Creating connections through the arts and across cultures

Ron Himes, director & founder of St. Louis’ Black Repertory Company, at Missouri History Museum’s African-American History Series—continues exploration of need for support & recognition of African-American Cultural Institutions in this, one of America’s great black cities

What is the future of African American Arts in St. Louis? "One of the strongest purveyors of African American culture is African American theater. It's a place where we can strongly control the images portrayed," said Himes.

Ron Himes, director founder St. Louis Black Repertory Company
Ron Himes, director & founder, St. Louis Black Repertory Company, which makes its home at the Grandell Theater (1717 Olive Street, 4th Floor).
Click here to read more about the St. Louis Black Rep.

Last night at the Missouri History Museum, the Curator of African American Collections--Jackie Dace--joined Ron Himes, director and founder of the Black Repertory Theater, the nation's largest professional African American theater company, in conversation as part of the Missouri History Museum's African American History Series format. These converstions bring us behind the scenes with the featured guests. The mission of the series is: "With oral history traditions in mind, participants will be asked to tell their personal stories, thereby allowing audiences to get to know them in a much more meaningful manner."

I attended the first in this series with Robert Powell and two other community leaders in November. You can read my post on that inspiring evening here.

The themes of that evening...the journey of African American Cultural Institutions...the need for their support and recognition on their home ground...as a way to nurture not only a people, but people...to enrich not only a community, but a city.

The very rich evening began once again with a reception and was a great place to relax and have fun conversations. I met Sylvia and Carlos Jenkins, who shared an inspiring love story of how they met on Southwest airlines. I encountered the gorgeous and talented Marsha Cann, whose poetry also was featured in the documetary we saw later. Come on down, folks, this is good fun and about the best value you'll ever find at only $10 a head.

One thing I loved was that when Ron came in, he and Carlos began trading stories about schools, neighborhoods, and families from their youth. The exchange so reminded me of life in rural Illinois. In fact, in my father's living room just that morning my father's visitor and I worked out geneologies for neighbors and which place used to belong to whom. (My father will say, "Oh, she's Jack's girl; you remember her. They lived on the old Levis place.") That link between rural Illinois and urban black family experience made me happy indeed. In both worlds, heritage, where you come from, and who your people are become life foundations.

Jackie Dace also told us about the exhibit she's preparing on the great Katherine Dunham, which we're all looking forward. Katherine played on both world and local stages...but she belonged to us, here.

Our evening in the auditorium began with the documentary shot to celebrate the St. Louis Black Rep Company's 25th anniversary (now offering their 31st season). I loved it and would have liked to have seen it all, but time marches on, and in a dramatic seague, the screen lifted, revealing Ron and Jackie, flanked by fields of red poinsettas.

How does an cultural institution get founded? How does it survive? How does it operate? What of the founder himself? What are his roots and inspirations? We overheard the answers to all these things that inquiring minds naturally want to know. And, at the end, had our our opportunity to ask questions.

One of the key facts about Ron Himes, and one of the most intriguing to me, is the marrying of his business and analytical background with his on-the-ground-running arts training. Also, hey, the man is funny. Ron's penetrating wit moves easily from insights that cut through the baloney to witticisms that let those insights come in. ("I did the book keeping in the beginning of the company...[telling dramatic pause/beat]...what little there was to do.")

In all this, a marvelous common sense shines through, and I felt that I was sitting at the kitchen table, hearing kitchen table stories. "We made sure the company lived within its means. We kept a cap on our expenses. We ran the company just like my mother or grandmother ran their households.") In speaking of the Black Rep's place as #1, he said, "In part, we moved up the ladder by attrition, as other companies in American (NJ, Pennsylvania and so on) folded."

Himes stressed he named it the Black Rep COMPANY rather than Theater (which everyone seems to want to insert into their name) because he wanted to start a company, a business...and "Our business is theater." He also "always wanted to have a company that employed a lot of African-Americans." This clear-headed business sense has led past survival to thriving.

"The culture of the artist doesn't mean you can't run a company,"said Himes.

boesman-and-lena.jpeg
Linda Kennedy, Ron Himes and Erik Kilpatrick build anew in Boesman and Lena. (Photo by Stewart Goldstein)

In recalling his boyhood Ron said that he and his friends used to come to the History Museum and move from wing to wing until the guards chased them out. Then they'd go on to the Art Museum and the Zoo. "If you want to know why black folks don't come now, it might be because they didn't make it welcome...It's interesting sitting up here and talking about my life in a place I used to be chased out of." Ron's uncle Bob worked at the museum, even. In one of the amazing moments of the evening, Jackie discovered as Ron spoke that they have a cousin in common.

In telling the story of his schooling in St. Louis, Ron mentioned that when he was in high school, in 1968, he was one of the cadre supporting the Washington University students occupying the administration building. That brought back memories for me, because the Fall of 1968 was my one semester at Washington University and there was much falling around all of us. Ron is a little younger than I am. I could easily picture him as the errand-runner and food-bringer to those inside. I was on the outside, but all of us were changed from that time.

