Curtain falls on Pittsburgh's Kuntu Repertory Theatre
April 24, 2013 4:00 AM
Vernell Lillie and the late Rob Penny in a 1975 photo shortly after they founded the Kuntu Repertory Theatre.
Vernell Lillie, in a 2008 photo: "Black theater in Pittsburgh will be fine."
By Mackenzie Carpenter Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Kuntu Repertory Theatre, the city's oldest African-American theater company, has ended its nearly 40-year run. But thanks to founder Vernell Lillie's great-grandfather Ernest Linwood Watson, a Choctaw Cherokee Indian, it lasted a lot longer than it would have.
"I inherited some property in Texas from my great-grandfather, and I sold 46 acres to finance the last few plays," said Ms. Lillie, 81, who talked Tuesday about her decision to finally close the company she started in 1974, after she was hired as an associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh.
She'd tried to keep Kuntu going after retiring two years ago as professor emeritus in Pitt's Africana Studies Department, "but it just got too expensive," she said, noting that after her retirement, she could no longer use Pitt's facilities. She moved productions to the Carnegie Library's Homewood branch two years ago, producing three plays last season but to smaller audiences.
While there was talk of a final production of "Good Black Don't Crack," by her great friend and favorite playwright, the late Rob Penny, Ms. Lillie said she'd decided not to go ahead with it.
"It's been a long time, a hard struggle, and I have to face reality."
Other leaders in the black theater community expressed dismay but not surprise at Ms. Lillie's decision.
"She was the queen mother of black theater in this city," said Sala Udin, a former city council member, community activist and professional actor who performed in Kuntu's plays, which received support from the Heinz Endowments and the Regional Asset District over the years. But all the scrounging for funds was taking its toll, "and she was getting tired, I think."
Kuntu's earliest supporters included Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson, who founded a company in 1968 called Black Horizon with Mr. Udin and Mr. Penny.
"Some people thought Kuntu wasn't professional because it primarily used students as acting and directing personnel, but the fact that it was student-based allowed the company to take advantage of Pitt's resources and thrive."
"We were really glad when she was hired by Pitt and set up Kuntu," he added, "because Black Horizon was killing us. We'd been paying for its productions out of our own pockets."
Her affiliation with Pitt was a godsend, Ms. Lillie said. While the university didn't finance the company -- she lived off her teaching salary and relied on donors and that land in Texas -- they gave her free space, an all-too-precious commodity for theater companies.
She first used Pitt's Stephen Foster Memorial Theater and then its Alumni Hall auditorium for performances, with students, professional actors and members of the community.
Kuntu is a word used in the African Bantu language for music, dance and other artistic endeavors, and during its long, vibrant existence, Kuntu produced plays not just by familiar names such as Wilson or Lorraine Hansberry, but by relatively unknown black playwrights.
"I got tired of everyone doing Lorraine Hansberry, Langston Hughes, but I did bring Esther Rolle in to do 'Raisin in the Sun' (1984), which was really something," she said.
A number of successful black theater professionals got their start under Ms. Lillie, including Montae Russell, a nationally known black actor who started with Kuntu as a teenager and went on to a long run on television's "ER," and in August Wilson's plays, in Pittsburgh, on Broadway and beyond.
And Mr. Penny -- a Pitt professor who had mentored the younger Mr. Wilson -- had 10 of his plays produced on the Kuntu stage.
"Here was this kid who grew up in the projects in the Hill, but his view of black life and women showed such a beauty of language," Ms. Lillie said.
When a student walked in one day with a copy of Mr. Penny's "Little Willie Armstrong Jones," "I thought, this is the most fabulous play, period."
With Kuntu's demise, two other companies remain in Pittsburgh whose main repertory consists of black playwrights -- the New Horizon Theatre and Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre.
Mark Southers, founder of Pittsburgh Playwrights, got his start at Kuntu, he said, first as their in-house photographer and then as an actor.
"I did over a dozen plays with them. They produced one of my plays, 'Ashes to Africa.' I've directed for them; built sets for them. That was my training ground. She was a giving person, adamant about folks giving their best and being prepared."
"With the loss of Kuntu, that's one less venue for young black actors to learn their craft. We all worked together to put on plays," said Joyce Meggerson-Moore, chair of the board of directors at New Horizon.
"Black theater in Pittsburgh will be fine," countered Ms. Lillie, adding that she derived particular satisfaction from helping young students move through the pipeline to professional theater positions. "Listen, I think I got about five Ph.D's who started at Kuntu."
"You've still got Mark here. Joyce is going to be all right. This is not sad. I had a good run."