African-American theater: Keeping the stage lights on — African American theatre — AAPEX

Saturday, May 5, 2007

African-American theater: Keeping the stage lights on

Reprinted with permission by the Washingtion University in St. Louis Record

By Liam Otten

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, African-American actors, writers and directors inspired by the Black Arts Movements formed dozens of regional theaters in cities around the country.

Yet in recent years, several leading African-American companies — such as the Freedom Theatre in Philadelphia, the Jomandi Theatre in Atlanta and the Crossroads Theater Company in New Brunswick, N.J. — have been forced to cut staff, cancel seasons or close their doors entirely.

"We've lost a half-dozen of the larger companies," said Ron Himes, founder and producing director of The St. Louis Black Repertory Company, known as The Black Rep, and the Henry E. Hampton Jr. Artist-in-Residence in the Performing Arts Department in Arts & Sciences. "Nobody seems to quite understand why."

The subject is the topic of a series of lectures and panel discussions sponsored by The Black Rep and WUSTL March 24-April 12. Collectively titled "Beyond August: The State of African-American Theater," the series coincides with a new production of playwright August Wilson's "Gem of the Ocean," which debuts at The Black Rep March 28.

Himes said some companies have been unable to build corporate support and do major fund raising and that reduced federal, state and local funding have hurt. Other companies have been unable to find or maintain permanent performance facilities, making it difficult to build an audience base.

"There's certainly no lack of creativity," Himes said. "We have a great canon of African-American literature for the theater. Our biggest challenge is finding the resources to preserve that canon while continuing to develop new work."

Wilson's career is particularly instructive for African-American artists and companies, Himes said.

"Most playwrights are afforded a relationship with just one theater," he said. "But August had the luxury of working with a consortium of several theaters, which allowed his plays to go through an extended research and development period."

What's more, "because his plays were developed nationally, they had a tremendous impact on companies and artists all over the country," Himes said. "August stimulated an entire generation of young writers, actors and directors."

Himes himself is no stranger to Wilson's influence. With "Gem of the Ocean," The Black Rep will have produced nine plays from Wilson's "Pittsburgh Cycle," excluding only "Radio Golf," which was written shortly before Wilson's death in 2005.

Himes launched The Black Rep in 1976 while earning a bachelor's degree in business administration at the University. After graduating, he took his young company on the road, barnstorming local colleges and raising visibility.

In 1981, he converted a former church into the 23rd Street Theatre, giving The Black Rep a permanent home. In the early 1990s, he moved the company into the Grandel Theatre in the heart the Grand Center arts and education district.

Over the years Himes has produced and directed more than 100 plays and received numerous awards, including honorary doctorates from the University of Missouri-St. Louis and WUSTL in 1993 and 1997, respectively.

And The Black Rep — now celebrating its 30th anniversary season — has emerged as one of the nation's largest and most respected African-American companies, reaching an annual audience of more than 150,000.

Yet despite The Black Rep's success, Himes feels that many of his contemporaries have come to be taken for granted within their own communities.

"Things have grown harder for African-American companies in recent years," Himes said. "I think we're seeing a national lack of attention to the arts. It's an endemic problem, and unless we address it, more great African-American institutions may go under.

"We need a renewed commitment from the African-American community, from the philanthropic community and from the community at large," he added.

For more information, call 534-3807 or visit The Black Rep.

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