As part of KERA’s series on Your Town, Texas, this week we’re visiting the town of DeSoto. Today, KERA’s Jerome Weeks tells us how a longtime film actress and a local desire for theater reflecting the African American community led to a distinguished arts group in DeSoto.
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DeSoto is like many suburban bedroom communities. It doesn’t really have a core. But it does have an unusual complex on Pleasant Run Road – it houses a nightclub, a public library, apartments and a theater.
Carl Sherman is mayor of DeSoto.
Mayor Sherman: “It really was a grocery store, and the city, back in the late ‘90s, changed it to Town Center. We’re trying to create a downtown. It has our recreational center, it has the residential component and City Hall as well as our theater.”
Which was fortunate for African-American Repertory Theater. It’s rare for a tiny new theater to start as a city’s resident company. But two years ago, that’s what African-American Rep did. That’s not the only thing notable about it.
We’re at a rehearsal of August Wilson’s play, Jitney. It’s the start of African-American Rep’s new season. The play’s about an unlicensed taxi stand. In Jitney, a father, played by Gil Pritchett (above, left) , meets his son, played by Rick Spivey, fresh from prison. His son, the father says, has thrown away all he had in life. Well, the son counters, what do you have?
Pritchett: “I’m the boss of a jitney station. I’m a deacon down at the church. Got me a little house; it ain’t much, but it’s mine. I worked 26 years at the mill, got me a pension. I got respect. Now, what I ain’t got is a son that did me honor.”
African-American Rep is committed to presenting all of Wilson’s historic cycle of 10 dramas — even the lesser-known ones like Jitney. One reason Jitney isn’t often done: It requires eight male African-American actors. So this is a showcase of the strength of the area’s black acting community. Pritchett, for instance, has performed on Broadway. Willie Minor, who plays a cab driver, has been one of North Texas’ finest actors for 20 years.
Yet it’s a rare opportunity for them because the Rep is the only black stage company in the immediate Dallas area. Fort Worth’s Jubilee Theatre is approaching 30 years old — Ed Smith, the former artistic director of Jubilee, happens to be directing Jitney. But Dallas-area black companies have had much shorter lives than that. Irma Hall, the artistic director of African-American Rep, embodies this history. She’s 75 years old. Most people know Hall from her film and TV roles, the maternal ‘church ladies’ she’s played in Soul Food and The Ladykillers. As Hall jokes, she’s everybody’s grandmother now.
But on North Texas stages, Hall goes back all the way to such companies as the Janus Players at the Dallas Theater Center and Dallas Minority Rep, which she helped start in 1976.
Hall: “I’ve done a lot of plays and I’ve been in the business a looong time [laughs].”
Indeed, Hall even has a street named after her in Chicago — for her stage career there. Born in Beaumont, Texas, she moved to Chicago where she grew up — but returned to Texas to graduate from Texas College in Tyler. She moved back to Chicago in 1987 to care for her ailing parents. She’d already appeared in films (Book of Numbers) and TV (Dallas) but now began acting for leading Chicago stage companies, including the Goodman and Steppenwolf.
Hall returned to Texas in 2004 to stay with her daughter — because a serious car wreck left her in need of assistance. Yet she’s continued to work in films — including Meet the Browns.
Four years ago, local actress Regina Washington approached Hall about appearing in a scholarship fundraiser production of A Raisin in the Sun she was producing. It sold out. Which started Washington thinking.
Washington: “I always wanted a theater company, and she’s a wealth of knowledge. And I asked her, ‘How hard is it?’ And she said, ‘No harder than what you’ve just done.’”
So African-American Rep was started three years ago by Washington, fellow actor Vince McGill and Hall — with a major asset: Hall was an instant, popular draw in such shows as Raisin and Having Our Say. And there was that other added advantage: The company debuted as the resident black theater troupe in DeSoto.
That’s partly because the Rep is committed to staging riskier works for its audience, not just popular ones. Alongside The Gifts of the Magi or Having Our Say, AART has produced the Charlayne Woodard’s one-woman play Neat and concluded its second season with The Gospel at Colonus — an ‘experimental’ Broadway show from 1988 that should have been beyond the company’s abilities and resources. But director Sonya Ewing Andrews managed to reduce the show into a rousing, storefront church service.
In all this — the commitment to worthwhile dramas, to giving area black theater artists the kinds of roles and opportunities they might not otherwise have — Hall sees the same thing she was doing long before she ever acted. Hall taught in Dallas public schools for 27 years.
Hall: “I didn’t want to start a theater. But once I had and saw, OK that’s what I’m supposed to do, I’m supposed to give back what I’ve learned. It’s all part of my teaching. I’m still teaching. I’m teaching every time I’m on stage or on film — I just have a huge classroom now.”