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March 10, 2005

Equity Celebrates Black History Month In New York, Chicago and Los Angeles

Events Highlight EEO Committee Activity In All Regions

Equity’s Eastern, Central and Western Regional EEO (Equal Employment Opportunity) Committees celebrated Black History Month by sponsoring events in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles that commemorated the artistic and cultural contributions made by African-American artists, particularly in the realm of theatre. The boffo events drew over 300 Equity members and highlighted committee activities in all three regions.

In the Big Apple, Road To Lorraine drew an SRO crowd to the Ellington Room at Manhattan Plaza despite inclement weather. Through scenes and lectures, Road To Lorraine examined three African-American plays that helped pave the way for Lorraine Hansberry’s ground-breaking drama, A RAISIN IN THE SUN.

Eastern EEO Committee Co-Chair Julia Breanetta Simpson, welcomed the audience on behalf of the Committee and Co-Chair Christine Toy Johnson. “For well over a decade our committee has commemorated the artistic fervor of famous African-American artists in the American Theatre,” she said, before introducing the evening’s first guest speaker.

Eugene Nesmith, Professor of Theatre and English at City College, traced the history of Black Theatre in America over a century, starting with the African Grove Theatre and the rise of Minstrel shows in the 1800’s; vaudeville troops and the TOBA touring circuit in the 1900’s; to the birth of theatres like the Layette Theatre and Krigwa Players in the 1930’s and the founding of the Negro Playwright Company and the American Negro Theatre in the 1940’s. Smith noted the contributions of artists like Bert Williams, Rose McClendon, Noble Sissle, Eubie Blake, Paul Robeson, Fats Waller, Willis Richardson and Alice Childress. “All of these early pioneers paved the way for Lorraine Hansberry,” he explained.

The evening’s first scene was from BIG WHITE FOG, which was originally produced by the Federal Theatre Project in 1938. In this drama, playwright Theodore Ward depicts the disillusionment of his lead character with the Marcus Garvey Movement and the travails of dealing with racism. Arthur French directed a provocative scene, performed by Sandra Parris, Charles Black, Andy Young, Lawrence James and Dann B. Black.

ON STRIVER’S ROW, by Abram Hill, is a 1939 social satire that pokes fun at the elite residents of one of Harlem’s most famous boulevards. After the collapse of the Federal Theatre Project, Hill banded together with Frederick O’Neal and founded the collective American Negro Theatre, which showcased numerous Black playwrights and authors. ON STRIVER’S ROW premiered at ANT and was revived several times, including a musical version that ran at the famed Apollo Theatre. Geany Masai, Quanda Johnson, Carol London, Davyd H. Suber, Jr., Jamal Bruce and LaTrisa Coleman gave a boisterous reading under the direction of Jocelyn Sawyer.

Alice Childress is among a very select group of African-American women playwrights who predate Lorraine Hansberry, including Ruth Gaines-Shelton, Alice Dunbar Nelson, Mary Burrill, Myrtle Smith Livingston, Marita Bonner, Eulalie Spence and Georgia Douglas Johnson. Drawn from her own experiences as an actor, Childress’ TROUBLE IN MIND deals with the backstage conflicts between white and black actors that arise from the stereotypical characterizations demanded of the black actors by the author and director. Herb Foster Quebec directed an emotional scene, which was performed by David Lawton, Joan Valentina, Kevin Craig West, Selena Nelson, Carrie Ethier, Michael Manning, Paul Thomas Ryan and David Lee Kellner.

The final scene of the evening was from A RAISIN IN THE SUN. Philip Rose, who befriended Ms. Hansberry at a summer camp and later produced the original production, remarked that the scene was Ossie Davis’ favorite. The climatic confrontation between Walter Younger, his family and the neighborhood association was powerfully directed by Francis Eric Montessa, with Samarra, Keith Arthur, Christina Faison and Quanda Johnson.

At the conclusion Mr. Rose spoke about his long friendship with Hansberry and the many challenges he faced bringing the show to Broadway.

Julia thanked: Stage Managers Ci Herzog and Sandra Bloom; EEO Business Representative Willie Boston; and especially Joan Valentina “for her steadfastness, her commitment and mostly for just being Joan.”

Food Emporium, The Bread Factory, Eileen Weinberg from Good & Plenty and Scott Sternick of Mr. Biggs were acknowledged for their generous donations toward the reception.

