Wren T. Brown recalls growing up in the 1960s in a modest South Los Angeles neighborhood off a lively Washington Boulevard corridor, invigorated by popular night spots, such as the Ebony Showcase Theatre, the It Club and the Parisian Room.
"It was a predominantly black neighborhood, but there was a diverse palette of people, including whites from all over the city, who would come in at night to frequent these hot destinations," said Brown, 44. "The whole area was jumping with all this excitement."
After years of working steadily as an actor in films and TV, Brown has returned home to establish the Ebony Repertory Theatre. His newly founded company has taken up residence at the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center, which was built on the grounds of the former Ebony Showcase. Though he's still in the early stages of forming the company, Brown hopes to have about 25 formal members, as well as a core technical team.
"I wanted to ensure that the so-called minority community had a place to go see theater where the standards are high and not compromised," Brown said as he sat in the uncompleted cafe off the center's lobby. "The minority community deserves something like this, where they can get the same kind of fare offered by the Mark Taper Forum, the Pantages or what the Shubert Theatre used to put on."
Brown envisions the 400-seat theater featuring distinguished African American-themed works of a "high quality," including classics like "A Raisin in the Sun," and works by acclaimed playwrights such as August Wilson. He is also hoping to attract to the mid-city audiences interested in an upscale cultural theater experience.
ERT's first production, opening tonight, is "Two Trains Running," Wilson's drama set in a 1960s ghetto diner in Pittsburgh. The play stars Russell Hornsby ("Lincoln Heights"), Felton Perry and Glynn Turman ("Cooley High," "The Wire"), who just scored an Emmy for his guest role on HBO's "In Treatment."
"All these actors were eager to do something in the neighborhood where they knew a high bar was being set," said Brown, who had worked with Perry and Turman at the former Inner City Culture Center theater. "There was absolutely no hesitation when I approached them about this."
The theater company is being launched at a time when African American audiences are gravitating toward raucous musical offerings, such as "Barbershop," or religious-themed comedic fare from Tyler Perry ("Why Did I Get Married," "Madea Goes to Jail") and David E. Talbert ("Love in the Nick of Time," "Mr. Right Now").
Although Brown did not specifically address the works of Perry and Talbert or their popularity with urban theatergoers, it's unlikely their pieces will be performed by the ERT. He said he wants to feature work that has "three-dimensional characters."
"Our mission is to perform true theatrical literature, and we are not interested in featuring the lowest common denominator," he said. "Minority audiences deserve better."
Mainstream theaters, such as the Taper, the Ahmanson and the Geffen Playhouse, he said, have not "historically had a warm reception or put forth an outreach for works that cater to urban audiences. So we hope to serve that need."
The arts scene in South Los Angeles has lacked a significant theater presence for more than a decade. One of the most vibrant, the Ebony Showcase, provided opportunities for black performers after it opened in 1950. But the theater, which was owned by actor Nick Stewart, fell on hard times during the 1980s and 1990s, and was forced to close in 1996.
The city of Los Angeles then funded the $7-million Holden Center, which opened in 2004. But that venue has mostly been used for special events or rentals. The nonprofit ERT is funded largely through private donations and revenue from rentals of the center.
Brown and other members of the company admitted to being a bit anxious as the opening draws closer. The mood during a recent afternoon rehearsal was intense as the performers grappled with Wilson's dense dialogue. Artistic director Israel Hicks, who is directing the drama, calmly but firmly instructed the actors how to handle the language and rhythms of the play.
Turman, 61, who as a young boy appeared in the original Broadway production of "A Raisin in the Sun," said working in the new theater was one of the highlights of a year that has already brought him much acclaim. "At any stage in one's career, to be part of an August Wilson classic is both an honor and a challenge," he said.
But the launch of the ERT is of particular cultural importance. "Everyone involved is aware of what this means," he said. "This is a venue owned and operated by people of color, and we want to make sure we put our best foot forward. It's not often that we can get to show those outside the community to what the community has to offer. It's important to show what they have been missing out on. We want to include others into the richness of our culture."
"Two Trains Running" will be followed by "Crowns," a dramatic musical paying tribute to black women and the elaborate hats they wear to church, by actress Regina Taylor ("The Unit," "I'll Fly Away").
"We're going to make this place a true destination," Brown said. "Just like it was before."
"Two Trains Running," Nate Holden Performing Arts Center, 4718 W. Washington Blvd., L.A. 8 p.m. Thursdays- Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. $35-$50. (323) 964-9766 or ebonyrepertorytheatre.org.