Ebony Rep - A First-Class Theatre Experience To Multicultural Audiences in Los Angeles

In honor of Black History Month, Broadway & Main is highlighting professional African-American regional theaters around the country.

By Kimberly Dijkstra

Ebony Repertory Theatre (ERT) is the first and only African-American professional theatre in the city of Los Angeles. Founded in 2007 by Wren T. Brown and Israel Hicks, ERT has been bringing award-winning theatre, as well as music, dance, and lecture programming, to an extensive, diverse community.

“There was not a place anywhere in the city where these shows, these images, and these voices of the Black community in the theatre were being produced, directed, and starred in by Black people,” said Brown, who in addition to cofounding ERT is the producing artistic director.


Wren T. Brown Founder of Ebony Repertory Theatre


The resident company and operator of the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center, ERT is located only 150 yards from where Brown was born and raised, in the heart of a city with a rich cultural history. Together, Hicks, a highly regarded theatre director who passed away in 2010, and Brown had a vision to create a cultural destination where audiences could seek truth and artists could inspire.

Joining Actor’s Equity was a natural decision as Hicks had always worked under professional contract and Brown is a third-generation Equity member.

“My grandfather joined in the ’30s and my father joined in the ’30s as a child,” Brown said, adding that he himself joined in the late ’80s when his career began to flourish. “Because Actor’s Equity was a part of my life, my father’s life, and my grandfather’s life, I felt that now was the time to ensure that any actor who stepped on this stage would work under a contract that protected them.”

It was important to Brown that his actors would be paid a professional wage, have health insurance, and that by retirement age, they would look back fondly on their time at Ebony Rep.

“It’s important to have an African-American theatre in our community because historically our community has not been able to attend many places where it was able to see itself as whole,” Brown said.

In a city as large and segregated as Los Angeles, ERT is a sanctuary for the Black theatre community – a place “where the work will be produced and directed and acted and designed with a sensitivity that takes in the professional standard that the Black community deserves.”

ERT began its journey with August Wilson’s ‘Two Trains Running,’ a play that explores gentrification in the 1960s, amid the Civil Rights Movement. Since then, they’ve put on a range of plays and musicals, including ‘Crowns’ by Regina Taylor, ‘Paul Robeson’ by Phillip Hayes Dean, ‘Five Guys Named Moe,’ ‘Blues in the Night,’ ‘Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill,’ and ‘Fraternity’ by Jeff Stetson. Phylicia Rashad made her directorial debut at ERT with perennial favorite ‘A Raisin in the Sun,’ by Lorraine Hansberry.

Brown has found that audiences respond well when theatre explores religion or the church experience.

“One of the lovely things about ‘Crowns’ is the fact that we can invite the Black church into the theatre,” Brown said, and noted that the show is both relatable and inoffensive to churchgoing audiences and mainstream enough for musical theatre lovers.

They also had tremendous success with ‘Gospel at Colonus’ in 2015, a musical that sets ‘Oedipus at Colonus’ by Sophocles in the Pentecostal church.

“The Black church experience was something that Black audiences knew, but then they were able to gain a greater insight into the great Greek tragedy. There were those who came in and knew of the Greek tragedy, but didn’t understand the disposition of the Black Pentecostal church,” Brown explained. “It was a wonderful hybrid there that welcomed the audience then from two different angles.”

In addition to bringing audiences together, Brown is passionate about supporting up-and-coming talent, whether it is developing new voices, or seeking out people of color for scenic design, lighting design, sound design, and other roles that aren’t often held by people of color.

“I’ve always defined my role as producer as the producing of opportunity,” he said. “We are always trying to find people to provide them with the opportunity to begin to professionalize their resume by working at the Repertory Theatre and we reach out with every production.”

ERT also recognizes the importance of exposing children to the arts. They write a grant proposal for every performance and are able to host several hundred high schoolers and junior high schoolers, accompanied by parents, each run. Brown said that Northrop Grumman has been wonderfully supportive of this effort.

“They are the audience of the future,” Brown said. “You want these plays to come beyond the footlights to be able to impact the hearts and minds of these young people.”

For those who have been inspired by theatre, he offers some advice – don’t be stagnant.

“There is something that one can do creatively every day even if it’s dealing in one’s imagination,” Brown said. “Understand that the work of the theatre is sacred, that the rehearsal space is what I call a working laboratory, and to honor that.”

Also, understand that a life in the theatre is a marathon, he added.

