You could say Shirley Richardson has a theatrical heritage. Growing up in Miami in the '50s and '60s, her entire family worked for the Coconut Grove Playhouse, either as domestic or manual laborers. Her mother, Bennie Mae, was a cleaning woman at the playhouse from 1954 to 1964 and often took Shirley to work with her. From the back row, Shirley fell in love with the stage and met the likes of Tallulah Bankhead and Joan Blondell. "I saw Liza Minnelli in The Fantasticks," she recalls. "It was 1963. We were both 16." From behind the broom, Shirley's mother grew wary of her daughter's fascination. "At that time there were apartments above the theater where the actors stayed," Richardson remembers. "My mother also worked as a maid for them. I guess she saw the seedy side of things cleaning up after people. She thought theater was a filthy business, and she didn't want me to have any part of it." The only working actor in the family at the time was Shirley's younger brother, who played the shoeshine boy in the 1963 production of Guys and Dolls. "We had to hide his baseball glove, because he wanted to go play ball instead of be onstage," she jokes.
In the '60s schools in Miami were almost completely segregated. Richardson attended an all-black high school. The only movie theater she frequented was in her all-black neighborhood in the Grove. Blacks could enter the drugstore next to the theater, but they weren't permitted to sit at the counter and eat. In a sense Richardson's world was so steeped in segregation, she was sheltered from it. One summer she worked as a bathroom attendant at the playhouse, handing out paper towels: "The tips were good," she says. "That's how I paid for my school clothes." She headed for Tallahassee to study drama at Florida A&M University. During her first semester, she had an experience that radically changed her life. For the first time, she saw black actors in a play that revealed the black experience. The play was Douglass Turner Ward's Days of Absence, a biting satire of the white minstrel shows of the '20s and '30s. Even the gutsy head of the theater department was skittish about producing a play that was not sanctioned by white America. "It changed my life," Richardson declares. "This wasn't some hokey-pokey theater with black folks grinning and guffawing. All of a sudden, theater wasn't about clowning around and talking about hard times. It was about, "We gonna do something about this.' I had never heard anything like it."
Richardson soaked up strong productions like LeRoi Jones' The Toilet, as well as the protest poetry of Sonia Sanchez. "People were trying to make sense of Martin Luther King's death," she says, describing the time. "Young men were being shipped off to Vietnam, and the civil rights movement -- so long overdue -- was at its boiling point." The volatile political scene and the explosive dramatic work that accompanied it shaped Richardson's view of what theater is and what theater should be. "Theater was a social commentary as opposed to trying to merge into mainstream; we didn't care about Broadway. We cared about education and expressing emotions," she offers. The revolution was not televised or subverted into clandestine song lyrics. Rather the revolution articulated itself for the first time in the flesh of African-American men and women, and Richardson decided to make it her life's work to bring this back home to South Florida.
The Actor's Studio, 12320 W. Dixie Hwy., North Miami, 305-895-8955
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.
She now runs the M Ensemble as its executive director, along with general manager Patricia E. Williams. The M Ensemble is the oldest established black theater company in the State of Florida and the only one in Miami-Dade County with a regular season. The company has been asked to appear at the prestigious National Black Theater Festival in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where it has received national exposure from the New York Times and Jet magazine. It also has been invited to perform at some of the most reputable venues for black theater in the nation.
M Ensemble was formed in 1971 on the University of Miami campus under the direction of the late T.G. Cooper, who later became the chairman of the theater department at Howard University. The M stands for "Maria," Cooper's daughter. The company had no real home (and wouldn't for a long time). Community centers donated rehearsal space and plays were staged throughout Dade County in schools, churches, libraries, and once, at the Playboy Club on Miami Beach. When Cooper left in 1972, Samuel Williams, Patricia Williams, and Shirley Richardson took over, trading in the "Maria" behind its name for an M that stands for magic, mystery, and movement, permanently altering the destiny of black theater in South Florida. According to Richardson "magic" represents the resourcefulness it takes to survive, and "mystery" is the element of surprise in the M Ensemble's repertoire. And if you know Richardson, the "movement" is easy. "We're always on the move," she says in her sassy way.
Amiri Baraka (formerly LeRoi Jones) wrote in 1965: "The black artist's role in America is to report and reflect so precisely the nature of the society, and of himself in that society that other men will be moved by the exactness of his rendering...." Thirty-five years later, the M Ensemble's mission still echoes this impulse. "Our goal is to produce African-American works -- classical pieces and new works," explains Richardson. "If we don't do it, who else will? There are voices that need to be heard." This parallels the observations of outspoken Tony Award and Pulitzer Prizewinning playwright August Wilson, who says, "Staging a black play now and then is not the same as having theaters devoted to works by blacks. No, it's not the job of black artists to translate their work for white theater heads, critics, and subscribers." Contemporary black theater continues to value independence from the mainstream; some people confuse this with an exclusionary "it's a black thing" attitude. Not so. Black theater is American theater. It reflects the history and culture of the United States.
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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."
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.