*I know, the headline is a general one, but unfortunately, that doesn’t make it any less true.
Overall, it seems black celebrities…even the ones working regularly now on TV and in film, don’t support black theatre. At least not in the way that they should.
Oh, I’m not talking about just showing up to a production at the theatre (probably comped) because you feel your presence alone is enough to bring it attention. I’m talking about the nuts ‘n bolts stuff. The kind you have to take your checkbook out for. Or dig deep in your pockets to find.
That kind of support.
I am so proud of writer/executive producer Shonda Rhimes on so many levels. Her works on the small screen (Greys Anatomy, Private Practice, How to Get Away With Murder, Scandal) has not only employed, but opened the door for so many black actors and actresses and directors to finally show that skills are not limited to the Caucasian race. And that they have just as much of a right to demonstrate those talents on major networks as anyone else.
This is also true for Tyler Perry; especially since he has teamed up with Oprah Winfrey‘s OWN network.
Many of these actors started in theatre, and many of them return; if only in their “spare time” when not employed in film.
So now I think, great! Black folks are working in their craft! So is it too much to ask that these talents now pay-it-forward and invest in projects coming out of Black Theatre?
It’s not like they can’t afford to.
And no, not just any black theatre, but professional, quality, black theatre.
A theatre like the Ebony Repertory Theatre; which is Los Angeles’ first and only professional Black Theatre.
That’s gotta stand for something.
For those reading this who are not theater-oriented, what I mean by “professional” theater is that only actors, actresses and stage managers working under the laws of Actor’s Equity Association, the labor union representing American actors and stage managers in the theatre, can work in professional theater.
I recently had the pleasure of speaking with two very distinguished and accomplished gentlemen on the topic of Black Theatre.
Mr. Wren T. Brown, an accomplished actor that has been a staple in the industry for decades. You’ve seen him in popular films (Waiting to Exhale), on television (Grey’s Anatomy, The Practice, Moesha) and in theater for decades; and Mr. Roger Robinson, a Tony-award winning stage and screen actor who is currently starring in ‘The Gospel at Colonus’ presented by the Ebony Repertory Theatre, founded by Mr. Brown in 2008.
The two gentlemen are not only colleagues in the business of show, they are also friends.
This writers’ own beginnings in the entertainment industry was through Black Theatre; which makes the topic one that I am passionate about. I saw the hard work and dedication of a woman named Nora B. Vaughn, who founded the Black Repertory Group in Northern, California along with her husband, Birel Vaughn, in 1964. I walked into her theatre in 1977, three months after giving birth to my daughter, and since that day I saw the diligence, first hand, as I worked in many of the productions before leaving to become Equity-eligible by working in professional theater. The friendships I developed during that time have still endured.
That’s the special ‘village’ the black theatre nurtures. And to know that a busy actor like Wren T. Brown, now dedicates his passion to nurturing an arts establishment in his community, for his people, is at the very least commendable and praiseworthy.
In our interview I asked him where he finds the time to run the Ebony Repertory Theatre.
“Well, you make the time. Honestly, the investment in building this theatre became the real priority. And I could not have endeavored to build this company and keep an absolute 100% full time schedule with my acting career; so it was not about turning away from it, it was pivoting to build something else all along, and now I am moving back into the activity of my career,” Brown states.
Proud and passionate about the fact that the neighborhood he now runs a theatre in, is just steps away from the home he grew up in, Brown could see it no other way than to build and develop a business right in his community.
“This is the community that raised me and nurtured me and shaped me. I was born 150 yards from the front door of the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center, so to return in a role of cultural leadership and bring professional theatre to this community; you know, we do professional theatre for the community, not community theatre,” Brown clarifies.
“And we absolutely believe that this community, Washington Blvd., is one of the main arteries. And the surrounding community in the whole of Los Angeles, deserves a professional theatre that speaks to the issues that we’re addressing and the work that we’re addressing. For the community that addresses the ethnic minority, we want people to be able to walk through these doors and to be able to see themselves as whole. As defined by us.”
Roger Robinson introduced Brown to the late Israel Hicks, after he learned that the actor had been given the opportunity to take the building that was not really generating any revenue as Nate Holden Performing Arts Center, to a new level as Ebony Repertory Theatre in 2008 (they had actually started the process in 2007).
Mr. Hicks was the co-founder and Artistic Director until his passing in 2010 at the age of 66 from prostate cancer. Hicks was one busy man. At the same time he served as Chair and Artistic Director for the Theater Arts Department at the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University.
At his passing, Brown told the Los Angeles Sentinel, “The American theatre has been made better because Israel Hicks lived. Words cannot express my depth of love for this extraordinarily brilliant man.”
When I spoke to Robinson, who is bi-coastal to both Los Angeles and New York, as he was preparing to star in his current work, “The Gospel at Colonus,” we got so carried away talking about Black Theatre in general, he didn’t say much about his work in the play.
You can just feel the admiration and respect he has for his friend, Wren T. Brown.
“People don’t know this about Wren. But he has been an aficionado and a working actor for many years. He has a wealth of experience,” he says.
“My only regret is that more celebrities don’t come on-board and support this theatre. They just don’t…If they can just give money because it’s a tax write-off, this is a nonprofit organization, and that hasn’t been forthcoming.”
And sidebar: You wouldn’t believe the hoards of black celebrities who have performed at this theatre, and the shows that originated at ERT that went on to larger theaters and even Broadway.
Robinson does acknowledge a group of women who under the guise of being “Friends of the Theatre” have a goal to support the theatre in their fundraising efforts.
“This theatre is going to need a million, a million-and-a-half per year to function properly,” Robinson elaborates. “I’ve seen how theaters operate and what their budgets are (because I perform in them all over the country). Most of them are in the million-and-a-half and up [category]. The Music Center is $50M a year. The Geffen is $15M. So we’re talking about small potatoes when you come to this.”
“If we had 400 people who gave $2500 per year, and most celebrities can afford that, we would have a million dollars a year; just from our own community, and that’s no money. I know I am putting my support out there.”
I asked Wren about the audiences; if the people in the community (not necessarily known for their interest in theater, historically) support the theater by coming out to see the productions.
“It’s really all about awareness…It’s also about what one is accustomed to, DeBorah,” he says. “And unfortunately, we have never had, in the black community in Los Angeles, from the time of the 30s when the Club Alabam …was one of the greatest arteries in the world; we’ve never had a place where we could consistently go to see the theatre, and be in the theatre, and see plays that were designed, directed and produced by us.”
“It has been a beautiful privilege to be here on Washington Blvd., to cultivate an audience from scratch. We don’t have an anticipation that we’re going to be sold out every single show when we began our existence here. But you continue to build and in the 7-1/2 years that we have been here we have built a very solid audience base. We desire for that base to grow and to add new voices all the time…When you learn that something is there, and that it is there for you.”
–Wren T. Brown
“I am deeply, deeply invested in this community, which is my community. I’m deeply invested in it. It’s not at all superficial,” Brown concludes.
So I ask again, WHY are our black celebrities, and other African American leaders of financial means, not supporting this worthy theatre.
It’s just like Roger Robinson said.
“If we had 400 people who gave $2500 per year…we would have a million dollars a year; just from our own community, and that’s no money. I know I am putting my support out there,” Robinson reveals.