A celebration of African American theater will take place nationwide on June 20, as 17 black theater companies across the country light their collective lights for 1Voice, 1Play, 1Day, an inaugural theatrical event spearheaded by Project1Voice.
For 1Voice, 1Play, 1Day, the 17 companies have been enlisted by Project1Voice to produce benefit staged readings of Alice Childress’ Trouble In Mind, a provocative and satiric drama produced Off-Broadway in 1955, set in 1957, about the journey of a mixed-raced cast as they embark upon rehearsals for an anti-lynching play with a white director.Â Childress, who died in 1994 at the age of 77, was the first African-American playwright to be honored with an Obie Award.
Launched in 2010 by New York-based actor/producer Erich McMillan-McCall, Project1Voice is, according to its website, “a national grassroots movement designed to support and cultivate artistic excellence, creativity and innovation among African-American theater organizations, along with preserving the legacies of these theaters and those of African-American playwrights. It is our mission to engage people of every age with a continuum of experiences that reflect the virtuosity, creative and inclusive spirit of the arts.”
1Voice, 1Play, 1Day, says McMillan-McCall, 48, will show solidarity and support for the importance and survival of black theater. It will “emphasize just how necessary black theater is on many levels.” A Birmingham, Ala. native, McMillan-McCall has been involved in theater for more than 20 years.
The readings, he says, will not serve only as fundraisers for participating theaters, but will also act as a “community engagement event” to further develop audiences, recruit volunteers, attract corporate and foundation funding, and seek in-kind goods and services.Â Project1Voice will not receive proceeds from the individual readings, according to McMillan-McCall.
The LA Connection
In Los Angeles, it will be curtain up at the Ebony Repertory Theatre (ERT), one of the 17 theater companies to take part in the behemoth event. Staged by Harry Lennix, the June 20 reading is scheduled for 8 pm and will be free of charge.
“I first heard about this project in 2010,” says ERT founder/producer Wren T. Brown. “For me, anything that includes solidarity, particularly with regards to black theater and the vital importance of black theater, gets my attention. I immediately had to say yes to participating.”
Brown, who launched ERT alongside artistic director Israel Hicks (who died in 2010), says a project of this magnitude is a step in the right direction for African American theater.
“A solidarity project like this can bring visibility to all companies,” says Brown. “With something like this, you can do a lot of things. The project is unique. It’s designed as a benefit for the theaters. It offers a tremendous discussion point with regard to the necessity of dialogue surrounding funding and proportionate funding.Â There are also the playwrights that have contributed to the African American theatrical canon. This project is about raising the awareness of this canon.”
Although the ERT staged reading hasn’t been completely cast, Brown says actors Leslie Odom, Jr. (Rent), LaTanya Richardson Jackson (Joe Turner’s Come and Gone) and Tony winner (Joe Turner’s Come and Gone) Roger Robinson are already on board to take part in the production.
“We are delighted to have such fine actors of this caliber participating in this important event,” says Brown, who is currently readying the return ofÂ A Raisin in the Sun, helmed by Phylicia Rashad.Â The show, which previously played March 25-April 17 at the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center, will reopen for two weekends only (June 24-26 and July 1-3).
The launching of Project1Voice, says McMillan-McCall, initially came about because he “got tired” of complaining about the lack of work for African Americans in theater. Instead of continuing to bemoan the situation with his friends, he, along with some colleagues, decided to step out, do something about it and put their money and efforts where their mouths are.
“I’ve been unemployed for a year and a half,” says McMillan-McCall, who used his own money to kick-start the company. “It’s been up and down trying to find work. This project came about quite by accident. I would invite my friends over for parties and card games to get our minds off of the fact we weren’t working. We had great fellowship. During the course of that we would start talking about the business. We’d talk about how they aren’t doing shows for us and how we can’t get jobs and how miserable our jobs are. So, I asked what can we do to change that, to make a difference in our own lives and be proactive. I knew that we could do something to make a change.Â So, I took my own advice.”
McMillan-McCall says he put his plan into action after observing that many theater companies were sufferingÂ due to the harsh economic climate.Â Â He added that the problem was worse among historically African-American theater organizations.
Originally, McMillan-McCall was going to produce the play himself at several theaters as a fundraiser. However, after talking to actor/director/educator Timothy Douglas (who suggested Trouble in Mind) and showbiz veteran Lawrence Evans (who works with the National Black Theatre Festival), McMillan-McCall opted to take the project to the doorstep of established African American theater companies.
