By: CELIA WREN SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT | Richmond Times Dispatch
Published: June 07, 2009
“FROM THE MISSISSIPPI DELTA”
by Endesha Ida Mae Holland
Where: Pine Camp Arts and Community Center, 4901 Old Brook Road
When: Through June 14
Info: (804) 355-2187
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.