by Darlene Donloe
The Robey Theatre Company, in association with the Los Angeles Theatre Center, will mount the 2017 Paul Robeson Theatre Festival, with the theme: Harlem To Central Avenue, from August 25-27, at the Los Angeles Theatre Center in downtown Los Angeles. The festival, featuring fifteen 10-minute plays and framed by jazz music and spoken word poetry, celebrates the Harlem Renaissance and the impact that it ultimately had on black culture and the arts in Los Angeles.
The Harlem to Central Avenue theme was chosen, according to Robey Theatre Company co-founder Ben Guillory, because of its significance.
“The Harlem Renaissance was about 1921-1934, or 60 years after slavery,” says Guillory, an actor who studied drama at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. “There was a huge exodus from the south and a bunch of people landed in Harlem. Harlem has the largest concentration of black people. What emerged out of that was the Harlem Renaissance. This is a celebration, a release, and inspiration of so many things from literature to music to performing arts, to intellectual, to the new Negro. So many intellectuals and just simple artists emerged out of that. It was short lived because there was no mainstream support. There were one-shot wonders. It could have been bigger had they received support.”
Although the Harlem Renaissance did not continue to flourish, Guillory is quick to acknowledge some of the great intellectuals who came out of the period.
“What emerged was the blossoming of Zora [Neale Hurston], Duke [Ellington], Countee [Cullen], Ella [Fitzgerald], Nella [Larsen], and so many writers and visual artists and musicians,” said Guillory. “In spite of all of the obstacles they had to face, they were successful. They managed to do what they did. Their impact permeated this country whether people want to admit it or not. The music has impacted everything. From the way we walk, the way we talk – even with white people. The impact on Central Avenue, which was a hub and a cultural strip in Los Angeles after WWII – lasted all the way to the late 50s. There was Club Alabam and the Dunbar. Because of the theme, we get to look at Central Avenue. We wanted to really explore that. That’s why we have the festival.”
There are any number of theater festivals in the City of Angels, including the Los Angeles Women’s Theatre Festival, The Hollywood Fringe Festival, the National Asian American Theater Conference and Festival, and the Radar L.A. Festival, but none of them have a “black” focus.
The Paul Robeson Theatre Festival starts at 6 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 25, with a gala reception, a presentation of awards recognizing creative achievements, and the staged reading of a new, full-length play, Birdland Blue, by Randy Ross Ph.D. The reading will be accompanied by the musical ensemble, The Blue Morning Quintet (BMQ).
Birdland Blue centers around bandleader Miles Davis, who, while performing at the New York City jazz club Birdland, struggles to keep his musical, social, economic, and social worlds from crumbling. Guillory said Birdland Blue was selected as the festival opener because it takes place in the late 50s when jazz and bebop had come into its own.
“It’s a great play that is written really well,” said Guillory. People like John Coltrane, Cannonball [Adderley], and Miles [Davis] are real people who epitomized the creative process. Jazz is, I think, probably the apex of the creative process in this country in music. It’s a metaphor for the creative process.”
Guillory & Glover
If you ask Ben Guillory what sets his Paul Robeson Theatre Festival apart from other theater festivals in Los Angeles, he won’t mince words or pull any punches. Guillory, who, along with fellow actor and Robey Theatre Company co-founder Danny Glover, will unapologetically tell you with absolute certainty and resolve: “We’re black, that’s what sets us apart. We are people of color and our experience is like no other in this country. It’s like Malcolm X said, ‘You catch hell ‘cause you’re a black man.’”
To know Guillory is to know he’s a man who boldly wears his black pride on his sleeve. It’s one of the reasons the married (28 years to Princess Ghen) father of two launched a theater company bearing the name of actor, singer, civil rights activist, and lawyer Paul Robeson, a man he holds in high esteem. The Robey Theatre Company has presented award-winning African-American theater in Los Angeles for more than two decades. Now in its second year, the festival, according to Guillory, is a natural extension.
