So why is one of the most consistently strong theater companies in South Florida and the oldest still in operation in the state one of our best-kept secrets? One possible answer: Mediocrity makes money. Richardson is not the first small-theater-company administrator to point out that in South Florida the big donors with the big dollars are the same people paying to see the same things over and over. "I think these bigger companies with the million-dollar-plus budgets need to take the lead, artistically speaking, and help out the small companies by teaching audiences to value exciting theater. It's our responsibility to take risks and not just be purely entertaining," she notes.
To this end Richardson travels frequently to the National Black Arts Festival in Atlanta and the National Black Theater Festival to find these new and exciting works and bring them to South Florida. And there's a lot to bring home. With performers like Denzel Washington, Angela Bassett, and Oprah Winfrey sitting in the audiences, black theater is well respected. One of these discoveries is Bill Harris' Robert Johnson Tricks the Devil, which will debut in February 2001. The play reveals the life and death of blues legend Robert Johnson, whose music is at the foundation of famous rock 'n' roll bands such as the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin. "So much of the history goes unrecognized," says Richardson, "and it's a vital and rich history. It's everyone's history and needs to be shared."
The members of the M Ensemble bring black "magic" to the company's storefront home
This season's performances include Robert Johnson Tricks the Devil by Bill Harris, The Wizard of Hip by Thomas W. Jones II, Blues For an Alabama Sky by Pearl Cleage, and Jackie Moms Mabley, Live adapted for the stage by T.G. Cooper.
The Actor's Studio, 12320 W. Dixie Hwy., North Miami, 305-895-8955
Another reason why the M Ensemble has remained relatively anonymous is that it's been hard to find. Through the decades the group rarely has stayed put; in just the past six years, it has had four homes in the North Miami area. Between 1996 and 1998, when M Ensemble moved into its current space, the group didn't have a home at all. Richardson acknowledges that this has hurt attendance: "Many people have shown up over the past two years and said, "We've been looking for you.'"
But for now at least, the M Ensemble has settled into stable quarters on West Dixie Highway. In the lobby of its small storefront home, people are milling about: a smattering of whites and a dozen or so blacks, several older women in colorful ethnic prints and head wraps, younger girls twirling around in frilly skirts, and boys all scrubbed up and fidgeting in suits. Shirley Richardson rushes past them to the backroom, where she begins pulling out jugs of milk, chocolate-chip cookies, and other snacks from grocery bags. She directs visitors to the bathrooms, welcomes new faces, and hugs old friends. It's typical opening night at the M Ensemble, a perfect display of the informality and generosity that characterize this Southern troupe. It could be a church event or a social, but it's not. Beyond the glazed donuts and Richardson's easy laugh sits a stage, and the M Ensemble would like you to take that very seriously indeed.