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Black Rep founder seeking 'drum major' to keep company marching

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 28, 2011 - In high school, Ron Himes focused on basketball, only stumbling into theater in college. So it's no surprise he should use sports and marching-band metaphors when talking about the financial woes of the St. Louis Black Repertory Company he founded 35 years ago.

Once operating in the black, the theater company now carries a debt, the amount of which it declined to reveal, and season subscriptions have plummeted to 1,000 from a high of 3,000 in 2009. Frustrated, Himes is looking for a city leader, a civic "drum major" to lead the Black Rep into a "winning season."

"Look at the Rams. When you're not winning, it just becomes frustrating," Himes said in an interview. "You have to have victories. And victories for a major cultural institution are a $200,000 or $250,000 fundraising event. Our major fundraising events are around $50,000 to $75,000."

Theater debut on a dare

Growing up in St. Louis with five brothers and sisters, Himes was hardly a theater kid. "I was in a couple of Sunday School performances but I don't remember even seeing a play until I was a freshman in high school," Himes said.

His basketball coaches' ties to Washington University kept him close to campus where he was exposed to politics, on stage and off.

"This was around 1969 or 1970. There was a lot of activism going on and the plays were very political. I came to think of theater as an agent of change," Himes said.

After graduation from Soldan High School, Himes enrolled at Wash U, becoming the first person in his family to attend college. Although he majored in business, Himes had friends in other disciplines, one of whom played a pivotal role in his life.

Theater major Marsha Cann needed to cast a one-act play she was directing for a class. Himes agreed to fill a role.

"I think he got bitten by the bug," Cann said.

Next semester, the campus' mainstage theater was auditioning for "No Place to Be Somebody."

"He's like, 'I think I can do that,' and I said, 'I dare you to audition.' And he auditioned and got the role," Cann said.

Soon, Himes helped to start a student performance group called Phoenix. After college, neither the idea of working as an accountant nor pursuing an MBA appealed to Himes, so he stuck with the stage.

"I said, 'Well this acting stuff is fun,' and I started auditioning around," Himes said.

Phoenix rises then falls

For several years, Himes performed with the Theatre Project Company in a then run-down Union Station. There, Himes had fairly steady work but also experienced the paucity of roles for African-American actors.

"I don't know if I would call it earning a living but I scraped by, and I was learning theater and how to do it by watching another theater company," Himes said.

During the same period, Phoenix began to perform on more campuses and for Black History Month and Martin Luther King Jr. Day events. Eventually, it became the fledgling Black Rep, operating on a shoestring.

"We didn't know anything about grant writing at first. We just started doing productions and we somehow managed to do that," Himes said.

As a director, Himes began to get a reputation, not all of it glowing. Cann, who's worked under Himes numerous times, praised his talent for helping people "get into the character within themselves." But it's not always easy for the actors. "He's a real bulldog about getting what he wants," Cann said.

One time when Cann played the mother of then-teen actor Ameer Harper, she found herself compared unfavorably to her young co-star.

"Ameer had his lines down the second week of rehearsal, and Ron was kind of like admonishing the rest of us because we messed up," Cann said. "I was pissed at him and said, 'Well, we work every day.' And he said, 'Well, Ameer goes to school every day and he's got to memorize stuff for school, too.'"

Himes' tactics have molded all the Black Rep actors into quick studies, according to long-time company member Linda Kennedy, with whom Himes is starring in the company's 35th anniversary season kickoff play "On Golden Pond" beginning Wednesday. Kennedy credits Himes with jump-starting her career.

"He was the first who really saw my possibilities and made me look at acting like, 'This isn't something you do on the side, it can be more,'" Kennedy said.

Through the 1980s and '90s, the company continued to grow. Following the turn of the 21st century, the Black Rep was the country's largest African-American theater company. But as the recession took hold, other such companies were beginning to fall in Atlanta, Philadelphia, Oakland and New York City. It wasn't long before St. Louis' black theater company started to struggle. Now, the situation is dire, according to Himes.

"The possibility of it going under is real," Himes said.

The Black Rep's next act

Now 59, married for the first time to his wife of two years, dancer/choreographer Heather Himes, and the father of 15-month-old Ron Jr., Himes said he's mellowed. But he acknowledged his image problem.

"I think I have a reputation of being difficult," Himes said. "I think I've been fairly outspoken."

One of the ways he believes his outspokenness might have been to his detriment is in comparisons of the Black Rep to St. Louis' other cultural institutions. In our interview, Himes declined to speculate whether racism is behind the greater financial support for the St. Louis Symphony, St. Louis Art Museum and Science Center. But a few years ago?

"I would have answered that question in a way that didn't make a lot of people happy," Himes said. "I have toned myself down because one of the things that happens is that it is not as productive when you are a voice screaming in the wilderness as it is trying to find a choir who might be interested in singing the same songs."

Finding and keeping that choir is difficult for several reasons, Himes said. Support from the black community has dwindled as families who once brought their kids to the theater have let subscriptions lapse after children left home. Even when they return, they're discouraged by a half-full theater.

"They were coming when we operated at around 80 to 85 percent capacity and they're coming now and seeing us at 50 percent or less some nights," Himes said. "They're saying 'What happened, where is everybody?' and I'm saying, 'Well, you know just like you haven't been here for a while, they haven't been here either.'" Lack of support from the black community has a domino effect, Himes said.

"The broader community thinks the African-American community should be supporting the Black Rep so when they look at the support we get from the African-American community, that's how they decide whether to support us or not," Himes said.

That unsteady environment has been a backdrop to the game of musical chairs the Black Rep board has recently played.

"It's a difficult challenge to sit on the board of a institution of color that is talked about as one of the major institutions but is not supported like the other major institutions," Himes said. "I don't know that necessarily everyone that supports the symphony loves classical music but they believe we should have a symphony and so they support the symphony."

The task of helping the Black Rep achieve a greater level of support doesn't require a village, Himes said.

"We need a drum major, a corporate drum major," Himes said. "It takes one Civic Progress guy or one major player in the community saying, 'The Black Rep is my project,' because what happens is when these guys call each other and say, 'I want you to give $50,000 to the Boy Scouts,' they do. When they call each other and say, 'I want you to serve on Opera Theatre's fundraising committee,' they do. If they say 'I want you to sit on the board of the symphony,' they do."

2012 Black Rep schedule

Jan. 4 - Feb. 5   ON GOLDEN POND


March 14 - April 1   NO CHILD...

April 11 - May 13    MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM

May 23 - June 24    INSIDIOUS

Where: Grandel Theatre, 3610 Grandel Sq.

Tickets and informationhttp://theblackrep.org/theater/

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.