He said that, in a way, he started going to Washington University when he was a sophomore in high school. If Julian bond, Bobby Seal, or Charles Mingus were gonna be there, well, he just went...and, in the end he went there because "McAllister was just too cold."

A dare from Marsha to audition for a play (because he always complained about how bad the plays were) was the curious turn that led him to a life in theater.

Ron said that he had a choice of being an accountant, getting an MBA, or..."That theater stuff was sort of fun." He traced the arc of auditioning for parts, getting them, and gradually letting theater become his life as he founded the company, directed, and learned everything by doing since he had no formal theater training in college. "No one in the first generation at the Black Rep had formal training. We learned by doing and then taught each other."

Ron spoke at length about:

--The Black Rep's Internship Program--Five acting interns start the day after Labor Day to mount 2 or 3 productions in 6 weeks to go into the schools.

--The current production opening of OTHELLO. There are 2 white actors out of 14 actors, turning the usual color ratio on its head. It's set in New Orleans in the 1890s and deals with the color and class struggles inherent in the times, thus "illuminating the text for our audiences."

--The Black Reps' extensive education and outreach efforts such as Fireside Chats, the Noon talk, the post-play discussion, the Scholars program.

--How he selects plays for his season. "I read and see a lot of plays. I listen to suggestions. I build lists, cull lists. I consider the resonant core of artists working in and with the company. I see roles in terms of actors, designers, and directors in the company. I put together an artistic team that will be challenged, stretched, or have an affinity for the material...Until I have to announce the season."

--His influences. Ron's grandfather was a minister and prophet, and his greatest influence. His grandfather founded his own church and was a traveling healer. Ron watched him build the church and saw that he always had a following. His mother was a dancer (she had danced with his Uncle Bob) and stressed education.

--Peers and Mentors. Hanging out at Washington University when he was young...BAG (Black Artists Group)..."Looking back I can see I was immersed in an artistic cultural perspective."

--Why he stayed in St. Louis instead of basing in NYC. Although Ron did spend time in NYC, he said, "My family kept me here." He shared some home wisdom in his attitude that "You didn't need to go to NY to prove anything...to be validated...black folk didn't control anything in NY. To go to NY looking for work seemed dumb to me when I could be in St. Louis doing work." Now the Black Rep has become the standard for an actor "making it." (Kevin Spacey gave a call-back to an actress when he saw the St. Louis Black Rep on her resume.)

--Katherine Dunham. "The first generation at the Black Rep felt we needed to sing, dance, and act." He took free classes she offered and credits the Dunham classes and technique with both a work ethic ("how I approach and complete tasks") and his movement on stage ("Physicalizing a character to show where the character came from.")

--Support from area academic theater departments....there's a disconnect and what's needed is "to have people to direct students to attend."

--Mark 6:4 (King James Bible) "A prophet is not without honour, but in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house."---In spite of great honors, for the company as a whole, Ron himself and other company members, the Black Rep remains a buried treasure in plain sight. There are way too many people who have never heard of the the Rep...and another way too many who have never attended...and way too many who don't know where the Grandell Theater is (1717 Olive Street, 4th Floor).

--The Black Rep is 1 of 25 companies in the US producing Shakespeare which received an NEA Shakespeare grant...yet, Othello, the Black Rep's current production lacks press coverage.

--The Black Rep has performed all of August Wilson's plays and held 14 World Premiers.

--Ron has founded another troupe...the St. Louis Actors Studio on Boyle Street at the Gaslight Theater.

--What is the future of African American Arts in St. Louis? "One of the strongest purveyors of African American culture is African American theater. It's a place where we can strongly control the images portrayed. The philanthropic community is largely white, Why should they pay?," said Himes

"Because it's a human issue," I said from the darkness of the theater.

"We have to do it for ourselves," he replied.

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RON HIMES BIO
Ron Himes, the Founder and Producing Director of The Black Rep, our nation’s largest professional African-American theatre company, has produced over 100 performances throughout the Company's 29-year history.

Although his St. Louis acting and directing credits are too numerous to mention, he has directed for theatres throughout the country including: For Colored Girls, for People's Light & Theatre Company in Philadelphia; Riffs for Seven Stages in Atlanta; Spunk and Spell #7 at the Studio Theatre in Washington D.C.; One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and I'm Not Rappaport at the Old Creamery Theatre in Garrison, IA; Enemy of the People at Perseverance Theatre in Juneau, AK; and Flyin' West for Delaware Theatre Company.

Mr. Himes has received numerous honors and awards including an Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts from Washington University and the University of Missouri St. Louis and the 2001 Arts & Education Council Lifetime Achievement Award.

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2 Responses »

  1. Congrats, wish I was still there. Ron, remember the beginning? I'm sure Ken would've been proud,also. You're hard work has paid-off. It's a long way from,"The Mighty Gents"!!

  2. Victor,

    I'd love to hear your stories of the beginning and The Mighty Gents."

    Janet Riehl

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