Color Blind

Ensemble's new artistic director doesn't view things in shades of black and white

The board has a lot of influence at the Ensemble. It has the final say-so on the season to make sure the shows are "cost-effective" and "appealing to an audience," says James. Many artistic directors couldn't deal with this kind of board oversight, but Washington appears to be toeing the line, which makes everybody happy -- so far.

"There's more cohesiveness between the staff, the artists and the board," says James. Chip Manfre, the theater's technical director, who worked under both Morris and Washington, agrees, saying that "the theater is running more smoothly now."

James credits this cohesion as part of the reason why the Ensemble has snared two recent grants: $100,000 from the Marian and Speros Martell Foundation and $30,000 from Compaq.

Life of a salesman: Michael Washington wants to produce theater with "marketing value."
Steve Lowry
Life of a salesman: Michael Washington wants to produce theater with "marketing value."

"We're moving as a theater," says James. "I recently heard someone say the theater is more open. I never thought of us as closed, but I was glad to hear that people are embracing us."

The theater, whose mission has always been "to preserve African-American artistic expression; to enlighten, entertain and enrich a diverse community," is also working to embrace the community.

"You're on stage, and you're performing a human experience, not necessarily a black experience," says Washington. "That can be tricky. You look at the way Hollywood deals with it. 'Oh, my God, Steven Spielberg doing The Color Purple. What does he know about the African-American experience?'

"Just the other day I had my director, Ed Muth, and Chip Manfre, my technical director, in conference, for about 20 minutes. These guys, who are all white, were sitting at a table, during a production meeting for The African Company Does Richard III. They're talking about what sort of things were African-Americans wearing during the period [in which the play takes place]Š.Do you mess up the concept by leaving those people in a room by themselves to come up with and create all of this without an individual from the African-American community sitting at the table saying, 'Whoa, guys, you got it wrong'?

"Well, no one working at this theater was there during the period. We have pictures. We have fact sheets. We have clippings of what was worn during the time. And the answer is no. No, you don't lose. It goes back to performing real human experiences. Whether those humans were black, white, whatever. What's most important is being honest, being honest with human intent. After that, most audiences are color-blind when it comes to being entertained."

And after thinking for a good long while, he says, "What I'd really like to do is [Tennessee Williams's] Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. That's on the top of my list."

It's sure to be a moneymaker.

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