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
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.
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
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 spacefitting since the theater in its former life was
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 SalesmanBirth
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
"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,"
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.
In this "MTV" world, Himes is adamant that theater in general still
matters, and that the Black Rep in particular has an important role
"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."
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.