“This is a long-distance run. The work of the theatre and the work of creative people is never a sprint,” he said. “The reward on the other side and during that marathon will be tremendously rewarding. It certainly has been for us.”

For more about Ebony Repertory Theatre, visit www.ebonyrep.org.

 




True Colors Theatre Company - Atlanta, GA

Congo Square Theatre Company - Chicago, IL

Ebony Repertory Theatre - Los Angeles, CA

Jubilee Theatre, Fort Worth - TX

Congo Square Theatre Company 'Celebrating Blackness' in the Windy City

By Kimberly Dijkstra 

Chicago is a great city for theatre and Congo Square Theatre Company is an integral part of the rich arts landscape of the city. Founded in 1999 by Derrick Sanders and Reginald Nelson, Congo Square grew out of a desire to tell stories rooted in the African Diaspora and create a long-lasting legacy of excellence in Black theatre.

The fire ignited while the pair were classmates at Howard University and grew with grassroots support into what it is today. Sanders and Nelson could have taken the troupe anywhere, but there was no place better than Chicago, a city founded a Black man named Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, a little-known fact even to some residents.

The company is named for Congo Square, an area of New Orleans with an important legacy.


Ericka Ratcliffe, artistic director — Congo Square Theatre Company


“Congo Square used to be a gathering place where freed and enslaved Black and Brown people would gather to uphold ritual from their places of origin, with lots of different music, selling of wares, food, just a whole celebration every weekend,” explained Ericka Ratcliffe, artistic director. “That was the inspiration for the name of the company and what we wanted to do in terms of being a melting pot for artists of color to come and collaborate with each other.”

Ratcliffe has been with the ensemble since 2005, having been a performer and an artistic associate before becoming the fourth artistic director in the theatre’s history in 2021, and the first woman to hold the role.

Congo Square has had a long relationship with Actors’ Equity, having chosen to become an Equity theatre to ensure equitable employment terms for their artists, to have access to a larger pool of artists, as well as to be able to continue working with the people in the company who had already joined the actors’ union.

“At a time like this, Equity has been really great at helping us understand how to navigate COVID,” Ratcliffe said. “There’s a lot of value in that relationship.”

The pandemic halted Congo Square’s live performances, but Ratcliffe is excited to return to live theatre with ‘What to Send Up When It Goes Down’, by Aleshea Harris, this March 2022.

“We’re going to be doing the Chicago premiere of the piece and it’s a really powerful work about racialized violence against Black and Brown people by the hands of the police, folks we have lost, and it is all about healing tools and ritual to heal the community,” she said.

Local foundations have sponsored the event, which is as much pageant and ritual as it is a play, donating a non-traditional space for it to be performed and enabling Congo Square to subsidize tickets for community members to attend for free.

“We’re just really excited to tell this story and to tell it to Chicago, which I think is in need of this work about those we’ve lost, and celebrating them,” Ratcliffe said.

Such a piece about social injustice fits right in among Congo Square’s transformative body of work, which features mainstays by authors like August Wilson and Langston Hughes, but also heavily produces new works by lesser-known writers.

“We’ve worked with so many young playwrights, just trying to get their voice heard,” Ratcliffe said. “New plays is where we spend a lot of our focus and energy.”

Congo Square was the first theatre to produce Lydia Diamond’s ‘Stick Fly,’ which went on to Broadway, and Chadwick Boseman’s ‘Deep Azure.’ Long before he was Black Panther, Boseman was an aspiring playwright. His work was supported and developed through Congo Square’s New Play Initiative, later renamed the August Wilson New Play Initiative.

Co-founder Sanders was instrumental in encouraging Boseman to complete ‘Deep Azure,’ shepherding it from early drafts, through workshops, to final production.

“That’s the power of what the August Wilson New Play Initiative does for artists,” Ratcliff said. Wherever an artist is in the process of creating a new work, the initiative helps incubate the project, produces staged readings, and offers workshopping opportunities.

August Wilson, the legendary playwright who gave voice to the African-American experience, was quite a fan of Congo Square Theatre Company. He reportedly called it his favorite theatre company and donated yearly until his death.

“In fact, on his deathbed, he said, ‘hey, if you want to give to a theatre company in my honor when I leave this earth, please give to Congo Square,’” Ericka said. “He was a huge advocate for the theatre and we so appreciated that relationship and that support.”

Carrying on the work Wilson was so fond of, Congo Square has a number of initiatives to support young talents.

