The events of Ferguson have resulted in an explosion of arts activism in St. Louis. Painters, performers and arts movers and shakers have created a tremendous body of work around racism and other barriers to social justice.
But activism is nothing new to the Black Rep.
So says its founder Ron Himes, who pointed out his theater company has focused on African-American life for nearly 40 years.
Himes said those who’ve participated in the recent surge in activism are joining a very old tradition.
“I feel like those are cars that have been added to a train that has been moving since the Underground Railroad,” Himes said. “Artists in the African-American community and in minority communities generally have been activists.”
For the first time in years, Black Rep founder Ron Himes can finally exhale.
In 2012, subscription sales had plummeted to 1,000 from 3,000 in just three years. At that time, Himes told the St. Louis Beacon he was looking for “a drum major,” someone or some company to help keep the theater company afloat.
Then things got worse.
The Black Rep lost the Grand Center venue it called home for 20 years.
“It’s felt like swimming upstream in a tsunami,” Himes said, in an interview Thursday.
But then Harris-Stowe State University offered its stage and the company also continued to perform once or twice year at Washington University’s Edison Theater.
Last summer Washington University began providing the Black Rep with office and rehearsal space, under a three-year lease. On Thursday, the company announced it will stage all three of its shows this season at The Edison, thanks in part to the end of The Edison’s Ovations series, Himes said.
“With the Ovations series going away, there’s an opportunity for us to look at more performances on the campus,” Himes said.
A new home?
The Black Rep’s 2015-16 schedule begins Sept. 3 with a lighthearted musical called “Tell Me Something Good,” with songs from the doo-wop of the 1960s to the present-day. The piece was created by Himes and first performed in 2004.
Next up is “Sunset Baby,” a serious look at a former political prisoner who now faces the more personal challenge of being a father. The season ends with a company-created show called “The Family Reunion: In My Father’s House." It will bring familiar faces back to the Black Rep for a mix of music, dance and words paying tribute to the African-American experience.
A three-show schedule is well below the number of performances the Black Rep used to have. Historically, it put on five shows a year. Last year, it offered four.
“We decided to cut back on our programming so we could continue to stabilize the organization,” Himes said.
Deepening its relationship with Washington University is a big part of rebuilding on solid ground. Since 2003, Himes has been the Henry E. Hampton Artist-in-Residence at the university, a joint appointment of the performing arts and African-American studies departments.
The Black Rep also continues its relationship with Harris-Stowe, and Himes doesn’t rule out performing there again. But what he really wants, as the company eyes its 40th anniversary next year, is for the Black Rep to once again have its own building.
“A building where we are the major resident tenant, and that other programming would be scheduled around our schedule,” he explained.
Washington University’s performing arts department has priority at the Edison. Other groups also use the stage. So Himes doesn’t see, at this point, that The Edison will become the Black Rep’s home. Nor will Washington University be that sole "drum major" Himes talked about. In fact, he said, successful organizations actually have more than one drum major.
Himes does hope the Black Rep's growing ties to the university will pay off in other ways.
“Hopefully our relationship with the university will garner some support from other quarters,” Himes said.
Here’s a video of Ron Himes looking back on the early days of the Black Rep.
Follow Nancy Fowler on Twitter: @NancyFowlerSTL