“The festival is a continuation of the discussion,” said Guillory, who hails from Louisiana, has lived in California’s Bay Area, but now calls Los Angeles home. “There are more important stories to be told. The festival gives the audience a glimpse.”
Although he’s not involved in the day-to-day operation, Guillory said Danny Glover, his Robey partner, is still very much involved in the theater company and the festival.
“Danny has a bonafide film career and occasional TV career,” offers Guillory, who also has an extensive acting, directing, and producer career. “We are talking about one of the few actors that has worked constantly. He is a bonafide movie star. But more than that, Danny is an activist and an artist – in that order.”
According to Guillory, he and Glover knew each other before they were actors. They grew up together in the Bay Area.
“We had conversations that brothers have,” said Guillory, who, when asked how old he is, would only say ‘ageless’. “We are trained real well. There are no actors like us to speak of. We always had the conversation that when we get flush, we will open up our own – something. We both came to theater with a socially conscious agenda. That’s why we wanted a place to talk about certain things and develop certain stories. We came together as associates. I do the day to day, but he’s there when we need him.”
A Change Is Gonna Come
In its two short years of existence, the festival – which began in 2014, but skipped a couple of years due to a lack of finances – has already made some changes.
“We received submissions from all over the country,” explained Guillory. “We got 67 submissions. We picked 15 out of that and mounted them. The difference this time is that we didn’t put out a public call. We have a wonderful relationship with wonderful playwrights. I asked playwrights we already have relationships with to submit 10-minute plays with our theme in mind. We received 32 submissions. We have chosen 15. The material we are mounting is coming from the Robey Theatre community of playwrights. It’s the same with the actors. We had an open audition call the first time around. This time we have actors we’ve established a relationship with. They are regulars, you know, people you have seen in Robey productions. This is really a celebration of Robey. We wanted to recognize those who have been in the trenches and contributed to Robey. This is a salute to those artists.”
When the festival first began there was a national call for submissions of one-act plays. The festival showcased fifteen 20-minute plays. The new 10-minute format, says Guillory, is the best way to give audiences a “glimpse” of the subject matter.
“We wanted to talk to and work with a lot of playwrights,” said Guillory. “Although they are only 10 minutes, the plays have to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. A full-length play can take years to get ready for production. We have a company of 27 actors who will take part in the acting, and 15 different playwrights.”
At the first festival in 2014, the 10-minute plays were mounted on a Saturday with only one performance.
“If you missed it, you missed it,” said Guillory who, this year, will direct a few of the shows, including Birdland Blue. “This time around we will present all of the plays starting at 2 p.m., then we’ll do a second performance at 7 p.m., and then Sunday the same thing. The difference is the playwrights have a chance for their work to have several runs. It’s problematic to have the artists and the playwright to only have the show done once. These artists work for a small honorarium because they want to do it. They love the work.”
Take Two: California Community Foundation, Where Are You?
Of course, it takes money to put on a theater festival. The original concept of the festival called for it to occur every other year. A lack of funding changed the strategy.
“We had always planned to do it every other year,” said Guillory. “We wanted to match or fill the interval of the National Black Theater Festival (NBTF) that happens every other year in Winston Salem, North Carolina because there is nothing comparable on the west coast. What happened was – we didn’t have the resources. We didn’t have the money. Thank God we found the resources to do it. Although the National Black Theater Festival happened this year, I didn’t want to put it off another year. We don’t consider ourselves in competition with a national festival or any other theater. It’s feast or famine when you’re trying to find resources to do theater.”
Guillory said the California Community Foundation, which used to fund the theater company, has shifted its concentration. The Robey, he said, continues to seek funding from other sources
“The California Community Foundation has changed its focus,” said Guillory. “It was a major funding component to the arts. They have funded us for something like 20 years, but now they are changing their focus. They want to put more of their limited resources into medicine, education, and other causes. It just goes to show you whenever there is some kind of cut, the arts are the first to get the cut.”
