St. Louis was a very different city in 1976. The Jefferson Bank protest of 1963 had opened up white-collar jobs for African Americans, but the actors on local stages remained overwhelmingly white — as did the audiences. Ron Himes was a student at Washington University when he took his first steps to swing the balance.
"The Black Rep grew out of a student group at Wash U.," he explains. "The goal was to fill the void of black actors on stage. It was really about showcasing African-American stories, because our stories weren't being told."
The founder and producing director of the St. Louis Black Repertory Co., Himes has a touch of gray in his hair but retains his youthful enthusiasm for theater and his community. On the eve of the company's historic 40th season, he's busy producing the Black Rep's season opener — Miss Julie, Clarissa and John, an adaptation of August Strindberg's drama Miss Julie — even while starring in Follies, the first show of the Repertory Theatre of Saint Louis' 50th season. If he's overworked, he doesn't look it. Four decades of experience have left him with a casual confidence in his own abilities and those of his colleagues.
"I plan better than I used to," Himes, 64, says when asked about the changes the years have wrought. "I have a better idea of the work we want to do. We're still true to our original mission, we're still provocative and issue-oriented. How we address the issues our community faces is at the forefront of the process."
The mandate to do "issue-oriented" work has garnered the Black Rep a large and loyal audience, one that has stuck with the company through several moves (some planned, some not) and the economic downturn of 2008, which still reverberates throughout the city's theater community. And as Himes proudly points out, that audience encompasses a broad cross-section of St. Louis. "We have the most diverse audiences in St. Louis. They're black, white, young, old, gay, straight," Himes boasts. "It's everybody."
It's just one of many points of pride. Himes cites the company's "fifteen or sixteen world premieres," and landmark productions of Wole Soyinka's Death and the King's Horseman and Mbongeni Ngema's Sarafina! as highlights of his tenure. (Audiences would agree: Premiering in 2008, Sarafina! was such a rousing success that it extended its run several times and played three different theaters before closing.) Himes also notes the company's success with the works of two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner August Wilson.
"We were the second company to complete August Wilson's Pittsburgh Cycle. We were the first company to do Gem of the Ocean at the August Wilson Center [for African American Culture]," he says, referencing his company's premiere at the Pittsburgh-based nonprofit organization with obvious pride.
It should come as no surprise then that Wilson's Seven Guitars will be performed again this season. But before that comes Mark Clayton Southers' Miss Julie, Clarissa and John, directed by Andrea Frye with an all-local cast.
Himes calls it "an urgent play."
"It transports the Strindberg story about the love between the daughter of a landowner and the man's servant to a plantation during the Reconstruction. It's about gender issues, it's about race — it's a St. Louis story."
Himes is similarly keen on the second show of the season, Lines in the Dust. The drama about a mother searching for options after her daughter's name isn't drawn in the charter school lottery touches on the education gap, the precarious state of inner city schools and what we owe our kids. "Nikkole Salter is a hot young playwright. We had to choose between three of hers," Himes says. It's a luxury that makes him smile: Too many good plays by a black playwright.
In the early years choices were leaner, and Himes had to create shows for the company to do. He conceived a number of musical revues to fit the bill, such as the always popular Tell Me Somethin' Good (a history of black American music) and the moving Crossin' Over, which charts the long journey from Africa to slavery to the Civil Rights movement through songs of faith. It's a bona fide crowd pleaser, one the company has produced numerous times.
Crossin' Over closes the current season — this production not by necessity, but by choice.
"There are more writers working, and more younger writers, like Nikkole Salter. That's good, but it makes the decision-making more difficult. I have an obligation to maintain and celebrate work that existed in the African-American canon before us, and to do the same for the new people."
Miss Julie, Clarissa and John opens Friday, September 9, at Washington University's Edison Theatre (6445 Forsyth Boulevard; www.theblackrep.org) and continues through September 25. Tickets are $35 to $40.