Ron Himes, the founder and artistic director of the Black Rep, is happy these days. But relaxed?
No way that he’s relaxed. He doesn’t have time for that.
In a matter of weeks, he’s had to pull together the Black Rep’s 37th season — and its first in residence at Harris-Stowe State University.
Usually, theater companies work for months, even years, on each season. But you can’t make plans until you know where you are going to present the plays. You can’t even decide what those plays will be, let alone who will perform them, until you know what kind of theater you’re going to work in.
In August, Himes learned that the Grandel Theatre, where the Black Rep performed for the last 20 years, had been sold. The troupe would have to find a new home. It was devastating news, he said at the time.
But as he and board members searched out alternatives, Himes held onto two goals: He did not want to send his audience to a different theater for each production, and he did not want to wait so long to find the “right” place that the Black Rep skipped a season.
Over the years, other major black troupes around the country — the Ensemble Theatre in Houston; Penumbra in St. Paul, Minn.; Crossroads in New Brunswick, N.J. — have faced difficulties, too. “They all have had interrupted seasons,” Himes said. “I was determined to keep on producing. We’ve never missed a season, and it was very important to me to uphold the record.”
When the Black Rep and Harris-Stowe came to their new arrangement this month, Himes was delighted. The Emerson is a modern theater with a proscenium-arc stage, he said, and about 230 seats. Plenty of parking is available.
“I think it’s going to be good for us and for Harris-Stowe,” he said, pointing out that having a professional theater troupe in residence will provide new opportunities for students, such as internships and shadowing, as well as a chance to see and study plays. Also, the Black Rep performances will show off the Harris-Stowe campus to people who still think of the state university as a small teachers college. “It’s a win-win.”
But the opening show is right around the corner. The hunt for a theater slowed everything. The season brochures are coming out late, because nobody knew what the season would be or where it would play. (Ticket prices will be about the same as in the Grandel.) The subscription campaign is getting off to a late start, too.
Also, many actors who might have been cast already had other commitments by the time Himes could put together a season. Still, many favorite Black Rep performers will be back. “Black Nativity,” which has been a hit for troupe in past seasons, will have a big ensemble including Herman Gordon (the Cowardly Lion in “The Wiz,” the last show at the Grandel), tenor Jermaine Smith (best known for his signature role, Sportin’ Life in “Porgy and Bess”), soprano Karen Hylton and Evann De-Bose as Mary.
Ka’ramuu Kush, who starred in The Black Rep’s imaginative production of “Pericles,” will play Malcolm X in “The Meeting,” and A.C. Smith will be back in “The Trials of Brother Jero.” “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/ When the Rainbow Is Enuf” will feature a raft of Black Rep leading ladies: Linda Kennedy, Patrese D. McClain, Sharisa Whatley, Candice Jeanine and Marsha Cann. “I still need two more,” Himes said, his expression hovering between a smile and a wince.
“We still have challenges,” said Himes, currently rehearsing, as an actor, in Athol Fugard’s “My Children! My Africa!” at Washington University, where he teaches. “And this whole episode has been telling. After we lost our space, you’d be amazed at the people I never heard from.
“On the other hand, I heard from a number of people who offered help, offered facilities, offered a kind word. Equity (the theatrical union) has been great, and we have storage space for sets and props at Washington U.
“And the Muny and (its CEO) Dennie Reagan have been wonderful. They have given us offices, and we will rehearse ‘Black Nativity’ there. Our situation has become their situation. I can’t say enough.”
Ultimately, Himes says, he doesn’t know where The Black Rep will make its permanent home. The relationship with Harris-Stowe theater has lots of potential, but he thinks the future won’t be secure until the troupe moves into a theater of its own. After 37 years, he said, “I am thinking about a legacy.”
Black Rep Season 37
“Black Nativity” (Dec. 4-22) • Langston Hughes’ retelling of the traditional Christmas story, expressed through dance and gospel music.
“The Meeting” (Jan. 8-26) • Jeff Stetson’s play imagines a meeting (that never really took place) between Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.
“For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/ When the Rainbow Is Enuf” (Jan. 30-Feb. 9) • Ntozake Shange uses poetry and dance to explore the lives of black women from a variety of perspectives. This production will play at the Missouri History Museum in Forest Park.
“The Trials of Brother Jero” (April 9-27) • This comedy by the Nigerian Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka centers on a con man with a weakness for the ladies. Ron Himes, who directs the other three shows, plays the title role; Ed Smith directs.
Where • Emerson Performance Center at Harris-Stowe State University, 3026 Laclede Avenue.
More info • theblackrep.org, or call 314-534-3810
Open house • Get a preview of the Black Rep’s new home at an open house from 2 to 5 p.m. Nov. 16 at Harris-Stowe State University’s Emerson Performance Center. Ron Himes of the Black Rep and Constance Gully, interim president of the university, are the hosts. It’s free and open to the public.
Judith Newmark is the Post-Dispatch theater critic. Follow her on Twitter @judithnewmark.