According to the California Community Foundation (CCF), they funded the Robey from 2002-2207 with grants that totaled under $10,000 each year, and then funded them again from 2008-2016 with a core-funding grant for programs receiving more than $50,000.
The CCF says it’s not completely accurate to say they don’t fund the arts.
“The California Community Foundation will continue its commitment of supporting the arts and arts organizations in Los Angeles through our donors and our legacy funds,” said John E. Kobara, chief operating officer, California Community Foundation. “We believe in the power of the arts to inspire change, to motivate hearts, and to transform dreams into reality. Although our discretionary funding for the arts has decreased, CCF will continue to support L.A. based artists through our signature Fellowship for Visual Artists award and arts education for kindergarten through eighth grade through the Thelma Pearl Howard Foundation.”
“We are continually searching for resources to sustain operation costs,” added Guillory.
The CCF has never been Robey’s sole funding source. According to Guillory, the theater company/festival recently received a generous monetary donation from one of its supporters: “Fortunately, we were gifted with $25,000. We have an angel who will not be announced until opening night. I don’t want to say who it is beforehand. The funder doesn’t want to be in the limelight. The reason they are doing it is because they support the Robey Theater Company and our mission statement. This couple has repeatedly come to the company’s shows. They recognize what we do.”
The annual budget for Robey, according to Guillory, is “a couple hundred thousand.”
“It’s not much,” he says, but over the years he’s learned to make it work.
“We do a couple of productions a year and it’s extremely taxing,” said Guillory. “What we’d like to do is a brick and mortar campaign. We’d work toward a budget of $750,000 a year and have our own space. We’d have a 40 and 99-seat house, two rehearsal rooms and business offices. It would have a shop to make the sets and a place to store that and a place to store costumes. We’d have a 60-slot parking lot. All of this would be in the Crenshaw district. That would be a perfect world.”
Guillory would like to be in the predominantly black Crenshaw district because Robey, after all, considers itself a voice of and for the black community.
“The last 10 years has been about what’s available to people in their homes,” said Guillory. “Getting people to come out of their homes to come to an event is difficult. Once they are in the theater, though, they are inspired and love it and are aghast and overwhelmed by it. But part of the population doesn’t go out. It’s not for everybody, not in an elitist way. Not everyone is interested in theater. So we have an audience constituency since the beginning. They have come and come and made donations and supported us when we have a benefit. It’s never enough, of course. We get our money from public funding, corporations, grants from the city, the county, and state. It’s not from the box office. We’d just be recouping production cost. What we do is we are the stewards of the cultural aspect of the black community.”
Instead of performing different plays at each of the three show times, all three performances will feature the same short plays, effectively giving the plays a mini-run that will allow different audiences to see the complete roster of plays at the time most convenient for them, and will also permit audience members to see the plays more than once, should they be so inclined.
The program of short plays will be presented in Los Angeles Theatre Center’s intimate Theatre 4.
The two Conversation events will be free to the general public.
Paul Robeson Theatre Festival, Los Angeles Theatre Center, 514 S. Spring St., Los Angeles, CA 90013; Tickets: $35 opening night, $35 for one performance on Saturday or Sunday, $50 early bird bargain includes opening night and one of the Saturday or Sunday performances (if purchased by August 18); $25 group sales of 10 or more. For information: Website: www.robeytheatrecompany.org or (213) 489-7402.
For tickets, call (866) 811-4111, or go to www.thelatc.org/event/the-robey-theatre-company-presents/
EDIT: In regards to the article about Robey Theatre Company and the Paul Robeson Theatre Festival that was posted on August 18, Ben Guillory would like to clarify his comments about changes in arts funding. He never intended to single out the California Community Foundation. He is grateful for the support the Foundation has provided to the Robey Theatre Company over the years. With a budget as small as Robey’s, CCF funding was a huge support. Robey hopes to partner with CCF in the future whenever possible.
Donations can be made to the organization on the website at www.robeytheatrecompany.