Ensemble Theatre proves 'E' is for Everyone!
It all began in the back of George Hawkins’ car — back when Houston was just another sunbelt city, suffering the woes of the 1970s. He had a vision for an all-African American theater here, and he traveled around with like-minded actors and designers and put on shows across the city, hauling costumes, set pieces and props in his trunk. Fast forward 37 years and The Ensemble Theatre now has a permanent home on Main Street, its own stop on METRO’s light rail, an enthusiastic board of directors, a solid reputation as a place to see innovative and enlightening performances and two women at its helm.
“This was always George’s dream,” said Artistic Director Eileen J. Morris, who began her career with the Ensemble as a volunteer in 1982, before she found a grant that would make George share that dream with everyone he talked to. He was passionate about it.”
That passion is evident in the company’s enduring mission: to preserve African American artistic expression and to enlighten, entertain, and enrich a diverse community. As the theater has grown, Houston has, too, and today, The Ensemble Theatre offers programming that appeals to an ever-more-diverse audience.
“The stories we tell are universal,” says Janette Cosley, who has been the Ensemble’s executive director for the last 10 years. “They’re stories about families, sibling rivalry, faith. Everyone can identify with those things.”
In fact, those universal pieces are exactly what Morris looks for when she’s working with the board of directors to determine the performance season. She says she’s always reading plays and scripts, and she goes to see as many shows as she can – both around the country, and here in Houston at other performance arts companies. She keeps a journal of things that she likes and playwrights she feels are telling solid stories that can appeal to Houston’s broad audience.
“We have to look at everything,” she said. “A blend of comedy and drama and musicals, what we have the budget for, how it fits our mission of showcasing African-American expression, which artists we will be able to secure.”
Over the years, the company has seen the number of actors auditioning for roles grow from a few handfuls to hundreds.
“We’ve become a place where artists want to work,” said Cosley, who credits the board of directors and her fellow team members with creating an environment for the theater company to thrive, including the creation of a small endowment, something the company has never had before.
Additionally, as the Ensemble has grown, both Morris and Cosley are proud of the relationships they’ve developed with various playwrights, whether it’s producing all of August Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle or bringing works by Thomas Meloncon to the stage. This year, The Ensemble commissioned its first play, a musical for the holiday season called Djembe and the Forest of Christmas Forgotten.
“Musicals are always popular for us, and they attract a completely diverse audience,” said Morris.
Diversity, said Cosley, is one of the things that makes the Ensemble unique. Even as it promotes and preserves the work of African-American writers and artists, people of all races have worked both behind the scenes and on stage in the company’s productions. And, over the years, the audience and subscribers have morphed from being nearly all African-American to being much more representative of the city the theater calls home. Cosley and Morris agree it’s partly because they’ve watched their area of Midtown grow and diversify lately. But they also know that it’s word of mouth, with theatergoers have a great experience and telling their friends about this little theater company.
More than that, though, it comes down to storytelling.
Cosley concluded, “When you peel back the layers of a show, and you don’t look at what race the people are on stage, you get to say, ‘I know this story.’ And, I believe we’re so much more alike than we ever realize.”
Holly Beretto is a staff reporter and free-lance journalist.
Far-sighted individuals founded society to build bridges between U.S. and Japan
Before starting law school, Patsy Brown went to Japan for a year to share American culture with middle-school students. She had already fallen in love with Japan and its culture from the time she was a little girl flipping through her parents’ travel photos. That one year turned into three. Then she moved to Japan for college.
“Japan has truly shaped who I am,” said Brown, a Korean girl who was installed executive director of the Japan America Society of Houston in mid-April.
The Houston chapter, one of 38 members of the National Association of Japan-America Societies and a 501(c)3 nonprofit, was founded 45 years ago by “farsighted individuals” from Japan and Houston who realized not only that their two countries would help shape the new century, but also that their futures were inextricably tied together, Brown said.
The national coalition started in 1960, when the presidents of nine Japan and Japan-America societies joined a committee chaired by John D. Rockefeller III to celebrate the centennial for the first Treaty of Trade and Amity between Japan and the United States.
“Japan America Societies are the only organization of its kind that exists for the sole purpose of bringing two countries together in friendship,” Brown said.
