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At a crossroads 

Outlook uncertain for African-American theater in Atlanta

Freddie Hendricks remembers being dazzled by the opportunities for African-American performers when he began acting in Atlanta in the late 1970s.

"Maybe it's because I was young then, but I felt like a country kid going to New York City for the first time. It seemed so vast," recalls the artistic director of Youth Ensemble Atlanta. "Jomandi had just started, and there was Just Us Theater, Walter Dallas' Proposition Theatre, Afemo and Elizabeth Omilami's People's Survival Theater. It was easy to get good work and good training then."

In the year 2001, it's a very different environment.

"There's not as many places you can go as an actor now," he says, noting the state of transition in Atlanta's African-American theater community. Many Atlanta theaters will cast black actors or stage work by black playwrights, with two of 2001's highest profile plays being 7 Stages' Sweat and Actor's Express' The America Play. But two prominent playhouses currently are seeking to replace African-American artistic directors. Kenny Leon is finishing his final season as artistic director of the Alliance Theater, while Jomandi, the largest African-American theater in the Southeast, tries to withstand financial difficulties and a severe leadership drain.

"We're not dead, contrary to popular belief," says Greg Stevens, Jomandi's interim general manager. "If you can make the analogy of a swimmer drowning, our head's below water but our nose is above. Losing our artistic directors has been a stumbling block, but we're looking for positive things."

Earlier this year, Artistic Director Marsha Jackson-Randolph left the playhouse to join the Houston Ensemble Theater, while in 2000, Jomandi co-founder and producing director Thomas W. Jones stepped down to form the production company Visionary Innovative Alliances. Those departures came amid debt problems that have caused Jomandi to cancel or postpone several shows in the past two seasons.

Jomandi's crises have coincided with troubles besetting New Jersey's Tony Award-winning Crossroads Theatre, one of America's major African-American theater companies, which closed its doors and canceled its 23rd season last October. "It's eye-opening that Crossroads Theater in New Jersey and Jomandi have been going through their problems at the same time, but you have other African-American theaters nationwide that are doing well," says Kenny Leon. (Crossroads recently has received grants that may revive the company.)

Leon adds, "There's very little room for failure for an African-American theater in Atlanta. You can't have two to three bad seasons in a row, or miscommunications with the community, or productions on different levels of quality. You have to have consistent material and constant communication with the community."

Stevens points to signs of life with Jomandi producing a kind of "double feature" for Women's History Month. Karen Jones Meadows' Harriet's Return, performed by Denise Burse-Fernandez, offers a one-woman show about Harriet Tubman March 14-17, while Welcome Home, Marian Anderson stars Vanessa Shaw as the famed opera singer March 21-25. Both shows will be held at the 14th Street Playhouse.

A member of Jomandi's board of directors since the theater began in 1978, Stevens says, "Financially, we're in debt -- not as much as three months ago, but we're still working to pull out of it." He estimates that debt to be about $170,000.

He hopes the theater can bring in former Atlantan actor/director Andrea Frye as acting artistic director during the search. Candidates for a permanent artistic director include Carol Mitchell-Leon, Byron Saunders, formerly of Just Us Theater, Edward Smith of Wayne State University and Georgia State professors A. Clifton Myles and Shirlene Holmes. "I'll be looking at the shows from the standpoint of ticket sales and getting people in the seats, keeping the business end going, while the artistic director will focus on that as well as the theater's creative vision. Our year runs from July to June, and hopefully by April 1, we'll have an artistic director in place "

The Alliance Theater is expected to name Leon's replacement as artistic director any day now, and reportedly an African-American is one among several candidates. "With my transition, I don't know exactly how the Alliance will react," says Leon. "I know over the past year we've been talking a lot about the importance of diversity, but the actions will speak louder than words."

Leon asserts that his 11 years as the Alliance's artistic director saw an expansion of the African-American theater audience and a greater appreciation of African-American plays. "At the Alliance, what's happened is that African-Americans would come in just for the plays by African-Americans, the August Wilsons and the Pearl Cleages. But they've been coming back to see more work by a variety of playwrights, the Shakespeares and the Ibsens. African-Americans went from being 1 to 2 percent of our subscriber base to up to 20 percent. That's a tremendous sense of pride for me, that a group that didn't feel welcome at the Woodruff Arts Center institutions now gives them so much more support."

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