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Longtime African American actor Robert Hooks on the state of black theater, then and now

Actor Robert Hooks. (Kevin Hooks)
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Actor Robert Hooks has had quite a month: On Oct. 18, Washington Mayor Muriel E. Bowser proclaimed it “Robert Hooks Day,” complete with a ceremony at city hall and a reception at Busboys and Poets. The following day, the D.C. native was honored at a gala celebration at the Lincoln Theatre to celebrate the 47th anniversary of the DC Black Repertory Company, the theater group he founded in 1971.

You may not recognize his name, but Hooks, 81, has been a working actor since the 1960s, when he landed a lead role on “N.Y.P.D.” — one of the first African American actors to star on a television drama. Movie fans know him as Admiral Morrow in “Star Trek III: The Search for Spock.” But Hooks’s first, and true, love has always been live theater: As a young actor, he founded the Negro Ensemble Company in New York.

We talked recently to Hooks about his life on the stage, roles for African American actors and the state of black theater companies today. (This interview has been condensed for clarity.)

Q: How did you become an actor?

A: My mother remarried in 1954, and we moved to Philadelphia and I went to my first integrated high school: West Philadelphia High School, where I really started acting. Philadelphia was a tryout town for Broadway, and I would go see these plays. Most of the plays I saw were all white plays with no black characters. But then came “A Raisin in the Sun” on its way to Broadway. It blew my mind. I was in tears just wanting to be on that stage because it had Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, Claudia McNeil, Diana Sands, Ivan Dixon, Louis Gossett Jr. — they were all there. I made up my mind. I wanted to be a professional actor. Instead of going to Temple University, a few months later I was in New York.

Q: Your first big role was "Raisin in the Sun" in 1959 — not a bad way to start.

A: I replaced Lou Gossett in the play, and I met Douglas Turner Ward and Lonnie Elder, who were actors but mainly playwrights. So I met these guys as they were writing plays while we went on the road in the national tour. That’s how I really got into understanding the structure of theater and structure of plays and what made them work. That’s where the whole idea of bringing theater to the black community came from — in every city that we went, black people who had never seen a black play came and were just so enthusiastic. We saw the potential of black audiences in every city.

Q: In 1965, you founded the Negro Ensemble Company in New York, then the DC Black Repertory Company in Washington in 1971. What were you trying to do?

A: The thinking was that there was no place in New York or anywhere else of theater for blacks. So we wanted to create an organization where we could produce four or five plays a season and create opportunities for all these wonderful actors and playwrights and choreographers and music folk. In April 1968, I got the call from Mayor Walter Washington to come down and help the city after Dr. King was assassinated. We truly needed something after Martin was killed. We renovated an old movie house on Georgia Avenue and Emerson streets called the Old Colony Theatre. It was just a gorgeous facility, and we had some fantastic people working with us: Debbie Allen, Glenda Dickerson and of course Peggy Cooper [Cafritz] and Clifford Alexander and people like that were on board.

Q: Artistically, it was a hit. But not economically?

A: We were doing all original plays, but we were continually in debt. We were doing great work onstage, and the audiences were coming as well. But you know, we didn’t have a full house, and the ticket prices were not high, so we couldn’t make a ton of money at the box office. The grants dried up. And I think that we just couldn’t get the support that I thought we were going to get from the black elite. They thought the company was going to be in Southwest, down around the Arena Stage or downtown Washington. But I had no intention of doing that. I wanted the company to be in the black community, which is where we were, and we were always going to be. Don’t get me wrong, we had a lot of black support from the community. But the influential blacks who could really help the company out financially — or at least cause the company to be more financially stable — were not to be found. And that was really one of the key reasons the company had to close.

Q: Why don't you think they came?

A: These were people who, when they came down Georgia Avenue, they locked their car doors. They weren’t going to come to the Colony Theatre because they didn’t think they were safe in the neighborhood. They were used to going to the Arena Stage where they didn’t have to worry about people breaking into their cars. It was as much a class issue as a matter of race. That’s unfortunate, and that was really what turned me off and was one of the reasons I just gave the reins over because I wasn’t getting the kind of support from those people that could have made this company last much longer.

Q: Is there a great theater company specifically for African American actors, like Alvin Ailey is for dancers?

A: The closest thing to a black theater company that is able to survive and sustain itself is the St. Louis Black Rep. And theater companies — let’s just take Los Angeles, for example — the Los Angeles Music Center downtown and Mark Taper Forum and all the people that run those companies are getting the grants from the foundations I couldn’t get because they did one black play in their season. The black theater producers, the people who are in the community need the grants, and they can’t get them because the established theaters downtown are taking advantage of those grants.

Q: Maybe black theater companies are becoming obsolete by more diverse casting? Maybe there shouldn't necessarily be a black theater and a white theater, just theater based on excellence in writing and performing?

A: In a perfect world that would be wonderful, but we don’t live in a perfect world. The reason I started black companies was really to create opportunities for those actors to do plays. But my advice to the young actor, writer, director is to really and truly find a place where they can have some kind of regular continual training and exposure. If you’re a black artist, your work is cut out for you. If you’re fortunate enough to find a company and work in that company and then move on in your career: Denzel Washington came from Negro Ensemble, Samuel L. Jackson came from the Negro Ensemble Company, Lynn Whitfield came through the DC Black Repertory Company. There are a lot of people that came through our companies that went on to become successful professionals in the industry. But those kinds of places don’t exist anymore, and that’s unfortunate.