A new endeavor called the Samuel G. Roberson Young Playwrights Fellowship, named for a former artistic director who passed away, joins with the Festival on the Square Ten-Minute Play Competition and offers winners a year-long mentorship and the opportunity to expand their 10-minute play into a full-length piece.

Roberson made such a strong impact on the community in his too-short 34 years, that the League of Chicago Theatres has also launched an annual grant program in his honor, the Samuel G. Roberson Jr. Resident Fellowship.

Congo Square participates in the National August Wilson Monologue Competition, founded by True Colors Theatre Company’s Kenny Leon, exposing Chicago-area students to Wilson’s works and artistry, and giving them the opportunity to win scholarships.

“We also work in Chicago public schools as teaching artists, to expose them to the arts and to a philosophy, a pedagogy, that we want to share with students about ownership, about confidence, about being seen, about social justice,” Ratcliffe said.

They are also working with Sydney Chatman, recipient of a Joyce Foundation award, to develop a play about the creative healing process after state-sanctioned violence.

“We want to be of service to our communities,” Ratcliff said. “In five years, we hope to have a permanent space where we can engage on a deeper level with our community in a space where they can come, like Congo Square, like the founding morals of the company, to be a space where folks can gather to celebrate Blackness.”

For more on Congo Square Theatre Company, visit www.congosquaretheatre.org

 

 




True Colors Theatre Company - Atlanta, GA

Congo Square Theatre Company - Chicago, IL

Ebony Repertory Theatre - Los Angeles, CA

Jubilee Theatre, Fort Worth - TX



Jubilee Theatre: Setting The Stage and Paving The Way for African-American Creatives in Texas

By Kimberly Dijkstra

The oldest African-American theatre in North Texas, Jubilee Theatre has been going strong for 41 years. Rudy Eastman, a beloved Fort Worth teacher, and his wife Marian noticed a lack of African-American performers in the area and founded Jubilee in 1981. For several years they staged productions anyplace that would have them before finding a permanent home for the troupe. Since 1993 they have been at 506 Main Street and the historic theatre is now under artistic direction of D. Wambui Richardson, who took on the role in 2018.

“If you look at the history of Jubilee Theatre, you have so many artists who found their legs in the arts here and they’ve gone on into the professional realm,” Richardson said. “We were a good training ground for them.”

As a theatre under the Actor’s Equity umbrella with a special contract, Jubilee wants to make sure local African-American artists know there’s a place for them in the arts. While other theatres have a handful of roles for people of color, Jubilee has African-American-driven shows all year round and consistently offers opportunities to both Equity and non-Equity actors.

“African-American theatre is American theatre,” Richardson said.

Fort Worth is a diverse city and Jubilee Theatre strives to bring the whole community together – people of every color – with the stories it tells.

“Yes, it’s an African-American-led story, but there is universal truth that applies to everybody in the room,” he said. “When we can tap into the universal nature of a story, it brings us all together as a community and it helps to further along a dialog about what’s happening to us in our community.”


D. Wambui Richardson, Artistic Director


The intimate 143-seat theatre does a little bit of everything – plays and musicals, contemporary and period pieces, classics and original works.

“Because we have all of the generations showing up for our shows, we try to create a season that will feel like there’s something in that season for them,” Richardson said, and he’s not afraid to tackle any subject.

“From season to season, and show to show, sometimes we zone in on a particular aspect and allow our audience to explore an angle of it that they probably haven’t thought of before or hadn’t been able to express before in a safe environment,” he explained.

Richardson estimates two-thirds of their actors come from the Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW) area and he is happy to give them a foundation in the arts.

“We have a Reader Series that is designed specifically to look out for and identify new and emerging playwrights throughout the DFW area,” he said. “We’re able to bring them in for a workshop and then hopefully do a staged reading of that show.”

Supporting promising young artists of color is a priority for Jubilee.

Richardson said, “We’re always fostering new relationships with up-and-coming African-American writers, designers, and directors.”

Richardson and his team engage with local students, from middle school to college age, to show them what’s possible in the world of theatre.

“We’re tapping into young artists, showing them ways that they are able to make a living as artists and how to create employment for ourselves,” he said, noting that one doesn’t have to be an actor on a stage to be an artist. Richardson routinely speaks to art classes about what they do as a theatre, what is involved in being an artistic director, and what other potential jobs there are in the industry.

“Not every kid is meant to be on stage or really wants to be on stage, but they know that there’s an artist somewhere in them,” Richardson said. “If we’re able to introduce them to all of the different areas of the theatre, it may spark that fire in them.”