The Houston chapter elevates and strengthens the vital cultural and educational foundations of the U.S.-Japan relationship and supports understanding in the areas of business, culture and education, Brown said. Each year, it hosts the Japan Festival, Ladies Luncheon and the Texas State Japanese Language Speech Contest. It played a vital role in the establishment of the Japanese Garden in Hermann Park and holds Japanese-language classes, lectures, teacher workshops, student exchange programs and other cultural events that explore the uniqueness of Japan for Americans and America for Japanese.
“Through ongoing initiatives, JASH brings Japanese culture to Houston in the form of dynamic, thought-provoking experiences that not only awaken audiences to the beauty of Japanese art and culture, but also pave the way for new understanding and new ideas,” Brown said. “The fruits of this valued relationship have delivered employment for the region, cultural education for area schools, and enjoyment for all.”
One of Houston’s 26 sister cities is in Japan – Chiba City, Japan, has a 40-year relationship with the city that includes the handling of the annual Houston-Chiba Youth Ambassador Exchange Program. More than ever, it’s necessary to adopt a global mindset in order to remain viable and relevant in today’s global marketplace, according to Brown.
“It’s essential that differences be managed and leveraged in ways that allow people from all backgrounds to hear and be heard, understand and be understood, and work together productively," Brown said.
The Society, which has more than 200 members, continues to play a role in the soft diplomacy between Japan and the United States.
“I’m proud of the work the Japan America Society of Houston undertakes each day,” said Councilman and Mayor Pro-Tem Ed Gonzalez, who traveled to Chiba City with the Houston chapter in March. “As a vibrant international city, our diversity and cultural awareness makes us incredibly competitive in the global marketplace. JASH has a long history of promoting the Japanese culture and strengthening ties between our two nations.”
Dave Schafer is a staff reporter for Houston Woman Magazine and a free-lance journalist.
Bullying Female Anchors
When I watched Jennifer Livingston, a La Crosse, Wisconsin anchor, deliver one of the gutsiest editorials in the annals of TV news, in response to hate mail about her weight from a male viewer, it struck a chord with me. I cheered her on, while at the same time was reminded of similar real life experiences throughout my career as a former news anchor in Top 10 markets. She is not alone.
From the beginning of my career in a small Rio Grande Valley market, which was 95 percent Latino, and from where all my family hails, I was questioned about the way I used a Spanish pronunciation of my name, correctly and accurately rolling the rrrr’s in both my first and last names: Minerva Pérez…sacrosanct where I come from.
My nickname as a kid was Minnie, Minnie Mouse and Mini Skirt. Would viewers take me seriously if I used nicknames? I was supposed to come across as a serious journalist.
After leaving the Valley, and moving to San Antonio and away from family and friends, the catty comments started coming. Some of my colleagues laughed and sniped behind my back. My news director brought me in and said, “Perhaps you should consider the way you say your name.” I ignored him. I refused to homogenize my name and identity for the sake of my job and instead stayed true to my heritage. It was the decade of the Hispanics, after all.
Several markets later, and arriving Los Angeles, the second largest TV market in the country, the hate or bullying heated up.
“You’re too Latina,” one cowardly and anonymous person wrote. Another suggested I should “go back to México!”
As Anchor Jen openly told the author of her egregious email and her viewers, “you don’t know me.” Little did my haters know I am a fourth generation Texan, whose family goes back hundreds of years…before Tejas was taken by the Texians. The common Tejano saying goes, “the border crossed us.” We still own part of a major land grant.
Consistently, some colleagues in all the TV markets where I worked, friends, I wrongly thought, generated some of this bullying. In one market, one co-anchor with an air of much superiority, turned to me and pointedly asked, “Why do you say your name that way?” A not-so-kind, icy query. Another one would encounter me in the hallway and loudly mimic me, “Minerrrrrva Pérrrrrez.” I laughed as his insulting words. Another one said the way I pronounced my name “jarred the ear.” Jarred the ear? This, while they all went out of their way to correctly pronounce Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. They went crazy with French names. Latino names? Not so much.
