATA. Subsequently, the group within the Project interested in Black Theatre formed the African Theatre Project, which ultimately became the Black Theatre Program (BTP). It was 1985, at the ATA meeting in Toronto, Canada, that talk of ATA’s structural problems became a concern for members of the BTP.

In 1986, the inevitable happened: ATA folded. A group of Black Theatre devotees met in New York City at the National Education

Theatre Conference (NETC), to bemoan ATA’s demise and to excitedly debate the future of the defunct BTP. Against the backdrop of the lobby bar of the Milford Hotel, these pioneers pondered the feasibility of creating a new Black theatre organization. This new organization would rise like the Phoenix to provide a service to those facing displacement, while securing a haven for future artists and scholars.

As strategy sessions moved to New York University, the group faced its first major decision: to follow the safe path by joining forces with the newly created Association for Theatre in Higher Education (ATHE), or to tread on what was perceived as uncharted territory and build a separate nationalistic organization. During the 1986 meeting, as the hours passed and the debate raged on, the revolutionaries were determined to strike out on their own, and after much fiery wrangling, the decision was made to form the “Black Theatre Network.” Those who brought this vision to life were: Addell Austin-Anderson, George Bass, Buddy Butler, Don Evans, Kathryn Ervin, Winona Fletcher, Coleman Freeman, Floyd Gaffney, Errol Hill, Woodie King, Jr., Bill Lewis, J.W. Lewis, Vernell Lillie, Barbara Molette, Carlton Molette, Louis Rivers, Freda Scott-Giles, Archie Simpson, Marvin Sims, Lundeana Thomas, Barbara Votja, Rhonnie Washington, Von Washington, Ethel Pitts-Walker, Phillip Walker, and Allen Williams.

A communal position paper was drafted and adopted, officers were elected, and the Black Theatre Network came to light. The first officers were Ethel Pitts-Walker (President), Rhonnie Washington (Vice President), Addell Austin-Anderson (Secretary), William Lewis (Treasurer), Von H. Washington (Newsletter Editor), Marvin Sims (Program Chair/ Conference Planner), and an Advisory Board that included Winona Fletcher, Errol Hill, Vernell Lillie and Margaret Wilkerson.

To hear Dr. Ethel Pitts-Walker tell the tale of the founding of BTN, listen to her episode on the black theatre history podcast here.

Winona Lee Fletcher Awardees

BTN recognizes outstanding contributions to Black Theatre through the Winona Lee Fletcher Awards for Outstanding Achievement and Excellence in Black Theatre. Established in 1994 and named after the leading theatre educator, the award has been presented to the following:


Dr. Sandra Shannon (scholarship)


Andre DeShields (performing)

Marcia Pendelton (audience development)


James L. Nederlander, Jr. (producing)

Voza Rivers (costume design)


Pearl Cleage (playwriting)

Lou Bellamy (producing, directing and teaching)


Buddy Butler (education)

Adilah Barnes (producing/performance)


Philip Rose, Producing

Sidney Poitier, Acting and Activism

Ruby Dee, Acting and Writing

Glynn Turman, Acting

Tyler Perry, Producing and Audience Development


Ruth E. Carter (costume design-television and film)

Paul Tazewell (costume design-Broadway)

Myrna Colley-Lee (costume design-regional theatre)

Kathy Perkins (lighting design and scholarship)

Carlyle Brown (playwriting)


Hattie Winston (acting and performance)

Harold Wheeler (musical composition, arranging and conducting)

Sandra Reeves Phillips (acting and singing)1994


James Avery (film and television performance)

Felix Cochren (scenic and costume design)

Quentin Easter and Stanley Williams, Lorraine Hansberry Theatre (producing)1996

Ed Burbridge (scenic design)


Vinnie Burrows (acting & solo performance)

Thomas Pawley (scholarship and education)

St Louis Black Repertory Theatre


James V. Hatch (research and scholarship)

Ted Shine (playwriting and education)

Lloyd Richards (directing and education)

August Wilson, (playwriting)


Ed Burbridge (scenic design)

Shirley Prendergast (lighting design)

George C. Wolfe (writing, directing and producing)


Barbara Ann Teer (institution building)

Abena Joan Brown (producing)

Vinnette Carroll (directing)

Vivian Evans Robinson (audience development)

ntozake shange (writing for the theatre)

Dr. Margaret Wilkerson (scholarship)

Presidential Pathfinder Awardees

The BTN Presidential Pathfinder Award is presented to an artist or an institution that illuminates a path to innovations and new concepts in Black Theatre. This honor was first awarded by President Lundeana Thomas in 1996 to playwright, Suzan-Lori Parks.

2018 - Jackie Alexander, North Carolina Black Repertory Theatre

2016 - Dominique Morriseau

2014 - S. Epatha Merkerson

2012 - Tarell Alvin McCraney

2010 - Daniel Banks & Adam McKinney, DNAWorks

2006 - Darrell Willis of the Dunbar Repertory Company

2004 - Karamu House and Ralph and Bonnie Greene with the Unity Theatre Ensemble

2002 - Elizabeth VanDyke and Will Power

2000 - Keith Antar Mason

1998 - Rhodessa Jones and Idris Ackamoor of Cultural Odyssey

1996 - Suzan-Lori Parks

BTN's Past Presidents

*Luther Wells served as Acting President 2010 - 2011; Artisia Green served as President Elect 2010 - 2011.

Lifetime Membership Awardees

Lifetime Membership is a distinguished honor of the Black Theatre Network, bestowed by the Executive Board. This honor recognizes an individual who has provided long and recognizable services to the organization.

2018 Michael Dinwiddie, John House

2016 Gregory Horton, Hely Perez

2014 Dr. Feda Scott Giles

2012 Lundeana Thomas, Carlton Molette and Barbara Molette

2010 Kathryn Ervin and Phillip Walker

2008 Judith Stephens Lorenz

2006 Lawrence and Regina Barclay

2004 Floyd Gaffney

2002 Sydney Best and Barbara Vojta

2000 Lucy M. Walker and J. W. Lewis

1998 Margaret Wilkerson

1996 Woodie King, Jr.

1994 Vernell Lillie

1992 Ethel Pitts-Walker

1991 Winona Fletcher