Setting the stage
The St. Louis Black Repertory Theatre Company celebrates a long history of bringing diversity and accolades to the region’s performing arts scene
By Charlotte Beard
The largest, professional African-American theatre company in the nation and largest African-American performing arts organization in Missouri is coming upon the end of its 41st season the end of this month. The St. Louis Black Repertory Theatre Company will end this season with “Torn Asunder,” written by Nikkole Salter. This third production of the season has been running since April 13 and ends Sunday, April 29 on the campus of Washington University at the Edison Theatre.
Producing Director, Ron Himes considers it to be the most impactful work he has produced to date.
“It is a very well written play that deals with African-American history within American history. It has a very strong focus on family and it is an epic love story,” shares Himes.
People who have attended any of the Black Rep’s productions have witnessed the diversity of the theatre company’s audiences.
“The Black Rep undoubtedly has the most diverse audience of any of the performing arts in this region [regarding] ethnicity and age,” shared Himes.
Himes founded the production company in 1976 while he was majoring in Business Administration at Washington University. He desired to create an opportunity for African-American students on campus.
“The reason we continue [today] is for the same reason – to create opportunities for African Americans who have an interest or desire to study, train and develop in the theatre,” stated Himes.
Himes, who did not study theatre or acting, had friends who were theatre majors.
“I supported them and eventually gravitated towards the theatre myself.”
In the beginning the theatre company was called the Phoenix Theatre Troup.
“When we got ready to incorporate the group as a not-for-profit there was a group that already had the name ‘Phoenix’, so we couldn’t incorporate with that name. We switched the name then to the Black Repertory Company,” said Himes.
In the early years, the theatre company began touring college campuses, community centers and various art and theatre festivals.
Himes stated, “In our first season we did two plays that were not by African-American writers and two that were African-American writers. It’s been a mix ever since. But our emphasis, our focus, our commitment is to produce work by African-American playwrights.”
After the Black Rep began to draw huge crowds in 1980, they made their first home at the former Greeley Presbyterian Church on the corner of St. Louis Avenue and 23rd Street. The interior was renovated for theatre space. Following this move, the company began to hire locally and nationally for guest actors, directors, designers and choreographers. Himes shared that today the theatre company’s search for talent operates differently.
“We hold general auditions. We have developed an intern program. We offer classes and workshops where we train young people. We use all those avenues to recruit. But generally, we cast all of our main stage shows now from a set of open auditions every year.”
By 1986, the theatre company became the only African-American theatre in the Midwest to guarantee union wages to its actors and stage managers under a contract with the Actor’s Equity Association. In the early 1990’s The Black Rep relocated to St. Louis’ arts and cultural district to reside in the former First Congregation Church located at 3610 Grandel Square which was renamed the Grandel Square Theatre. Unfortunately, The Grand Center Organization sold the Grandel in 2013, which had also been the mainstage for the St. Louis Shakespeare for many years.
Today the Black Rep is operated by nine board members in addition to Himes. Himes has worn the various hats of producer, director, and actor, and expresses that he does not prefer any of the roles over the other. Over the past years he has become accustomed to operating within each spectrum.
He has produced and directed more than 100 plays at The Black Rep and had many starring roles in various productions. His favorite roles as an actor has been his portrayal of Herald Loomis in “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” and Troy Maxson in the Black Rep’s “Fences” which just ended in January. Both plays are by August Wilson.
“Those two characters were very challenging for me. They spoke to me, and they were really strong to my core,” Himes said.
In 2003, Himes was appointed the first Henry E. Hampton, Jr. Artist-in-Residence at Washington University, a joint appointment of the Performing Arts and African American studies departments. He has received many honors and awards, but he stated that the most meaningful award for him was the one he received on the national level. In 2017, the former Soldan High School student was awarded The Larry Leon Hamlin Producer Award at the National Black Theatre Festival. The award recognizes the great contributions made by producers to the American Theatre and the entertainment industry. Hamlin was the founder and artistic director of the North Carolina Black Repertory Company as well as the founder and executive director of the National Black Theatre Festival.
To purchase tickets for this season’s last production, “Torn Asunder,” visit www.theblackrep.org or call 314-534-3810. The Black Rep invites actors and actresses to visit the website to stay informed of auditions for the next season. Those who are interested will be required to make an appointment by calling 314-534-3810.
CUTLINE: Submitted photos The St. Louis Black Repertory Theatre Company, the largest, professional African-American theatre company in the nation and largest African-American performing arts organization in Missouri, is coming upon the end of its 41st season the end of this month.