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Color Blind

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

A year ago this month the Ensemble Theatre, Houston's oldest and largest African-American theater, abruptly dismissed its artistic director, Eileen Morris, claiming the company and Morris had different ideas on how to fill seats and attract new audiences. The move stunned the theater community. The respected Morris, one of only three female African-American artistic directors working in an established theatrical space, just as abruptly left the city. Since then, neither she nor any member of the theater's board has breathed so much as a syllable as to what went on between them.

Or so says Michael Washington, the Ensemble's new artistic director, a longtime actor and director at the theater who was elevated to the post last summer. Of course, Washington seems something of an enigma himself. He chooses his words carefully, always cautious of what tumbles from his mouth, yet his freckled, impish face breaks easily into a warm, wide grin. He has a schoolboy sweetness that belies the kick-in-the-gut power he has brought to the theater's stage. Who would guess this soft-spoken, ultrapolite man, sitting behind his disheveled desk, had it in him to play the jerk who burned up the stage in Black Eagles?

He swivels in his chair, ignoring the screech of the phone and the mess of papers strewn willy-nilly across his desk, and slides out a smile before carefully folding his hands in his lap.

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."

The consummate chameleon. I'm smitten but a little bit dubious when he declares he never got a clear answer as to why Morris left. "I spoke to Eileen for a long time at the Black Theatre Festival in Winston-Salem in August. And we talked briefly before she left Houston and moved to Pittsburgh, and she never told me why she left or why she was asked to leave. The board of directors hasn't shared much information with me. I get the impression that the decision was made on both parts not to discuss Eileen's departing. I'm hesitant to guess why they've made that decision."

The consummate politician.

So why dwell on the past? Morris, who as a protégé of founding director George Hawkins dreamed of putting the Ensemble on the national map, is gone. The theater seems to have survived her rather messy and grandly dramatic slammed-door exit, which in the first months resulted in both Ntozake Shange and August Wilson pulling scripts.

But now the backstage halls of the teal-and-putty-colored theater on Main Street are buzzing with the measured energy that Washington exudes. Sets are being built, the phone blares and every staff member smiles a healthy hello. Could this be the same chilly space that naysayers declared wouldn't make it into the new millennium?

Washington credits director Ed Muth, the theater's company of actors and interim artistic director Sterling Vappie with keeping things running on a relatively even keel before he came on board.

Now that he has taken up permanent residence in the boxy little office that's noteworthy only for how unlived-in it looks -- lots of stuff still in boxes -- Washington has rolled up his sleeves and muscled down to take care of theater business. "I'm making sure that we can proceed with the season," he says. "We solidified the contracts and the royalty arrangements, the seasonal brochures."

Vappie chose this season's shows and picked the directors. It's now up to Washington to make it work. This spring Washington will direct one production; otherwise he's busy oiling the gears of marketing and promotion.

Which points up one of the central differences between the former artistic director and the new one. Unlike Morris, who spent a good deal of her time out of the theater and the city, making connections with people such as August Wilson, Washington is busy building a local following and wringing his hands over nonartistic issues such as marketing.

While he agrees that it's important to "stabilize our national identity," Washington would like more Houstonians to know who and what the Ensemble is. "I think it's a travesty that we can go to Spring Branch, and people don't know who we areŠ.I'm rebuilding our audience by focusing a lot of our attention, a lot of our marketing dollars, here in Houston rather than mailing a ton of stuff all over the planet."

In fact, when asked about his long-term goals for the theater, his initial response has nothing to do with artistic vision. First and foremost Washington wants to "fill the seat." But what about the play, the season he envisions? He stops for a minute, quietly contemplating his answer. It almost seems as though he hasn't yet puzzled this one out.

"I'm looking to do a little more cutting-edge theater, but I want those things to be entertaining as well." He wants shows with "marketing value," he says. He wants more storage space, a bigger parking lot, more seats.

If nothing else, the man's got focus. This focus is what appealed to board president Argentina James when she and the panel selected him as artistic director in July. Things seem to be humming along nicely between the 43-member board and Washington, which is important, given that James is at the theater at least once a week. She'll be meeting with Washington and the theater's new managing director "until they understand all the intricacies of the theater." She's just there to help.

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.

"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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