FEATURE — Fall 2003
   

 

Ron Himes, B.S. '78, who received an Honorary Doctor of Arts from the University in 1998, has been named the Henry E. Hampton, Jr. Artist-in-Residence. He has a joint appointment in the University's Performing Arts Department and in African and Afro-American Studies, both in Arts & Sciences. The photo at left was taken at the Grandel Theatre on the set of Robert Johnson - Trick the Devil, a 2003 Black Rep production in which Himes played blues musician Robert Johnson.

The Performance of a Lifetime

For the past 26 years, founder Ron Himes has been the producing director of the St. Louis Black Repertory Company, one of the most influential theater companies both nationally and locally that stages productions from an African-American perspective.

Prologue When he was around six, Ron Himes announced he wanted to be an "aerio-nautical engineer," even though he had never seen one, much less one who was black. This dream lasted several years. Himes was one of five children. His father was a foundry worker, his mother a laundress. In the eighth grade, his basketball coach was a guy from the Washington University Campus Y, who brought Himes and fellow players to campus regularly. So did the next coach, who not only worked at the Y, but was also the president of the University's Association of Black Students (ABS). The players followed him around at ABS events and activities, from the South 40 to the Field House. In high school, Himes visited the campus on his own, going to lectures at Graham Chapel, sitting in on classes that sounded interesting, and using the library. He even brought groceries and sandwiches to students when they took over Brookings during the campus unrest of the early '70s.

It was a natural progression, he says, that he attended Washington University when he completed high school in 1970. He was pre-med for a while, then pre-law. Then he wandered through his own mix of studies that included Eastern philosophy, psychology, and sociology. When he graduated in 1978, he left with an undergraduate degree in business administration from University College in Arts & Sciences.

Twenty-five years later, Himes has become all the things he aspired to be, yet none of them specifically. He is part artist and part businessman. He is part actor and part activist. He is the founder and producing director of the St. Louis Black Repertory Company (Black Rep), one of the most influential theater companies both nationally and locally that stages productions from an African-American perspective, yet he sometimes ponders whether he should step down from his leadership role and let the company run under someone else's direction. And, even though he may not have become that "aerio-nautical engineer," he still dreams big.

A Daring Act Today, Himes sits in the last row of seats at the Grandel Theatre, the current home of the Black Rep. The only light falling on his profile comes from the set of Robert Johnson - Trick the Devil, a play by Bill Harris in which Himes plays real-life blues musician Johnson. He frequently excuses himself to answer a phone and open the back door for visitors. He says "Hola" to the woman vacuuming the foyer carpeting. With both theatrical nonchalance and determined intensity, he is eating a nectarine. His spirited laugh booms throughout the space—fitting since the theater in its former life was a church.

The Black Rep celebrated its 25th anniversary last year. It is the largest African-American performing arts organization in Missouri and the fifth largest nationally. It reaches an audience of more than 175,000 annually between its main stage productions, touring shows, and community outreach. Himes is now 50. These important milestones are perfect settings to reflect upon how he got from there (Washington University) to here:

"A dare. Some friends of mine at the University dared me to audition for this play. I did. I got cast in the play, and it was fun," he says.

The play was No Place to Be Somebody, by Charles Gordone, and Himes discovered that the theater was exactly the place where he wanted to be somebody.

Death of a Salesman—Birth of a Theater Company Himes may have been bitten by the acting bug, but he wasn't prepared to be hit by the reality of campus theater when he auditioned for a part in Death of a Salesman produced by the performing arts area.

"The director, Sid Friedman, who was also the chair of the theater department, auditioned me, re-auditioned me, and called me back to read for one role after another, after another. All the other students could see that I was strong, that I should probably get a role. Late one night, he took me out in the hall and said, 'I just can't do it. I can't give you a role in this play.' I could have been devastated and quit acting, but that experience actually spurred me on," Himes says.

Together with some other black students, Himes created what, in a later incarnation, would become the Black Repertory Company.

"The mission of the company hasn't changed much since its inception," he says. "It is to heighten the social, cultural, and educational awareness of the community through the performing arts, to provide opportunities for African Americans to develop, and to showcase their talents."

The Price of Admission Himes and his fellow actors began meeting and planning productions of their own. The company applied to the University for permits to give performances throughout the campus, from the Women's Building to Graham Chapel to the lounges in the dorms.

"Tuition is the great common denominator among all students. It was my position that we paid tuition the same as everyone else, so we should have access to the facilities. If the theater department was not going to cast black students in the plays, then we should do our own plays and use the facilities that we had a right to use," Himes says.

Word spread. From the cultural microclimate of the University campus, other colleges and universities began to invite the fledgling troupe to perform. So did churches and community centers, especially during Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X celebrations and Black History Month.

In the St. Louis black Rep's 2003 production of Conversations on a Dirt Road, Ron Himes (standing) played the lead role of Joe Lee.

After Himes graduated from the University with a B.S. in business administration in 1978, most of the original company members had already graduated or moved away. Himes kept the Black Rep alive while developing as an artist himself. He acted for the now-defunct Theatre Project Company. He acted in industrial films. He acted in community college productions. He attended classes at the Katherine Dunham Performing Arts Center in East St. Louis.

And, he answered the phone when someone would call to request a new Black Rep production.

"I'd call the performers I knew and say, 'We've got a show in three weeks, can you rehearse?' A lot of the works we did in those days were collage pieces of poetry, prose, and music," Himes says.

During the next several years, the Black Rep's reputation continued to grow. The company found space at a church on St. Louis Avenue. Himes and the other actors began doing community outreach by teaching classes. During these salad days, the company began to produce plays and even some musicals, often with 35-40 actors on the stage.

"That was before we entered into contracts with the Actors' Union. It was before we were paying everybody. We wanted to pay everyone something, but we weren't able to pay a lot of people anything," he says.

The Next Stage Production by production, class by class, the Black Rep earned its status as one of St. Louis' major cultural institutions, but the company still faces a formidable obstacle.

"For us, the biggest challenge is to be considered a major cultural institution but not to be supported at the same level as the other major cultural institutions by the philanthropic and corporate communities and the community at large," Himes says.

Yet even facing this challenge, the Black Rep has earned national recognition. The company has performed at the Kennedy Center four times and has been part of major initiatives with the Lila Wallace Fund, the Ford Foundation, and the Nathan Cummings Foundation. The company also has helped develop young people who have gone on to successful careers on Broadway and with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

Himes himself is seeking ways to direct both himself and the Black Rep on to the next stage of development. For the past few years, Himes has been a lecturer in African and Afro-American Studies in Arts & Sciences at the University. He spends up to four months a year working at other theaters and teaching at other universities. This fall, he will direct a play in South Africa.

He dreams of the time when the company owns its own theater, facilities, and artistic community center. The company's performance space at Grandel Theatre is leased; its administrative offices are across the street; and the sets have to be built at another distant facility.

Theater Matters In this "MTV" world, Himes is adamant that theater in general still matters, and that the Black Rep in particular has an important role to play.

"There are still empty spaces in history that need to be filled from the right perspective, and there are still voices that need to be heard. If we were not here, this community would not see the type of work that we produce at the Black Rep," Himes says. "There is no other theater company in town that would be doing the work of August Wilson, Leslie Lee, Samm-Art Williams, and many other writers. And there is a whole company of actors, directors, set designers, lighting designers, etc., who wouldn't be working. This is our legacy and our ongoing responsibility."

C.B. Adams is a free-lance writer based in St. Charles, Missouri.

The St. Louis Black Repertory Company is a community partner in the University's Sesquicentennial Celebration. For more information on the company, visit: www.stlouisblackrep.com.