Published in KPBS On Air Magazine July 1998
Two guys showed up at an audition, each secretly trying to get out of another show they were already in. They both got cast, and before they knew it, Walter Murray and Rhys Green had formed the San Diego Black Ensemble Theatre.
“I never wanted to be involved in a theater company that put its nationality out front,” said Murray, the group’s executive director. “But when Rhys first announced it [on their 1994 opening night of Athol Fugard’s “The Island”], it sounded right. It’s definitely a strong name, and with it, we definitely took on a responsibility.”
“I did it because of the lack of professional black theater in San Diego,” says Green, the artistic director. “And good roles not being available to black actors. And wanting to hear the voices of black playwrights, and see a group of African Americans onstage at one time, not just one black guy in an all-white play.”
“I thought it would be very successful,” says Murray. “Like Diversionary or Lamb’s, we have a built-in audience.”
They were optimistic, but it hasn’t been easy. San Diego doesn’t have a large or cohesive African American population, and there isn’t a strong theatergoing habit in the community. B.E.T. started pounding the pavement. Showing up at black churches. Or at the Buppie, conservative Catfish Club. But they didn’t get big returns.
“One weekend of “Slave Trade”,” laments Murray whose performance in that show was magical and monumental, “there wasn’t one black person in the audience. If we can’t get black people to come out and see a play called “Slave Trade”, I don’t know…. Maybe if we were located in a church. Or if we did more musicals… We do great with the high school and college audience. But it’s a challenge, a constant up and down.”
Their early, potent productions were at coffee shops — “Kiss of the Spider Woman” at Twiggs, “Miss Evers’ Boys” at the Wikiup. Then, they acquired a permanent home at Ensemble Arts Theatre in Golden Hill. With each new offering, their work has gotten stronger and better. This year, they announced a four-play season. Now, after two fairly successful and extremely powerful productions, “Groomed” and “Slave Trade”, they’re branching out — into the great outdoors. Their latest venture: “Shakespeare in the Park-ing Lot,” a multicultural “Julius Caesar” (July 17-August 9, outside Ensemble Arts Theatre).
The venue was Green’s idea; the show and director were Murray’s. “I think it’s one of Shakespeare’s best, cleanest plays,” Murray says. “I love the political intrigue; the stakes; what people have to resort to; to kill a leader because he’s wrong. Plus, there are great roles for men. And there’s a kind of black-and-white struggle.”
True to their innate characteristics, Murray plays the analytical, contemplative Brutus and Green plays the emotional, impulsive Cassius. Lamont Thompson, actor extraordinaire (in “Pill Hill”, “The Whole World is Watching”, “The America Play”, “The Imaginary Invalid”) plays Caesar and directs.
Thompson, a graduate of the American Music and Drama Academy in New York, has played Brutus, Othello and Macbeth. He’s never directed professionally, and he’s not concerned about doing double-duty as director and lead actor. “Caesar’s only in three scenes,” he explains. “Plus, I have the eye and assistance of Patrick Stewart [the talented associate artistic director of Black Ensemble Theatre]. I totally trust him to see what I can’t.”
According to Stewart, “It all boils down to this: Would you die for a cause? Would you kill for a cause? And would you kill someone you love and admire for a cause. At what point does the good of society outweigh the good of the individual? We so respect power. But at what point do our respect for power and fear of the powerful meet and go over the line? We’ll hammer home the timeless themes.”
Thompson elucidates. ““Julius Caesar” was written 400 years ago, based on events that occurred 500 years before that. And it’s still powerful and immediate. In our lifetimes, we’ve had the power struggles of the Kennedys, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Elijah Muhammad, and how they affected the entire country… We don’t need to Americanize it. We’ll read the story straight, and the story will do the work. It has to be simple and spare, so it makes sense and the audience gets it.
“We won’t use accents. The first time I said I wanted to try a Shakespearean accent, the director said to me, ‘Shakespeare’s not a country; he was a playwright.’ And I say, ‘“Caesar” isn’t the Bible; it’s just a play.’ Its story has to be told so people feel something, have a good time watching truly committed actors having a good time. As [playwright David] Mamet puts it, ‘All we’re doing is playing.’”
Not only are they playing, but Black Ensemble Theatre is getting downright playful. They’re considering a black production of Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple”, starring, inevitably and most appropriately, Murray and Green. The B.E.T. triumvirate — Green, Murray and Stewart — wants to move beyond an 80-90% white audience, but they still want to accommodate everyone. More roles for women. A bigger space. The ability to pay actors a living wage (instead of just a stipend). And ultimately, a black playwrights workshop and a conservatory aimed at ethnic arts. Power to the (Black Ensemble) People.
©1998 Patté Productions Inc.