Conversely, I also received a lot of praise from Latinos in every community in which I worked. They loved that I represented them proudly in what they considered a not-so-welcoming “white world.” To see me on TV was to see themselves.
Jennifer Livingston’s criticism by a male viewer is typical and discriminatory. Only female anchors are targeted. There are many men, some currently on national and local TV, who could use a trim down.
Why don’t viewers approach them about their weight? Not an issue when it comes to male anchors. The question is why?
For a time, due to chronic illness and badly prescribed medications, not to mention menopause. I too was a “plump anchor.” Sadly, men in TV can’t or won’t understand that one. Neither does the average Joe. One male viewer called in and told the AP that answered, “Tell Minerva she’s been eating too many cookies.” I was seven months pregnant for darn sake! Even a local columnist took it upon himself to send a message. Without naming names, the columnist wrote about “plump anchors.”
To describe what happened to me for years, is now described as “bullying,” the new catch phrase. I was a victim my entire career and chose to ignore it for fear of more personal attacks. So, cheers to Jennifer Livingston who chose not to. She’s speaking for all of us who were “bullied” then and now.
Minerva Perez is the executive producer, show creator and co-anchor of “Latina Voices: Smart Talk.” For more information, visit www.latinavoices.com.
Just the Assistant: Volunteer Therapy
Not only do I work, sometimes I volunteer. I volunteer at Star of Hope, I volunteer with Living Water International, I even volunteer to take out my neighbor’s garbage while he’s in Portugal. Recently, I volunteered my soul to 300 people.
It happened at a marriage conference where a well-known therapist planned to teach us some things about matrimony. We laughed at his jokes, followed along in our handouts and solemnly nodded when he spoke of marriage pitfalls. During intermission, the therapist motioned my husband and me onto the stage. “Would you guys be willing to volunteer during the second half of the conference?”
My mind wandered toward volunteer opportunities I’d witnessed in elementary school. When guest speakers asked for volunteers, the lucky kid always had a fun job like holding the speaker’s trophies while the speaker told some story about overcoming obstacles and winning gold medals. Of course, we’d be the volunteers!
“So, we’ll just discuss an issue you have in your marriage, okay?”
Perfect. I assumed we’d tell the audience our “issue” and sit back down to listen while the therapist gave everyone tips for marriage success and explained how common our problem was. After intermission, the therapist announced, “Now let’s welcome our volunteers, Benson and Christina Ledbetter.”
Benson and I skipped up onto the stage, me sort of pulling him by the hand, eager for the attention. That’s when the therapist told us to take a seat on two cushy chairs arranged facing each other on the stage. We nervously laughed and sat down as the therapist handed us each a teddy bear, telling us that said bear represented our hearts. This was not going where I thought it would.
“Christina, tell us, what’s your issue?” Thus began an hour of live therapy in front of 300 people. Benson and I held up our bears, I mean our hearts, and attempted to work through the decision of how long to visit our families on holidays. While Benson kindly explained how he enjoys leisurely family visits, the therapist interrupted: “Make it messier. I want the audience to see messy.”
Was this guy trying to make us fight? Benson attempted again, using a harsher tone I’d never heard him use: “Don’t you care about our families?”
Huh? I love our families; I’m just, unfortunately, a hermit.
That’s when the therapist encouraged me to voice my opinion. I calmly explained how I to prefer to pop in and pop out (“Great to see you. Would you look at how those kids have grown! Alright then, best be on my way.”), but it wasn’t enough. This guy wanted to see a brawl.
“This isn’t messy enough. Say something messy, Benson.”
Poor Benson. He never did manage to display the mess the therapist desired. We were volunteer failures. This was what I got for volunteering with selfish motives. But in the end, two things happened. First, we ended up with a list of possible “wins” for our situation written on a giant notepad for the audience to see, things like playing Scrabble as a family since word games make me feel more grounded. And afterward, several couples approached us in the parking lot and thanked us for the vulnerability, saying they deal with the same issue.
All this to say, while your work is important, you might get some things out of volunteering that you won’t expect. I sure did (and no, I’m not talking about that ridiculous stuffed bear).
Christina Ledbetter is a free-lance writer in Houston. She also writes at www.JustTheAssistant.com.