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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Black theaters are flourishing all across the country, offering communities access to excellent plays and musicals that touch on the African-American experience. In these tough economic times, they search for creative ways to keep going while maintaining their standards. A few recently experienced the toughest years in their history; others enjoyed some of their best. Though circumstances vary from theater to theater -- and it's hard to get an accurate count of how many black theatrical institutions actually exist -- what doesn't vary is the incredible effort put forth by their leaders.

"Art is life," says Eileen J. Morris, artistic director of the Ensemble Theatre in Houston, which was founded in 1976. "It must play a vital role in our society, in order for us to stay healthy."

To that end, the Ensemble Theatre does far more than produce four to six plays annually. With an annual budget of $1.6 million, it organizes 10 to 12 workshops a year in every aspect of theater in order to strengthen the artistic pool. It tours its productions outside the city and runs programs in theater for teachers, seniors and young people ages 7-17, over summers and spring breaks. So far, 4,000 kids have attended the 20-year-old program.

"It's not so much that we expect them to become theater professionals," Morris says. "It's to strengthen their skills and provide them with a safe environment. If you learn to look people in the eye, follow directions and assess a situation, you build your self-awareness and develop your imagination and ability to interact with others."

Even with all these programs, Morris, who also acts and directs, still keeps her eye on the theater itself. It's something for which she is justifiably proud, for the Ensemble Theatre is one of only a handful of black theaters that own their own space. Moreover, it recently earned a $400,000 grant for a complete renovation. But that money didn't make her any less thrifty.

Last year she cut down to five plays rather than the usual six, while still presenting August Wilson's Seven Guitars and Five Guys Named Moe. She has also been adding more commercial fare to their lineup: the perennially popular The Wiz in 2009, which sold out its entire engagement, and the upcoming Christmas show, the African-American Shakespeare Company's Cinderella, which has already sold out. She also selected shows with smaller casts, shows that cost less to produce.

While the Ensemble Theatre lost some funders in the past few years, it also won new corporate and individual patrons. "We've done aggressive outreach to people and companies in the community," Morris says. "Our individual donors have been godsends. And our staff does everything to cut costs." Last year, she says, the company borrowed costumes from the St. Louis Black Repertory Company, also known as the Black Rep, engaging in some overnight sewing sessions to make sure everything fit. "We're being very frugal, looking for the best ways to deliver strong art," she says.

Ron Himes, founder and producing director of the 34-year-old Black Rep, is blunt about the impact the economy has had on his company. "We just weathered the worst season in our history," he says. "I didn't think we were going to make it." But, Himes says, the company is still standing, thanks to support from local corporations. In addition, the company won a $25,000 grant from the Shakespeare in American Communities fund and a $35,000 grant from National Endowment for the Arts. Black Rep will use the funds to produce Shakespeare's Pericles and the world premiere of The Montford Point Marine by Samm-Art Williams.

Looking for original ways to attract money, Himes recently initiated a membership campaign that mimics the fundraising style of museums. Setting out to raise $3 million over two years, the theater asks $500 for each membership, which earns participants two season tickets as well as a $100 tax deduction, and other advantages. So far the company has raised $200,000, according to Himes. "Traditionally, theaters don't do this," he says. "The momentum is amazing. It's energized the staff and our board. More than ever, we're getting the community behind us."

But a distinguished history doesn't preclude financial woes, as the Crossroads Theatre Company in New Brunswick, N.J., well knows. Founded in 1978, it has produced more than 100 works, including the premieres of George Wolff's The Colored Museum, Leslie Lee's Black Eagles, a chronicle of the Tuskegee Airmen of World War II and Sheila's Day, a collaboration of South African and African-American women, created by Duma Ndlovu and Mbongeni Ngema. In 1999 Crossroads received the Tony Award for Outstanding Regional Theater in the United States. "We fill a unique and valuable role," says producing director Marshall Jones III. "But we've been hit hard." He notes that the theater has gone from a $3 million to $4 million budget during its heyday 10 years ago to its present budget of $500,000.

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