The 17 theater companies were chosen for various reasons, according to McMillan-McCall.Â Some became involved by what he calls “the luck of the draw,” some regularly participate in the National Black Theater Festival in Winston-Salem, NC, while others were suggested by theater veterans.
“There is something very effective and dramatic in bringing awareness to the need for and plight of black theater by collectively presenting the same play around the country on the same day,” explains McMillan-McCall. “It just made sense.”
It’s Good To Be King
To insure he was going down the right path, McMillan-McCall, who moved to New York in 1988, sought the help and advice of seasoned theater icon and sage Woodie King Jr., founder of New Federal Theatre in New York.
“If you’re going to do anything this huge, you get the best advice you can,” says McMillan-McCall, who previously worked at Conde Nast Publications and at Vogue as an assistant to fashion executive Andre Leon Tally. “That’s why I called up Woodie King. Who better to show me and advise me what to do? He could give me the sense of history. I thought he’d be able to connect the dots.”
McMillan-McCall says that after speaking with King for only five minutes, the highly respected theater veteran thought it was a good idea.
“I did,” says King, who founded New Federal Theatre 40 years ago.Â “I thought it was a great idea.Â Now all of a sudden theaters and university and professors across America have a new interest in this great writer Alice Childress, who wrote Wedding Band: A Love/Hate Story in Black and White, A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ But A Sandwich and Wine in the Wilderness, which all broke through and became standards. Â Trouble in Mind is an excellent play. She’s one of the pioneers that gave voice to black theater first as an actress and a member of the American Negro Theater”“ then as a playwright.”
New Federal Theatre is one of the 17 theatrical companies who have signed on to participate in 1Voice, 1Play, 1Day.
“I’m involved because I want to promote and bring attention to this project,” says King, who is originally from Detroit, but has lived in New York for 40 years.Â “It’s about focus and attention.”
When asked to assess the state of black theater, King said, “Whatever the state of black people is, is the state of black theater. When black people are flourishing and happy and working and have great schools and housing, then black theater is in great shape because the state of black theater parallels the state of black people.”
On A Mission
Organizing what he calls a “gargantuan task” has kept McMillan-McCall on his toes. But, he says, that’s a small price to pay for what he insists will be a historic and successful event
He credits what he calls an “incredible team” of professionals with helping him to get 1Voice, 1Play, 1Day off the ground. The team includes producer/production manager Gwen Gilliam,Â award-winning playwright and director Charles Randolph-Wright, Â actor/producer Charles Reese Â (Teeth and Eyes Productions) and Marcia Pendelton (Walk Tall Girl Productions).
“On June 20, we’re going to make all these single voices come together,” says McMillan-McCall. “The wonderful thing about this project is the amazing collaborative spirit from the theaters. It’s been a lot of work, but it’s been worth it. The black theater is worth it. The black theaters are struggling for their own survival. Playwrights need a presence in the American theater. We have other playwrights besides August Wilson. I love August Wilson, but there are other voices.”
This is not a fly-by-night venture for McMillan-McCall.Â He is already planning for next year to be bigger and better. For him, it’s all about spreading the message.
“This is important,” he says. “We all have to help preserve the legacy. This is my calling ““ to bring awareness to the plight of African American theaters and playwrights. My mission in life is to get this done.”
The 15 other participating theaters are: African Continuum Theatre (Washington, DC), African American Repertory Theater (DeSoto, TX), Aldridge Repertory Theatre (Birmingham, AL), the Billie Holiday Theatre (Brooklyn, NY), Crossroads Theatre (New Brunswick, NY), Congo Square Theatre (Chicago, IL), Freedom Theatre (Philadelphia, PA), Jubilee Theatre (Fort Worth, TX), Karamu House Theatre (Cleveland, OH), Kuntu Repertory Theatre (Pittsburgh, PA), Lorraine Hansberry Theatre (San Francisco, CA), Negro Ensemble Company (New York, NY), New Professional Theatre (New York, NY), The Ensemble Theatre (Houston, TX) and Uprooted (Milwaukee, WI).
For more information about 1Voice, 1Play, 1Day or Project1Voice: www.project1voice.org.
For information on Ebony Repertory Theatre, Nate Holden Performing Arts Center, 4718 West Washington Blvd., Los Angeles, CA, www.ebonyrep.org or 323-964.9766.