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Israel Hicks dies at 66; founding artistic director of Los Angeles' Ebony Repertory Theatre

Hicks also made theatrical history by becoming the first to direct all of playwright August Wilson's works for one company, in Denver. The project took 20 years.

July 09, 2010|By Valerie J. Nelson, Los Angeles Times
  • The idea behind Israel Hicks’ Ebony Repertory was to produce African American-themed works.
The idea behind Israel Hicks’ Ebony Repertory was to produce African… (Ebony Repertory Theatre )

Israel Hicks, founding artistic director of Los Angeles' Ebony Repertory Theatre who made theatrical history in Denver when he became the first to direct playwright August Wilson's entire canon for the same company, has died. He was 66.

Hicks, who had prostate cancer, died Saturday in Westchester County, N.Y., according to Ebony Repertory.

"He was a man of extraordinary vision, and founding this company was one of the highlights of Israel's life," said Wren T. Brown, a producer who started Ebony Repertory with Hicks in 2008 to produce African American-themed works.

The resident company of the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center in South Los Angeles, Ebony Repertory's acclaimed inaugural production was "Two Trains Running," a Wilson drama set in a 1960s ghetto diner in Pittsburgh — and directed by Hicks.

Last year, he directed a joint production by Ebony Repertory and the Pasadena Playhouse of "Crowns," a celebration of African American women and their proud tradition of hats. Hicks stressed "the celebratory in his richly spontaneous, often joyful staging," F. Kathleen Foley wrote in her review for The Times.

In 1990, the artistic director of the Denver Center Theatre Company asked if Hicks would like to direct as many plays as Wilson planned to write about the African American experience. Hicks later said, "Who would say no to that?"

Wilson, who died in 2005, would write 10 plays, one for each decade of the 20th century. Hicks' quest to oversee one company's interpretation of them took nearly 20 years. He completed the novel feat last year with the staging of the final play in the cycle, "Radio Golf," the Denver troupe confirmed.

"To me, August's plays are familiar clothing," Hicks told the Pittsburgh-Post Gazette in 2003. "His characters are like members of my family."

Born Aug. 23, 1943, in Orangeburg, S.C., he grew up in the Brooklyn projects.

At Boston University, he discovered the theater when "he fell in love with this girl" who was an actress, he later recalled.

After receiving his bachelor's in fine arts in 1967, he studied directing at New York University and earned a master's degree.

His career was a mixture of teaching and directing plays, often at major regional theaters. From 1987 until 2001, he was dean of theater and film at the State University of New York at Purchase and then joined Rutgers University to head its theater department.

When asked how directing so much Wilson had affected him as a man, Hicks once told the Denver Post that he had "a sense of pride knowing that you can put out a body of work that doesn't have to be trivial or anti-anything. It can simply be truthful … and speak for itself."

Hicks is survived by his second wife, Renee Harriston-Hicks. He was preceded in death by his first wife, Catherine, and daughter, Victoria.

valerie.nelson@latimes.com

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