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Black Theaters Keep the Flame Alive

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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.

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.

"In these difficult times," Brown says, "the arts can be an elixir. They are a way of getting our values back. Our job is to make everyone see that."


Valerie Gladstone, who writes about the arts for many publications, including The New York Times, recently co-authored a children's book with Jose Ivey, A Young Dancer: The Life of an Ailey Student.

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