Chicago Talk-Back with Chuck Smith
An enthusiastic audience welcomed actor/director Chuck Smith to the Central Region’s EEO event on Friday, February 25th in at the Chicago Equity offices. He took time off from directing THE STORY the Goodman Theatre to talk about his career and reflect on the challenges that African-American artists face.

Smith recalled that he began his “journey” when he met a troupe of actors who performed for patients at Michael Reese Hospital on Chicago's near South Side. He was attracted to the theatre because, as a veteran, it reminded him of the Marine Corps: “The thing that hooked me was that everyone in the theatre worked as an integrated group, busy doing their part to accomplish a task and that task was the play." He started working with other Black troupes in Chicago. One of his early opportunities arose in the play, THE NIGHT ROSE SPENT IN JAIL, at The Free Street Theater, which was the first Black company to work under Equity contract in Chicago. The play introduced him to dramaturgy, which he added to his growing talents: learning computer programming at Loop College by day, while directing, acting, and producing at night. He joined Actors’ Equity in 1976.

In the 1980s, Smith started teaching at Columbia College, where he collaborated with playwright Paul Carter Harrison on a program designed to solicit Black plays and cultivate Black playwrights. In 1987, after getting input from local theatre artists, they created the Theodore Ward Prize, named after the beloved Chicago actor. To this day, the award recognizes the outstanding individual accomplishments of African-American playwrights, as well as their growing importance to the shape and direction of American drama. Winners are given a stipend and their plays are then produced by Columbia College. Smith recently edited a collection, “Seven Black Plays: The Theodore Ward Prize for African-American Playwriting,” which showcases seven of the award-winning plays and offers a rich and varied view of the best of two decades of evolving African American drama. Equity member Zelda Pulliam won a copy of the book in a raffle.

EEOC Chair Cheryl Lynn Bruce hosted the talkback, which was structured as a conversation between two old friends. They reminisced about the changing political and social structure of Black theatre in Chicago and answered questions from the audience. One actor said that Chuck had a reputation for being an “actor’s director,” to which he responded that because he has worn so many different hats over the years, he understands the environment that actors need in order to thrive.

Chuck also challenged the audience to “do for themselves,” and be proud of Chicago theatre. “Even if you try and fail, there are countless opportunities for an artist to pick up and try again.”

Kudos to Equity staff members Bridget Stegall and Luther Goins who coordinated the event.

Los Angeles Salutes African-American Arts & Culture
On Monday March 7th, two hundred people gathered at the Gallery Theatre in Hollywood to join Equity in a Salute to African American Arts and Culture. The blissfully rain-free evening began with a congenial alfresco reception, courtesy of Actors’ Equity and numerous local markets including: Ralphs, Costco, Albertsons and Whole Foods. After food and drinks, the crowd moved downstairs to the theatre for the program.

The Abalaye Dance Group opened the evening with a traditional libation and African dance. Then emcees Sloane Robinson and Dan Tullis Jr. took the stage. When the originally announced hosts pulled out at the last minute, Robinson and Tullis jumped in, navigating the evening with an easy grace that belied their “understudy” status.

Awards alternated with performances from classic shows like PURLIE VICTORIOUS and RAISIN as well as newer pieces like TOPDOG/UNDERDOG, YELLOW MAN, and JELLY’S LAST JAM. Cast members included: Leslie Miller, Trevor Gordon, Carol Dennis, Michael Sheppard, Anne Thomas, Cedric Duplechein, Myron Willis, Diedrie N. Henry, Chris Butler, Brian Evaret Chandler and Jennifer Shelton.

Although award recipient Suzan-Lori Parks was unable to attend, the remaining honorees Charles Floyd Johnson, Gordon Davidson and Roscoe Lee Browne were all in attendance. Their gracious acceptance speeches told of battles past and hard-won victories, while looking forward to the skirmishes ahead with optimism and humor.

Equity’s Western Regional EEO Committee, chaired by Kathlyn Miles, was commended for all the hard work and dedication that made this event a great success. Special thanks to: staff member Michael Van Duzer and event co-chairs Ivy Bethune and Barbara Roberts; stage manager John Freeland Jr.; and tireless committee members Wilson Bell, Nancy Daly, Nina Diamante, Ren Hanami, Veronica Johnson, E.P. McKnight, Jennifer Shelton and Mark Winn.

David Lotz
Communications Director
Michael Van Duzer and Bridget Stegall also contributed to this story.

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