My friend the playwright/producer Joan Lipkin (of That Uppity Theatre Company fame) once remarked that theatre in St. Louis was mostly about real estate. What she meant was that there are far more theatre companies in town than there are spaces in which they can perform.
Companies with dedicated spaces are becoming rare, and many of those have to share with other groups. Some are even homeless, migrating from stage to stage like the Wandering Jew of medieval legend. Sadly, one of our more prestigious professional companies has just joined the ranks of the homeless.
The company in question is the The Black Rep. For 36 seasons now they've been staging shows, including many local premieres, informed by the African-American experience—everything from the dramas of August Wilson and Athol Fugard to musicals like "Five Guys Named Moe" and "The Wiz." They presented the local premiere of Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori's genre-bending musical "Caroline, or Change," staged a production of "Porgy and Bess" in conjunction with Union Avenue Opera, and gave us the first local performance of Samm-Art Williams's comedy "The Waiting Room" (in which I appeared) in partnership with the St. Louis Actors' Studio.
Since 1992 The Black Rep has called The Grandel Theater in Grand Center home. The 437-seat space was pretty much the ideal size for the Black Rep as well as for other groups (such as St. Louis Shakespeare) that shared it with them. As reported by Judy Newmark in the stltoday.com Culture Club blog on August 4th, however, the Black Rep will start its 37th season as one of the theatrically homeless. Grand Center has sold the theater. A liquidator will empty the building by the end of August.
Ominously, the name of the buyer and its plans for the building "are not available due to a confidentially provision in the sale agreement," according to the West End Word, which suggests that Grand Center might be losing a theatre space. Meanwhile, regardless of those plans, The Black Rep is out in the cold (or rather the heat, given the current weather).
That hasn't stopped the group from announcing it's 37th season, though. "Though recent events could have put other theatre companies down for the count," notes company Education and Community Programs manager Linda Kennedy in a recent press release, "The Black Rep is coming out swinging with a new season of theatre." It starts with of Daniel Beaty’s one-man show Emergency, running September 5 – September 15 at Washington University’s A.E. Hotchner Theatre. Performed by Ron Conner, who played a number of leading roles in The Black Rep's last season, Emergency "tells the fantastical tale of a slave ship that emerges in front of the Statue of Liberty in present day New York City, releasing a whirlwind of emotion and exploration." Mr. Conner will play 40 different characters, from an 11-year-old boy to a Republican business executive, in what should be a virtuoso display of acting. For ticket information, visit the Black Rep web site or call 314-534-3807
Other shows in the 37th season have yet to be named but, according to an August 16th story in stltoday.com, company founder and producing director Ron Himes expects to announce both a new home and a full season by the time Emergency is on the boards. “The good news is, there is good news on the horizon, I think,” is quoted as saying in that article. “I am looking at venues and I hope that soon I will be able to make an announcement.”
That might mean presenting at multiple venues, as many other local companies without permanent homes have done. What it doesn't mean is going out of business. "What I want people to know more than anything," said Mr. Himes in a balanced and informative St. Louis American article, "is that we will have a 37th season. Losing that space is not the end of The Black Rep."
Suddenly losing a home can be as devastating to a theatre company as it is for individuals. Indeed, in some ways it's worse, given the severe housing shortage for theatre groups. It's not like The Black Rep can crash on a friend's couch for a while. More than one well-established company has winked out of existence locally for lack of a reliable performance space. It's hard to believe that could happen to a organization with The Black Rep's artistic pedigree, though, and the last act of the group's migratory drama has yet to be written. We'll all just have to watch, wait, and hope.