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Setbacks Aside, a Theater Soldiers On

June 4, 2010

If August Wilson were alive today, he might have sought inspiration for a new play from the Lorraine Hansberry Theater.

The struggles facing the theater, the Bay Area’s pre-eminent African-American company, vie for dramatic potential with the high-stakes plots that unfold in many of the works of Mr. Wilson, an author whose cannon the theater has produced extensively in its 29-year history.

The death of Quentin Easter, the company’s co-founder and executive director, is the latest in a series of setbacks. Mr. Easter, 57, died of cancer on April 28, leaving Stanley E. Williams, his longtime companion and the theater’s artistic director and co-founder, reeling.

“I need time to heal emotionally from the loss of Quentin,” said Mr. Williams, 60, who is recuperating from cancer surgery. “We were together for 30 years. That’s half of my life.”

The company is also trying to recover financially and artistically from the loss of its longstanding home on Union Square two years ago.

The Lorraine Hansberry Theater has long played a vital role in the local arts ecosystem. With its generally high-quality productions of classic and contemporary works, the company has increased the profile of African-American theater artists in the region.

“The theater is the leading African-American theater west of the Mississippi,” said Brad Erickson, executive director of Theater Bay Area.

With the company facing its worst crisis, the Bay Area theater community is rallying its support with a fund-raising gala in honor of Mr. Easter at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts on June 14.

The help comes at a crucial time.

In 2008, the company had to move out of the 300-seat auditorium it had occupied at 620 Sutter Street since 1988, when the Academy of Art University acquired the building. The eviction, and the health problems of Mr. Easter and Mr. Williams, forced the company to cancel two shows in its 2009-10 season: “Fabulation” by Lynn Nottage and “Stick Fly” by Lydia Diamond. The lost income put the company, which has an annual budget of $800,000, under financial pressure.

For the 2010-11 season, the company is again reducing its output. It will produce two plays at the Fort Mason Center’s Southside theater — “Fabulation” and the annual Christmas production of “Black Nativity.” In the 2007-8 season, before the company lost its Sutter Street home, it produced four plays.

Mr. Williams said he was trying to stay focused on business. The company is searching for a new managing director and working on its coming productions, of which Mr. Williams is directing only “Black Nativity.”

“During this transitional season, it’s crucial for us to keep going,” he said. “People are telling me to rest. But if I do that, we’ll soon be forgotten because we’re an African-American theater company.”

Securing a permanent home in San Francisco’s theater district is a high priority for Mr. Williams.

“Black theaters around the country are mostly in black neighborhoods,” he said. “But we wanted to be in an area that is accessible to broader audiences.”

But finding a suitable and affordable space near Union Square has not been easy.

Producing next season’s shows at the Fort Mason Center presents risks in terms of accessibility and income. The new location, in the Marina District, is not as convenient for the theater’s patrons, 65 percent of whom arrive from the East Bay via BART or the Bay Bridge.

In addition, the Southside theater is only about half the size of the company’s former base, and that will affect ticket sales.

But support for the Lorraine Hansberry remains strong among patrons and local theater organizations. “There is a real and widespread desire among the community to honor Quentin and do what we can to help the Lorraine Hansberry through a huge moment of transition,” Mr. Erickson said.

Kary Schulman, director of the city’s Grants for the Arts program, which provides $46,000 in financing to the theater, said: “Thanks to the company’s great track record and importance to the city, there is every indication that their funders will stick with them. We have confidence in the company and a great allegiance to its continued importance.”

Help from the community and contributors coupled with Mr. Williams’s determination to pull through is essential. Success will help secure the place of African-American theater in the local performing arts landscape, but victory is not a given.

“I would like to think that the company will survive,” said Thomas Simpson, founder and artistic director of the AfroSolo theater company. “But if they don’t, they will leave a gaping hole in our community.”



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