Black Theaters: Continue to Play out the African-American Experience

By Henderson, Shirley | Ebony, December 2006 | Go to article overview

Black Theaters: Continue to Play out the African-American Experience


Henderson, Shirley, Ebony


THERE'S something about the way the theater spotlight highlights our skin tones--from mahogany to fair--and the way that African-American stories, music and culture resonate so powerfully onstage. Black theater has a long history. It exploded during the Black Arts and Civil Rights Movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Since that time, Black theater groups have emerged to become a birthplace for some of today's best Hollywood A-listers, playwrights, producers and directors. Many Black theaters have continued to thrive, despite economic challenges and changing demographics in the communities where they began. There are many outstanding Black theater groups across the country, including the Harlem-based National Black Theatre and the Billie Holiday Theatre, a 200-seat venue, which is also in New York. Crossroads Theatre Company, founded in 1978 in New Brunswick, N.J., received a Tony Award for outstanding regional theater in 1999. These are just some of the theater groups and arts organizations where the show goes on, and that are celebrating 25 years or more of curtain calls.

CHICAGO

BLACK ENSEMBLE THEATER

Founded: 1976

"I started the theater in 1976 with a $1,200 loan and the will and determination to create an entity that would honor the history and greatness of African-American people while serving to educate and unite diverse cultures for the purpose of eradicating racism from our society," says Jackie Taylor, the founder of Black Ensemble Theater, as well as an actress and playwright. For over 30 years the theater has grown into a cultural institution in Chicago and beyond. Its body of work includes musical biographies, such as At Last: A Tribute to Etta James and Don't Make Me Over: In Tribute to Dionne Warwick, as well as the enduring and popular African-American fairy tale, The Other Cinderella. In 2008, Black Ensemble Theater will move into a new 50,000-square-foot theater center where Taylor and company will continue to be a powerful voice on the Black cultural scene.

SAN FRANCISCO

LORRAINE HANSBERRY THEATRE

Founded: 1981

The Lorraine Hansberry Theatre has hosted performances by Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis, Danny Glover and Ntozake Shange, writer of from okra to greens/a different kinda love story (right). Named after the acclaimed playwright of A Raisin in the Sun and now under the direction of co-founder and artistic director Stanley E. Williams, the theater is the first African-American Arts institution to be located in downtown San Francisco, where it moved after a $500,000 renovation project in 1987. While San Francisco is less than 6 percent African-American, Williams says that the theater has continued to thrive because of its diverse audience. "Our stories are universal stories" Williams adds.

NEW YORK

WOODY KING JR'S NEW FEDERAL THEATRE

Founded: 1970

Woody King Jr. is a founder and the producing director for New Federal Theatre, which has presented more than 150 productions. King, who has directed and produced Broadway productions, has showcased the work of many African-American playwrights and actors on the stage of New Federal, including playwrights Ron Milner, Ed Bullins and Ntozake Shange, as well as actors Earle Hyman and Ruby Dee (above) in A LastDance forSybil, written by Ossie Davis. The theater's reputation remains stellar after 36 years. "The secret is rigid budgeting," says King (inset). "And we have a love of Black literature and culture ... we don't spend $100,000 on the stage set because we know people are interested in the story. Also, I make sure that I am always adhering to professional standards."

ST. LOUIS

SAINT LOUIS BLACK REPERTORY COMPANY Founded: 1976

Ron Himes is founder and producing director of the Saint Louis Black Repertory Company, which he started as a student at Washington University. Originally a touring theater, it has found a national audience by producing season after season of plays, including King Hedley II, and mainstay productions such as Ain't Misbehavin and Five Guys Named Moe. …

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