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Texas State professors to study black theatre in Texas

By Ann Friou
University News Service
November 6, 2008

Black theatre has deep roots in the Lone Star State. For more than 250 years, African-Americans in Texas have produced amateur and professional productions in churches, schools, historically black colleges, community centers, and public theatres.

Today, most of Texas’ major cities have professional African-American theatrical companies mounting productions in their own facilities. For example, Fort Worth’s Jubilee Theatre company moved into its own building in 1987 after several years of performing in nightclubs, lobbies, saloons and other companies’ theatres. And Houston’s Ensemble Theatre, which began operating in 1976 from the trunk of its director’s car, has become one of Houston’s best-known cultural institutions. It is the oldest and largest professional African American theatre company in the Southwest and one of the nation’s largest African American companies owning and operating its facility and producing in-house.

In spite of its long history of contributions to the arts, little has been written about black theatre in Texas. In an effort to preserve black theatre’s history, two professors at Texas State University-San Marcos plan to research and archive it. Their research will yield two books, a web-based library of archived materials, and a six-city touring exhibit to be curated by Philip Collins, former director of the African-American Museum in Dallas.

“The purpose of the project is to locate and preserve materials that document the unique contributions that Black theatre has made to the arts in Texas,” said researchers Elvin Holt and Sandra Mayo. “We want to examine records that reveal how these theatres were organized, how they fund their productions, how they recruit actors, directors, and other theatre personnel. We also plan to conduct audio- and video-taped interviews with artistic directors, actors, and other persons associated with the theatres.”

Holt, professor of English, and Mayo, associate professor of theatre and director of Texas State’s Center for Multicultural and Gender Studies, will research the Pro-Arts Collective in Austin, founded 1993; the Black Academy of Arts and Letters in Dallas, founded 1977; the Ensemble Theatre, founded 1976, and the Encore Theatre, founded 1993, both in Houston; the Jubilee Theatre in Fort Worth, founded 1976; and the Renaissance Guild, founded in 2001, and the Hornsby Theatre Company, both in San Antonio.

Holt and Mayo also plan to compile an anthology of plays by black Texas playwrights that have been staged by Texas’ black theatre companies. The featured playwrights will include the well-known Eugene Lee and Ted Shine. Lee, currently Texas State Artist in Residence, has performed around the country and on Broadway, and his play East Texas Hot Links has been staged in the U.S. and at the Royal Court Theatre in London. Shine, who has written for the stage and for television, edited Black Theatre USA, and his works have been widely anthologized. Holt and Mayo’s anthology will also feature works by Rudy Eastman, Sterling Houston, Elizabeth Brown Guillory, Harold Haynes, George Hawkins, Thomas Melonson, Celeste Bedford-Walker, and Antoinette Winstead. The anthology and the history of black theatre in Texas will both be published by the University of Texas Press.