 

In addition, Jubilee invites students from DFW high schools to dress rehearsals of upcoming shows, giving them the opportunity to watch the whole process, from what the light technicians are doing to the notes the director gives the actors. Afterwards, the classes have “deep-dive” conversations about what they saw and the relationships between each person vital to the success of the production.

“After they have that experience, then we invite them back again to see the show opening week, so they can see a before and after – this is what the rehearsal process looks like and this is what the final product looks like,” Richardson said. “That program has been pretty successful so far.”

Richardson advises young creatives to consume as much theatre as possible and network with the people who are making it happen. He recommends doing a character analysis, like one would do for a character in a play, of someone successful in the business, and using that analysis to plot a career path to get to the same level.

For the upcoming season, Jubilee is planning a series of professional development workshops for emerging and established artists. In particular, Richardson sees technical director being the next hot job for artists of color and knows the talent is out there in the DFW area.

By implementing a range of safety precautions, Jubilee Theatre has managed to make it through the entire pandemic thus far without a single COVID-19 case or having to shut down a performance. Richardson feels blessed by the way the community “wrapped their arms around us” and proud to have kept his staff employed through a difficult time.

“We have consistently produced high-quality theatre for our community even when we had to move to a streaming platform,” Richardson said.

“Five years from now, we want to double what we’re doing,” he said emphatically. “We want to be able to increase programming, increase the number of and types of productions we pull in…and I also want to increase the number of local artists, playwrights that we bring to the table, and always to increase the amount of new, original works that we foster and give birth to.”

Finally, Richardson wants everyone to know one thing.

“Jubilee Theatre is a place where all are welcomed.”

For more about Jubilee Theatre, visit www.jubileetheatre.org.

 

 




True Colors Theatre Company - Atlanta, GA

Congo Square Theatre Company - Chicago, IL

Ebony Repertory Theatre - Los Angeles, CA

Jubilee Theatre, Fort Worth - TX

True Colors Theatre Company: Keeping The Black Storytelling Tradition Alive in Atlanta

By Kimberly Dijkstra

 

“I believe that True Colors thrives at the intersection of artistic excellence and civic engagement.”

This is the vision that Artistic Director Jamil Jude has for True Colors Theatre Company, a nonprofit regional theatre in Atlanta, Georgia. Founded in 2002 by esteemed director Kenny Leon and longtime friend and colleague Jane Bishop, True Colors celebrates the rich tradition of Black storytelling through its preservation of African-American classics, producing of original works, and uplifting of Black voices.

In the 90s, Leon recognized that Atlanta was on its way to becoming a majority African-American city and wanted to create a theatre representative of the population. While many regional theatres start with a wide storytelling lens and add diversity in the fringes, True Colors centers on Black storytelling and uses it as a way to open up conversations about other cultures, as intended by the founders.

It was important to Leon and Bishop that professional Black artists would have a place at True Colors.


Jamil Jude, Artistic Director — True Colors Theatre Company


 

“Having that relationship with Actor’s Equity helped us cement that professional standard and ethic, and make sure that Black artists, whether they were based here in Atlanta, or national artists that we had a chance to work with, still received the same benefits,” Jude explained.

In its 20 years, True Colors has done it all. In the beginning, they focused on Black classics, such as August Wilson’s ‘Fences’ and ‘The Wiz,’ to ensure that stories from the Black Arts Movement weren’t lost to the sands of time. Then they started to add in productions of plays that typically are done with white actors, such as ‘American Buffalo’ and ‘Proof.’

They’ve also produced some new plays. Jude, who has been with True Colors for five years and at the helm since 2019, has spent his career in new play development and is most excited about bringing original theatre to the public.

“I think we have a really great opportunity to inspire new work of Black artists here in the red clay of Georgia,” he said.

A 2020 New York Times article exposed the dearth of stories about Black people being told in the performing arts in Atlanta. Despite Atlanta’s reputation as a Black mecca, there is a large disparity between the number of African-Americans in the city – about 50 percent – and the audience – about 80 percent – and in the number of plays performed that are written by Black playwrights – about 14 percent.

“Our audiences look to be affirmed by the stories that we’re telling,” Jude said. “Hopefully over the course of the season, or two or three seasons, an audience member at True Colors will feel affirmed, will feel challenged, and will feel inspired through the work.”

