Columbus, Ohio USA
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Columbus Black Actors' Theater:
City's Newest Troupe
By Karen Edwards
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“Columbus has a black mayor, telling us we live in a 21st-century city, but we don’t have a black theater company.”
Stevi Meredith was appalled. She may be Columbus born and bred, but she’s lived in the Los Angeles area most of her life, and when she moved back to Columbus about a year ago to take care of aging family, she couldn’t believe a big city – a “21st-century” city – like Columbus had no professional black theater company of its own.
“Every big city in the nation has a black theater company,” says Meredith, “so how can the mayor say we’re living in a 21st-century city?”
Meredith has heard the stories, of course – of Columbus black theater companies that came and went due to mismanagement of funds and/or lack of vision and other problems.
To be fair, Columbus does offer a black theater experience through the King Arts Complex. Tonea Stewart, for example, was recently in town on October 1 for a one-woman performance, Remembering Papa Dallas and other Soul Stirring Experiences, billed as a musical journey of African-American history, including the soulful poetry of Langston Hughes. And the center is now sponsoring a playwriting contest, with entries to be judged by a panel of prominent playwrights, directors and leaders in the arts community. One of the entries submitted will be scheduled for a performance during the King Art Complex’s 2005-2006 seasons.
Still, Meredith says, “I’m coming in with fresh eyes and a new perspective. I’m not weary of the problems [with black theater] everyone else has dealt with. If anything, I think my passion for creating black theater in Columbus is stronger than ever.”
Maybe that’s because Meredith is used to a little adversity.
She left Columbus for Los Angeles shortly after graduating from high school. The theater bug had bit her early. “I was in every play I could be in during junior high and high school and at church,” she says. And before that, she was writing plays for her cousins to perform at family get-togethers. “I’m not sure they’ve forgiven me for that yet,” Meredith says with a laugh. “They never wanted to do it, but I was the oldest, so they just did what I asked them to.”
After high school, however, Meredith packed her bags and left for Orange County, just a 45-minute drive from Los Angeles.
She wanted to be a performer, so she went to auditions – including one for Neil Simon’s Star-Spangled Girl.
“The director pulled me aside after the auditions. I thought he was going to give me the role,” says Meredith. Instead, the director told her that, although she was the best person he auditioned for the part, he couldn’t give it to her. He told her his Orange County audience would never accept her in the part, along with two young white male co-stars.
Shortly after that, she bowed out of performing (“unless they really need me”), and she started to teach and direct – first at a summer program, then later at the Inner City Cultural Center, which was one of the good things that came out of the Los Angeles riots.
C. Bernard Jackson, who founded the center, had a vision, says Meredith. He believed in diversity in casting – a white father, an African-American mother, with Asian children.
He believed that if you gave diversity to the audience, they’d be willing to suspend their everyday reality, and accept this cast as a “family unit,” explains Meredith.
And people did.
“The Center allowed people to grow,” says Meredith. And that applied as much to its audiences as to the people who directed and performed in its productions.
Meredith left the Center to pursue a private teaching opportunity, but she still cherishes the time she spent at the Center, and she brings its lessons with her to Columbus.
Naming the company
She’ll admit that she struggled a bit with a name for her new company. She resisted suggestions to call it by an African-American name.
“I want the city of Columbus to take ownership in this theater, so I wanted Columbus in the name,” she says.
Columbus Black Actors’ Theater not only reflects the community but what the group does.
Still, Meredith knows she has a long way to go in getting her new company up and running.
“This is my field of dreams,” she says. “I believe if you build it, they will come.”
Columbus needs a black theater company she says – and not just because every other major city has one. Except for Red Herring’s production of Paul Robeson, scheduled for February 2006 (see below), “there is a season of absence” this year in terms of black playwrights being produced in Columbus. She understands other companies’ hesitation to schedule black productions, “theater is driven by dollars,” she observes, but the African-American community needs a place to go to hear their stories told, to have their voices expressed.
It’s one of the reasons she’d also like to teach. “I think I’m smart. That’s one thing I know about myself, and I’d like to give some of that back to others. I’d like to teach them what I know. I want to train the actors of the future.” She envisions classes filled with all ages, races and gender. “It’s all up in my head,” she says – and she’s eager to bring it into reality.
Meredith is building a good relationship with the Greater Columbus Arts Council. She has found venue space with Kafe Kerouac and at another coffee shop called Skambo on Gay Street. She has produced and directed her first production – Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf.
“The ladies who came out and auditioned for those parts will always be dear to my heart,” says Meredith. “They were willing to step out and take a chance.”
And people – lots of people – came to see the show. Most stayed and participated in the after-show discussion as well.
“People will come to see black theater,” Meredith asserts.
But she knows she needs to build up her reputation – achieve a little name recognition in the community And she knows she needs to find good actors.
A polished theater
That’s why she’ll produce a series of readings this year. It will give her an opportunity to work with local actors, and “to assess where they are.”
“I do things differently,” Meredith asserts. “I bring a New York/Los Angeles standard to what I direct.”
In other words, Columbus Black Actors’ Theater won’t be at or anywhere near the community theater level. Even the readings will be as polished as Meredith can make them.
There will be more about the readings next month, but you might want to get out your calendars now and circle these dates:
November 5, 2005: Wedding Band, by Alice Childress
February 11, 2006: Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, by August Wilson
April 22, 2006: TBA (Likely to be an original work)
Discussions will follow each reading. She feels that’s important. Meredith will use those to gauge what it is audiences want to see and hear in the future from her company. But as she puts it, it’s also a safe place to begin a dialogue on what are often sensitive or controversial subjects, as depicted by the plays.
“I think if there is one thing we learned from the aftermath of the Katrina disaster, it’s that we have stories to tell – but they aren’t being told by us,” Meredith says.
Maybe that will begin to change as Columbus nurtures and grows its first professional black theater company in many years.
“Columbus Black Actors’ Theater is my gift to Columbus,” Meredith says.
Columbus is a grateful recipient, indeed. And who knows? It may even bring us in line with the rest of the nation’s big cities – and into the 21st century at last.
Stevi Meredith can be reached at email@example.com
© 2005 Short North Gazette, Columbus, Ohio. All rights reserved.