African American Repertory Theatre prepares for its new affiliation

Published: June 07, 2009


by Endesha Ida Mae Holland

Where: Pine Camp Arts and Community Center, 4901 Old Brook Road

When: Through June 14

Info: (804) 355-2187


African American Repertory Theatre prepares for its new affiliation

African American Repertory Theatre pulls off ‘From the Mississippi Delta’

It has been a tough year – but a transformational one – for African American Repertory Theatre, the Richmond troupe whose current production, “From the Mississippi Delta,” runs through June 14 at Pine Camp Arts and Community Center.


In October, the company’s founding artistic director, Derome Scott Smith, suffered a stroke that left him temporarily unable to talk. The medical crisis struck while AART was gearing up for the 2008-09 season’s first offering: August Wilson’s “Fences.” Smith had been scheduled to stage the show, which had to be canceled.


Since that time, however, Smith has regained his power of speech, and his AART colleagues – forced to assume responsibilities that he previously had solely shouldered – have found themselves up to the task.


“When he got sick, we were kind of in a lurch,” ensemble member L. Rochelle Turnage said as she laid strips of place-marking tape on the floor of a Pine Camp room before a rehearsal last month. “There was a very short learning curve where everybody got to realize we had to go ahead and learn how to do everything that he was doing, which was everything!” The actress, who wound up stage-managing the company’s April show, “Steel Magnolias,” and who is performing in “Mississippi Delta,” said she and her fellow artists coped by learning “to split up responsibilities, so that the job still gets done, but it’s not one person doing everything.”


“I’ve really learned to let go of a lot of things,” agreed Smith, sitting nearby. “It’s healthier for me, and it’s caused the company to grow in ways that they hadn’t been able to, because I’d been holding on to so much.”


In the stroke’s aftermath, the artistic director had to relearn the alphabet and the basics of reading and writing, and he underwent speech therapy. These days he still stumbles over the occasional word, but he looks and sounds chipper. He said he has lost nearly 80 pounds since last autumn.


What’s more, he is satisfied that his 7-year-old company met its goal for the 2008-09 season: To prepare for its new affiliation with Richmond CenterStage. A musical about Mahalia Jackson will kick off the official AART season at CenterStage in October, Smith said. The troupe’s 2009-10 slate will also include – among other projects – two co-productions with the Barksdale Theatre: “Black Nativity,” by Langston Hughes, and the musical “Crowns.”


In anticipation of next season, AART has been concentrating on building up its board of trustees – a vital resource for a nonprofit arts organization. “It’s going to be very important for us to put together a quality product, as we’re in this new space,” said Smith, who thinks the move to the new venue will help the troupe “get rid of the title ‘fledgling theater company’ and step into some new shoes.”


So, in the past year, rather than mount new works that might funnel energy away from board-building, the company has restaged past productions such as “From the Mississippi Delta,” an AART offering in 2008. Dramatist Endesha Ida Mae Holland based her play – which opened Off Broadway in 1991 – on her own experience growing up poor in the segregated South, where she worked as a prostitute before becoming a scholar, civil-rights activist and celebrated writer. “It makes for some compelling drama,” Smith said.


The artistic director mounted the show himself in 2008, but since he’s still recuperating, Toney Q. Cobb is doing the honors this time.


“Any time you have to follow Derome, it’s a challenge,” Cobb said. “His artistic vision is, in my opinion, unparalleled. So I just try to do my best. I just try to steer [the show] in the proper direction.”


With CenterStage in view, and the company’s artists more experienced and flexible than they were a year ago, AART is headed in the right direction, too, Smith said.

Celia Wren is a former managing editor of American Theatre magazine. Contact her at

‘Trailblazers’ varied, informative

Published: February 08, 2009

African American Trailblazers,” a series of vignettes about native Virginians who left a lasting legacy to the world, would have been the second production of the 2008-09 season for the African American Repertory Theatre.


But the company’s production of August Wilson’s “Fences,” scheduled for last November, had to be canceled because of the sudden illness of founding director Derome Scott Smith.


Smith was back on his feet for Friday’s opening of “Trailblazers.” Following on the tails of the troupe’s successful spring 2008 production of “Charcoal Street,” “Trailblazers” takes the company back to basics and back in time.


The pared-down production features an ensemble of five, a blend of company veterans and newcomers (Diana Carver, Toney Cobb, J. Ron Fleming, Stephanie M. Hill and Rhonda Jackson-Smith) and is Sharalyn Bailey’s directorial debut. In her three years with the company, Bailey has tried her hand at everything from crew member to stage manager to actress.


A few chairs and music stands placed before a simple free-standing background featuring the likenesses of such black trailblazers as Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman and Hank Aaron set the stage for a readers theater — actors, with scripts in hand, reading and using their bodies to convey the broad dynamics but relying on vocal expression to tell the story.


It takes more than a moment to get used to this technique — a technique Smith deems an important and valid method of artistic expression and one that he deliberated was the ideal creative vehicle for this project.


Each cast member played multiple roles — sometimes within a single vignette — and this format allowed for rapid transitions. Hill emerged as the project’s most melodious songbird, although she sometimes lacked range. Carver was the sassiest in her characterizations and Smith the most versatile, switching from feminine to masculine mode.


Cobb was easily the most physically expressive, while Fleming’s sonorous voice commanded attention. Yet, even with two popular inspirational songs to seal the ends of each act and some surprisingly subtle lighting effects, there were still a lot of distractions. Watching the actors read from their scripts was often distracting.


The selection of biographies for the vignettes ranged from the familiar Nat Turner, Maggie Walker, Ella Fitzgerald and Arthur Ashe to the less familiar Anthony Johnson (a freeman and landowner), John Mercer Langston (dean of the law school at Howard University and the first black person elected to Congress, serving from 1890 to 1891), Ella Baker (a civil-rights activist) and newsman Max Robinson.


The production was varied, informative and at times emotional. But now and then it also felt too much like a school play or educational television program. Speaking of which, opening night coincided with Richmond Parks and Recreation’s first Friday “Youth Night,” which meant there more than 100 teens in attendance. This made for a full house, but some of them were in party mode, which created several off-stage distractions.


AART was commissioned by Richmond Region 2007 to produce a series of theatrical vignettes highlighting the historic contributions of black Americans since the first Africans arrived in Jamestown in 1619. The work has since become a part of the fourth annual Acts of Faith Theatre Festival.

Julinda Lewis may be contacted at