Ensemble Reassembles

Heads have rolled at The Ensemble Theatre. In the fall, the theater's board fired advertising coordinator Margie Beegle. Shortly thereafter, education and touring coordinator Adrian Porter quit. And in February, the board told Eileen Morris -- the theater's longtime artistic director -- that her services "were no longer needed." Morris says she was then promptly "escorted" from the building in grand Draconian corporate style.

As the board was dusting its hands of this dirty business, August Wilson gave it the bad news that he was withdrawing his play The Jitney, originally slated to open this month.

Wilson's colleague, Dartmouth professor Victor Walker -- president and CEO of the African Grove Institute of the Arts -- says Wilson pulled his play because the firing of Morris had compromised the "artistic integrity" of the theater. Alex Morris, the ex-husband of Eileen Morris and the director Wilson had approved for his play, resigned when Eileen was fired.

Walker blasted the theater's leadership for not having any practicing artists. "You have a board who can't see the forest for the trees."

Eileen Morris is among only three black female artistic directors of an established theatrical space in the country and has spent the last few years building relationships with other theaters nationally, Walker says. Her dismissal ditched plans for this season to have Nshake Shange as a director and to produce a play by Ted Lange, the bartender on the Love Boat television series.

The board has "shot themselves in the foot," says Walker, "and they don't realize how bad it is."

Alex Morris says, "Eileen was the only person who really believed in George Hawkin, the founder's, vision to make The Ensemble into a professional black theater."

Walker and Alex Morris contend that the board wants to turn The Ensemble into a community theater.

Comments by board official Argentina James seem to point to that future for the theater. Sterling Vappie takes over the position of interim artistic director from a job as language arts teacher at Sterling High School. The new marketing team made James very happy with their "grassroots" campaign that included sliding flyers under the windshield wipers of cars at local churches. "Our board is a working board," says James. They've gathered more than 300 volunteers to support the theater. This sounds an awful lot like community theater.

What about Eileen's struggles to establish a national reputation for The Ensemble?

"With Eileen, the theater had arrived," says Walker. Now that "thread has begun to unravel," he says. "It's been decimated in terms of a national theater."

-- Lee Williams

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Lee Williams