JAYE STEWART is the artistic director of The Rep, Inc., the most prominent black theater group in Washington. One of his productions will play Lincoln Center in New York next week.
Yet Stewart is on unemployment. He earned more for a two-line, one-day role as a Library of Congress clerk in "All the President's Men" than he has for any of his roles at The Rep.
According to all the demographic data, the black theater scene should be booming in Washington, where blacks comprise a larger percentage of the total population than in any other big city in America. Washington's blacks are affluent compared to the black populations of many other cities, and touring black musicals have drawn large crowds to National and Ford's Theatres.
But it's not easy to run a black theater in Washington, and the proof is the splashly, professional D.C. Black Repertory Company, which folded in 1976.
Many of the Black Rep company members continued their work at the group's training headquarters at 3710 Georgia Ave. NW under the moniker of The Rep Inc., overseen by a new board of directors. Their work has been well received. In January 1978 critic Richard L. Coe wrote that The Rep was "a far tighter, infinitely more professional group" than the D.C. Black Rep had been. The Rep performed at the FESTAC black arts festival in Nigeria in 1977, and on Tuesday and Wednesday it will present "Five on the Black Hand Side" at the black theater festival currently in progress at Lincoln Center.
Unlike the D.C. Black Rep, however, The Rep doesn't pay anyone. Company members must rely on unemployment compensation, film and television jobs and work not related to the profession. Sometimes touring expenses are scraped together, but certainly no one can rely on The Rep for a living.
The other black theater organizations in town face similar problems.
The Paul Robeson Center is currently involved in a legal dispute over its facility on O Street, and at one point a few weeks ago the electricity was turned off in the building.
Ebony Impromptu has existed primarily as a training and touring group, without a permanent home, and has not presented a show to the public since the summer of 1977.
The Minority Arts Ensemble staged four shows this season, primarily in a church hall, on a budget of $300 per show.
The New Theatre, a small musical and opera center that is comparatively well endowed (a $100,000 budget), is probably the most poorly publicized of the black theaters. Director Thomasena Allen says she must spend most of her time searching for money.
Workshops for Careers in the Arts, another Washington group represented in the Lincoln Center festival, presented a show there this weekend that has yet to be seen in Washington. It's called "Puttin' on the Mask: An Evening of Ethiopian Entertainment," and officials say they haven't found a proper auditorium for the show in Washington.
Digging for Money
The Rep, for the first time in its history, this year is completing a three-play season on schedule. But Stewart says he doesn't want to try to do it again unless his theater's $75,000 budget is dramatically increased. "I would need to know where another $200,000 is before I can talk about next season," he says. Last Wednesday The Rep's board pledged to try to attain that goal by holding a series of fund-raisers, using some of the more celebrated Rep alumni, and digging deeper into the board members' own pockets.
Recently the word spread through local arts circles that Joseph Papp, the powerful New York producer, plans to start a minority-oriented theater in Washington. Given the city's ethnic makeup, this probably would mean a black-oriented theater. Several houses are mentioned as candidates for the Papp project, including the National Theater, the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater or a new facility to be built in one of the rejuvenated buildings along Pennsylvania Avenue.
The possible arrival of Papp is regarded with mixed feelings. "I'm glad he feels there is something down here," says Stewart, "I would like to see him use a lot of our people." But at this early stage there is no assurance that Papp would use local talent, and the potential competition is formidable. "His p.r. machine is rather awesome," says Stewart. "You see his posters all the way up to New York at every train stop. To be able to produce on that level is something we can't compete with."
Stewart is also bothered because "it takes someone from outside Washington to show us what's here. I wonder what is the blindfold here."
But no sooner has he cited the obstacles to indigenous black theater herethan he has come up with several answers.
"Washington is a great consumer of entertainment," says Stewart, "but it doesn't care much about producing it. For people in government jobs, the Capital Centre is the place to boogie. Come Friday at 5, everybody wants to get loose. The concept of coming here and sitting down for serious drama is not what people have in mind. It's not like New York, which is open 24 hours a day. Nightlife ends at 2 a.m. here."
Stewart and the Rep's administrative director, Carolyn Smith, also feel that the black middle-class which should be the Rep's strongest financial backbone is not quite ready for the Rep.
"They want to get dressed up and go downtown," says Smith. Stewart adds that when the acclaimed Rep production of "trilogy" was playing to less than capacity audiences, a much less favorably received black show, the Kennedy Centerhs "Timbuktu," was selling out its much larger house.
Many of the Rep's patrons invariably think of musicals when the think of theater, says Smith, and express their disappointment when there isn't any singing and dancing. "If you try something that is surreal or abstract or exotic, you run the risk of killing the box office." Yet the Rep's current house, which only seats 140, is much better suited for intellectually challenging fare than it is for big musicals.
"We need a larger house to do more entertaining things," says Stewart, in addition to what we've got now."
Last season the Rep presented three revivals: James Baldwin's "The Amen Corner," Charles Russell's "Five on the Black Hand Side" and Charles Gordonehs "No Place to Be Somebody." But next season Stewart wants to do new plays. A reader's theater series will be held this summer in order to test new scripts.
Stewart says that black theater, particularly in Washington, is currently experiencing a surfeit of new poets and a scarcity of new playwrights. "A lot of them think they've written a play, but what they've actually written is dialogue to bridge their poems," he says. "Someone should not think they can come into a theater and just be a poet."
He would like to find new plays that are set outside the "bedroom-kitchen" and the "barroom" locales. Stewart, who is 29, is the son of a military officer, "and to see a black play about someone like that is practically unheard of." Plays set in Washington are not common either, he says.
One of the reasons he was drawn to "The Amen Corner" was "because it broke the bedroom-kitchen-barroom pattern by getting into the church." However, its sardonic view of the black church was not understood by everyone who saw it. An excerpt was presented on television in which Siter Margaret, the evangelist protagonist, preached to her flock, and the Rep was flooded with phone calls from viewers who wanted to know how to get in touch with Sister Margaret.
The strong religious heritage of the black middle class is not something to be takne lightly by the Rep; one of the reasons the box office ahs dropped for "No Place to Be Somebody," according to Smith, is because of the cussing in the script.
'Like Boot Camp'
Most of the Rephs casts are drawn from the present and former students in its training program. The classes are "like boot camp," says Stewart. There is no fee: "The free classes are how we get away with not paying the actors," he says.
Many of the Rep's students have left town and become successful in New York or Los Angeles. "Probably the quickest way for a Washington actor to get into Arena Stage," says Stewart, is to follow in the footsteps of Charlie Brown, a former Black Rep actor who moved to New York, became a member of the Negro Ensemble Company there, and is now appearing with the NEC at Arena Stage.
Most of the other black theater directors in Washington also frown over the lack of local appreciation of local talents. And they sometimes think they are unfairly stigmatized by the failure of several previous D.C. black theaters, including the Black Rep and Paul Allen's Black American Theater. Ebony Impromptu director Harry Poe says a local foundation told him it would not support his group because black theaters in Washington tended to squander their money. Most of the theaters would have died long ago were it not for grants from the Expansion Arts program of the National Endowment for the Arts.
Despite the feeling that talents are without honor in their own country, however, the directors of D.C.'s black theaters unanimously agree that there is an audience out there for their work, if only it can be reached.
"Once they come here," says steward, "they come back." CAPTION: Picture, Rep's Smith and Stewart: 'I wonder what's the blindfold here?" By Gerald Martineau-The Washington Post