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Black Theaters Keep the Flame Alive

Never mind the recession. For black theaters scattered around the country, the show must go on. The Root takes a look at how some of them make that happen.

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It opens with Sibusiso Mamba's Train to 2010, a South African play that examines the new South Africa, closes with A Raisin in the Sun and may include another revival of Sheila's Day. Like other theater directors, Jones plans more co-productions. "Look, we're supposed to be creative," he says. "We can make a dress out of a towel. We have to bring that creativity to our business models." Part of that creativity entails reaching out to those in high places. "I recently invited the first lady to our theater. She must have come here when she was at Princeton, and she cares about the arts. I hope it works."

Like Crossroads, the New Federal Theatre in New York boasts a distinguished history, having presented an impressive list of African-American writers and actors over its 40-year history. The lineup includes playwrights Ed Bullins, Amiri Baraka and Ntozake Shange and actors Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington, Samuel L. Jackson, Laurence Fishburne and Leslie Uggams.

But it's been a tough couple of years because the theater lost funding and audiences as a result of the economy. Nonetheless, it ran a popular monthlong series of readings of great African-American plays last spring that drew enthusiastic audiences. This November, it will present Charles Smith's historical play, Knock Me a Kiss, about W.E.B. Du Bois' daughter. "We're sharing costs, space, press and promotions," says founder Woodie King Jr. "We're hanging in."

Other theater companies are employing similar cost-cutting methods. Mabel Robinson, artistic director of the 31-year-old, Winston-Salem-based North Carolina Black Repertory Company (NCBRC), has found collaborations with schools and colleges an economical way to develop audiences and to produce plays. Proud of the teen program, she has been able to maintain five annual productions and keep them touring the state. "We're finding we're also getting a more diverse audience," she says, "people who thought they weren't welcome here. We let them know that our stories are universal. It's great to have them."

Given the current economic climate, it's surprising -- shocking, even -- that the Black Ensemble Theatre of Chicago just broke ground on a $16 million theater. "I'm not sure how we did it," says Jackie Taylor, who founded the organization in 1976. "But we foresaw the downturn and ramped up our fundraising and, in house, tightened our belts." She can report great numbers, such as audiences for its five annual musical productions totaling 500,000.

The theater doesn't offer subscriptions, preferring the freedom to extend hit shows. Part of its success lies in its programming. The company focuses on musicals, presenting popular productions like Taylor's The Other Cinderella, The Sensational Soulful 60s and A Rare Pearl: The Story of Pearl Bailey. "We've always focused on strong audience development," Taylor says, "and have built up generations of committed theater-goers of all ages."

On the other side of the spectrum is San Francisco's Cultural Odyssey. From its beginnings 30 years ago, the company never took the traditional theater route with a permanent base and a fixed production schedule. Instead, founder-executive director Idris Ackamoor, along with his co-artistic director, Rhodessa Jones, strove to create a touring company that produces original works based on collaborations. They have collaborated in multidisciplinary projects with choreographer Bill T. Jones, the late artist Keith Haring and pianist Cecil Taylor. "We're community activists," says Ackamoor.

Founded in 2007 by Wren T. Brown and the late Israel Hicks, the Ebony Repertory Theatre opened in the $46 million, 400-seat, Nat Holden Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles with a production of August Wilson's Two Trains Running. Though the company doesn't own the building, it is the resident company, giving it high visibility in the community. Maintaining its standards, it followed with Soul of Rodgers, the Richard Rodgers songbook reimagined in jazz, gospel and blues, and Crowns, the rousing musical about ladies' hats, a coproduction with the Pasadena Playhouse.

The response to the inaugural season was overwhelmingly positive, with near sold-out shows and positive reviews. "I think some of our success has to do with my being a fourth-generation Angeleno," Brown says. "I know every pocket of the city." To build its audience, the company utilized e-mail and mailing lists and enlisted arts-friendly corporate sponsors. Varied programming helps, too, says Brown, who modeled the theater after the McCarter Theatre in Princeton. To that end, the company presents a variety of events, from flamenco concerts to performances by jazz great Ahmad Jamal to lectures by speakers such as surgeon Keith Black and philosopher Cornel West.

Still, the company has had its challenges, from budgetary concerns to the loss of Hicks, its founding artistic director, who died in July. Fortunately, Hicks left such a thorough blueprint for the next five to seven years that the board does not feel it necessary to look for a new director for a while.