A curtain falls: Kuntu Theatre was a bubbling lab for stage talent

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For four decades, Kuntu Repertory Theatre has been an invaluable local showcase for African-American playwrights and actors. Young actors seeking experience on stage that is difficult to come by anywhere else found a supportive mentor in the troupe's founder, Vernell Lillie.

Thanks to Kuntu, veteran actors were given opportunities to wrestle with material that reflected the highs and lows of their life experiences. The result was inspirational performances more times than not. No wonder late Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson was an early admirer of Ms. Lillie and her theater. Former Pittsburgh Councilman Sala Udin performed with Kuntu and the late Rob Penny's plays were brought to life on stage by Kuntu's dedicated actors.

That's why the news Tuesday that Ms. Lillie has closed Kuntu after a long run that began in 1974 at the University of Pittsburgh was disheartening. Ms. Lillie shut down the company because producing plays became too expensive after she lost access to stages and other resources at Pitt, where she was an associate professor before she retired two years ago. Ms. Lillie, 81, moved Kuntu to the Homewood Library at the same time. The troupe was welcomed into the neighborhood and supported with generous grants from the philanthropic community, but it never got the audiences it enjoyed at Pitt.

Ms. Lillie isn't feeling sorry for herself or the theater she led. For decades, audiences were entertained, careers were enhanced and writers, like Wilson, had a vehicle in which to workshop material with eager actors. Fortunately, there are two black-oriented theater companies in the wings -- the New Horizon Theater and Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre. That means Kuntu Repertory Theatre isn't leaving a void by closing, only big shoes that will be difficult to fill.

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