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Theater Giants Look Back on DC Black Repertory Company

When Robert Hooks announced plans for an all-Black theater company in the District in 1970, he had already launched the Group Theater Workshop and Negro Ensemble Company in New York City, both of which provided tuition-free classes for students and produced critically acclaimed stage productions about African-American life.

Those endeavors, the Negro Ensemble Company especially, also quelled community tensions, an outcome Hooks, a native Washingtonian and veteran actor, sought to duplicate for Black people in the District reeling from Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination and subsequent mass riots in 1968 and the widespread dysfunction that followed.

“I insisted on including 15 of the most professional actors to do the plays,” Hooks said as he explained the inner workings of the DC Black Repertory Company under which he and others produced more than 20 productions. “I worked with my artistic director. He and I would select the plays that we would do on our four- or five-play seasons. The plays would go into rehearsals for four weeks. We would have tech rehearsals with the best technical people training our youngsters.”

Hooks received his vision for the DC Black Repertory Company after a meeting with radio host and activist Petey Greene and then-city administrator Walter E. Washington in the wake of the 1968 riots. Months later, he called a meeting of D.C. area Black theater professionals and students at Howard University to bring his plans into fruition.

From its inception in 1971, the DC Black Repertory Company, later known as The Rep, Inc., produced numerous African-American stage plays and provided free theater instruction. Former members such as Kene Holliday of “Matlock” fame and Lynn Whitfield, currently a star on OWN’s “Greenleaf,” took parts in company productions that charted them on a path to stardom.

In 1976, the DC Black Repertory Company dissolved, and a group of students, including Dyson, formed The Rep, Inc. That organization thrived well into the early 1990s, surviving Reagan-era cuts to the National Endowment of the Arts.

Founding company members Bernice Reagon and Mike Malone would go on to help start female African-American a capella group Sweet Honey in the Rock and co-found the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, respectively.

“All of the work we did stemmed from the fact that that we had Black stories to tell and no one told them,” Hooks said of his experiences in the DC Black Repertory Company. “There were other theater companies that we started up because of this. It was always about telling our stories. [D.C.] was my hometown. We had to be responsible.”

Honoring the Past, Shaping the Future

Next month, DC Black Repertory Company’s founding members, alumni and fans will go down memory lane and expose youth to the history of those who blazed a path for today’s stars during an awards ceremony at the Lincoln Theatre and photo exhibit at Busboys & Poets, both on the U Street corridor in Northwest.

The photo exhibit will feature work from Roy Lewis, David Ogburn, and Debbie “Ayo” Chavis that documents nearly 20 years of DC Black Repertory Company and The Rep Inc. It eventually will be housed in the National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall, Hooks said.

The 47th anniversary celebration, hosted by the DC Black Repertory Alumni Association and Multi-Media Training Institute, will recognize Hooks and other founding members during a ceremony. Guests include Holliday and former “Live at the Apollo” host Kiki Shepherd.

On the night of September 15, Captain Fly of WPFW FM will serve as the emcee. Those to be recognized include Reagan, Eric Hughes, and Carolyne Jones-Barnes, all founding staff. Vantile “Motojicho” Whitfield, Malone, Ed Murphy, and Greene will also receive posthumous honors.

“This is not driven [solely] by performances — we’re honoring our mentors,” said Dyson, 65, veteran stage actor, onetime student in the DC Black Repertory Company and founder of the Multi-Media Training Institute. “Those of us who are part of the company went on to do great things.”

To attract people of various ages, Dyson said he plans to work to the DC Office on Aging and the DC Department of Parks and Recreation to transport guests, noting the need for an exchange in the era of the “Black Panther” film and a yearning for a strong Black media presence.

“There’s a thirst for Black culture,” he said. “The seeds for a Black cultural movement are still there. We have to reach out and help [the next generation].”

In 1973, after a failed attempt two years prior, Dyson gained admission into a free workshop at the DC Black Repertory Company where he studied the elements of acting and theater under Hooks and other experienced Black thespians. He later appeared as a lead in a bevy of stage productions, including “Don’t Lead Go My Hand,” and “Among All of This You Stand Like a Fine Brownstone,” written by Pulitzer Prize winner Gwendolyn Brooks.

After the transition to The Rep, Inc. and a subsequent dissolvement, Dyson, then executive director, went on to serve production roles at BET, NPR, and PBS. The project closest to his heart in the past 35 years, however, has been the Multi-Media Training Institute, a production and training company that has provided more than 1,000 D.C. youth with after-school programming, enrichment, and entrepreneurship training.

Three years ago, he began broadcasting a television show on Comcast where he provided young people opportunities once afforded to him.

“One of the things rooted in me was pride in who we were as a people and how you can use culture to heal people and lift their spirits and life,” Dyson said, paralleling his experience to that of the youth he teaches. “It’s nothing like going into a workshop and seeing the professional actors. You see audiences laugh and cry. You see the healing that theater can do. When they’re uplifted and feel better about themselves, I saw that power and knew that’s what I wanted to do.”

A Place for the Black Arts

In the decades after The Rep, Inc. shuttered, the thirst for Black stage productions persisted. African-American actors, many of whom dominated film and television, also found success performing in plays about facets of the Black experience, including “Every Tongue Confess,” “Black Nativity,” and “Fela.”

With the waning presence of viable Black-owned theater groups, including the Takoma Theater and African Continuum Theater, productions would be housed in White-owned spaces throughout the city under the banner of diversity.

A similar trend took place in Philadelphia, Minneapolis and New Jersey, where Black theater companies also closed.

Hooks said this turn of events spoke to an unwillingness among the Black Hollywood elite to invest their brand and resources into independent endeavors like that of the DC Black Repertory Company.

“It hasn’t gotten better because people who are able to make it happen with a phone call don’t want to get personally involved,” Hooks said. “Those are the people I’m disappointed with. They can make it happen for the Black artists in this country. We started the DC Black Repertory Company and a lot of people went running to the bank. You have to give something back.”

Holliday, an actor with a yearning for passing on gems of knowledge to the younger generation, shared Hooks’ sentiments.

By the time he learned of Hooks’ plans to start the DC Black Repertory Company in 1970, he had been performing with the Folger Shakespeare Library and developed a cadre of young talent under his wing at the University of Maryland in College Park, Maryland.

Initially on the fence about joining the DC Black Repertory Company, a visit by Vantile Whitfield to one of his shows and a subsequent conversation convinced Holliday to enter a culturally stimulating space that paid its employees well.

“This was a professional, unionized company. It means that you’ll be get paid standard rates for your work,” Holliday said. “[Often], a lot of people would be working a show and you’d do the same things other guys were doing just to make an eighth of what they made.”

When former Folger Shakespeare Library colleagues offered Holliday a position in the Eisenhower Theater of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. He turned it down and joined the DC Black Repertory Company, where for the next few years he would perform alongside the late Charlie Brown and others in “Changes,” and other notable stage productions.

“DC Black Rep had young dynamic African Americans on stage doing a spectacularly efficient presentation of the arts, whether it was the singing, dancing, drumming, or set construction,” said Holliday, who would go on to star in “Matlock” in the 1980s and “The Josephine Baker Story” alongside Lynn Whitfield.

Holliday said the DC Black Repertory Company set the tone for an era that shaped Chocolate City.

“They’d never seen Black people doing this level of creation in Washington, D.C., with basically a hometown company that would smoke the ground every time,” he said. “We became everyone’s favorite.”

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