The 2021-22 season represents this aim well. ‘Marie and Rosetta’ enlivened, entertained, and inspired audiences with the story of the godmother of rock ‘n’ roll, Sister Rosetta Tharpe. ‘Raisin the Musical,’ canceled due to the pandemic, was replaced by a series of readings inspired by Lorraine Hansberry’s classic tale of ‘A Raisin in the Sun,’ which seeks to challenge audiences, and make them feel acknowledged.

‘Fannie,’ scheduled for the summer, is about Fannie Lou Hamer, a voting and women’s rights activist who spoke at the 1964 Democratic National Convention. Her story is especially relevant at a time when Georgia’s Republican state legislature is attempting to change voting laws.

“We’re hoping that a play like ‘Fannie’ can challenge our audiences to continue that fight,” Jude said. “Because that’s the legacy our people have been a part of over the last centuries – fighting for equal protection under the law.”

Productions like ‘Fannie’ directly relate to Jude’s oft-repeated motto above.

“True Colors believes in the civic engagement that we are inspiring people to think about the arts as a way to engage the issues of our time,” he said.

Looking to the future

During the pandemic, True Colors launched an initiative called Dihvinely Konnecked Commissions to, which seeks out and identifies young talent and brings them into the fold.

“Theatre is the most collaborative art form out there,” Jude said. “Our industry works best in a symbiotic relationship with early career artists.”

The program identified 10 early-career artists from a variety of disciplines and provided them with small commissions to produce short pieces inspired by a central theme. Since then, the fellows have served in various roles at the theatre.

Another similarly successful program found four apprentices, two of which work full-time at True Colors, while the other two are active in the Atlanta arts administration community.

“We’re constantly trying to find ways for young early career professionals to get involved with True Colors through a variety of our entry-level programs,” Jude said.

While the pandemic affected their ability to serve local students to the extent they want to, they had a literacy program for third-graders and a mentoring program for young women in middle school.

“I think as we emerge out of this pandemic and as True Colors moves forward, I want to do more to focus on theatre for young audiences and continue to do our work for school-age kids,” Jude said.

The flagship program for the theatre is the Next Narrative Monologue Competition, conceived of by Jude. Not only open to the youth of Atlanta, the competition is a national program open to high school students in participating regions around the country. Jude commissioned original monologues from 50 contemporary Black writers and students perform the material. Those who surpass semi-finals and regional finals earn a place at the national finals, including an all-expense paid trip to New York City, workshops with theatre professionals, networking opportunities, scholarship money, tickets to Broadway shows, professional headshots, and copies of scripts so they can further their arts education.

“We know that all of the students that participate in the program won’t go on to be professional actors or directors or playwrights, but what we do hope is that we are developing art patrons,” Jude said. “I’m proud of all the work we do at True Colors, but if I had to only say one thing, it would be that program.”

Jude has a clear vision for the future of True Colors and regional theatre in general.

“I really do feel that in the next five years, we will have a commercial future,” he said, noting active plans for plays that start in Atlanta to move throughout the country.

He hopes to add a second stage to complement the 375-seat proscenium theatre True Colors currently has and is excited about growing the national reputation of the theatre beyond its current distinguished reputation.

“One thing that we’ve been advocating for is this idea of transformational funding for Black arts organizations,” Jude explained. “Yes, there has been a lot of focus on Black arts, or just Blackness in general in a post-Breonna Taylor, post-George Floyd world, but funding has not always gone to smaller arts organizations.”

Despite its national presence, True Colors is considered a small arts organization and Jude would love to see enormous growth.

“I’d love to see resource equity, that Black theatres, especially True Colors, is resourced at the same level of our peers,” he said, pondering why the theatres that artists of color feel marginalized at are more well-funded than the organizations that nurture them. Funding equity, to Jude, won’t benefit only his theatre, but the industry at large.

Behind the scenes, Jude hopes True Colors is a model for theatres nationwide.

“Administratively, we’re trying to show the American theatre that the way in which they have been doing business is not necessarily the way they have to keep doing business,” Jude said. “You can take big swings on diversity, you can have a majority minority arts administration team and still be highly successful, and it doesn’t just have to be about telling stories about people of color. That’s our thing, but that doesn’t necessarily mean artists of color and administrators of color can only tell stories about people that look like them.”

For more of Jamil Jude’s wise words, check out the True Colors Podcast, and for more on Kenny Leon’s True Colors Theatre Company, visit truecolorstheatre.org



 




True Colors Theatre Company - Atlanta, GA

Congo Square Theatre Company - Chicago, IL

Ebony Repertory Theatre - Los Angeles, CA

Jubilee Theatre, Fort Worth - TX

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