The Lincoln Theatre on U Street in Northwest nearly filled to capacity as the artists, actors, directors and administrators who launched the DC Black Repertory Company spent an evening recounting decades-old, treasured memories.
In perhaps one of the most poignant moments of the more than four-hour celebration held on Friday, Oct. 19, veteran actor and DC Black Repertory Company founder Robert Hooks tasked today’s theater professionals with carrying on the mantle of teaching the arts and creating opportunities for the next generation.
“Some of the celebrities, whose tickets we buy to their movies and [who we] watch on television and on stage are speaking out; a lot of them are not,” Hooks, 81, told the audience. “That disturbs me because if you have the leverage, celebrity and wealth, give back to the community.”
Hooks, a native Washingtonian, launched the DC Black Repertory Company nearly two years after receiving an urgent call from then-D.C. Commissioner Walter E. Washington, who told Hooks that “they were burning down your hometown” in the days following Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s April 4, 1968, assassination.
At that time, Hooks, credited with breaking the color barrier in television, stage, and theater, had been living in New York City where he and other artists formed the Negro Ensemble Theatre Company.
That project successfully brought together people of various ethnicities and cultural backgrounds under one roof to see Black stage productions. So much so, that Hooks decided to start a Black cultural institution in D.C.
During the Black theater company’s 47th anniversary celebration, Hooks lamented the absence of venues where today’s up-and-coming artists and actors can learn tricks of the trade.
“It makes me angry; actually it pisses me off when we can’t find a place for these amazingly talented artists. There are so many talented people around the D.C., Maryland and Virginia area that don’t have any place to go,” Hooks said.
“There should be a cultural institution, a theater company, a dance company, an art gallery in every city in this country for our young artists. That’s what I’m about; that’s what I’ve always been about,” he added.
Hooks also noted that D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) proclaimed Oct. 18 as Robert Hooks Day.
“That feels good to me,” he said. “But my mission is to give back to the community.”
From 1971 to 1976, the DC Black Repertory Company produced numerous African-American stage plays and provided free theater instruction. Once it dissolved, a group of students turned stars formed The Rep, Inc. That organization thrived well into the early 1990s, surviving Reagan-era cuts to the National Endowment of the Arts.
The Oct. 19 celebration at the Lincoln Theatre, hosted by the DC Black Repertory Alumni Association and Multi-Media Training Institute, weaved a panoply of memories of a long-gone era in the nation’s capital.
Tributes on Friday evening honored the contributions of vocal director Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon, Donald Sutton, assistant artistic director and stage manager; Eric Hughes, lighting/set designer and artistic director, Louis Johnson, dance company co-artistic director; the late Ralph Waldo ‘Petey’ Green, radio talk show host and company supporter; the late Ed Murphy, founder of Ed Murphy’s Supper Club; the late Vantile “Motojicho” Whitfield, company artistic director; and Hook’s brother, James, who helped construct the DC Black Repertory Theatre as theater architect and set designer.
Individuals and organizations – including Howard University, Sweet Honey in the Rock, Ed Murphy’s Supper Club and the Jones-Haywood School of Ballet – also received honors for their role in supporting the D.C.’s first Black theater company.
Darrell Sabbs, honored as a founding producer and audience coordinator, looked back on his experiences with Hooks, who he said helped him find his place as a communicator and organizer in the theater world after his break from the Black Panther Party.
“It feels so good to be here; there is so much history here in this room,” Sabbs said.
He then turned to Hooks and said, “Bobby, we love you, and we appreciate you. Your work is on display. This is the Washington, D.C. that I knew. Sometimes when I leave and come back, I don’t even know that it’s Washington, D.C. But thank you for giving us Washington, D.C., tonight.”
In her tribute, Deidre Starns, a self-proclaimed “Rep Baby,” recalled a few members who shaped her into an artist during her visits to the warehouse and Last Colony Theatre on Georgia Avenue.
“I owe them everything,” said Sterns, a Helen Hayes Award recipient, theater arts educator, writer, director, and producer. “I am so grateful to God that he allowed these artists of the D.C. Black Rep to pour their gifts and talents into this empty vessel of my soul. It was in these two buildings where the D.C. Black Repertory’s productions breathed life.”