The Robey Theatre Company Marks Its 25th Anniversary With Pieces From the Past

This year’s Paul Robeson Theatre Festival will include a debut staged reading of the new work The Queen of Los Angeles, as well as restagings of scenes from Birdland Blue, Yohen, The Magnificent Dunbar Hotel (pictured) and other works from the company’s history.

For a quarter century, the Robey Theatre Company has been staging plays that examine the black experience in America. Now it is celebrating its 25th anniversary by revisiting past highlights, and also providing a first look at a new work developed in and based on Los Angeles.

This weekend, the Robey Theatre Company presents its third Paul Robeson Theatre Festival. It takes place on Friday-Sunday, Aug. 23-25, at the Los Angeles Theatre Center in the Historic Core.

Last year, the festival named for the performer and activist focused on works inspired by Harlem and its influence on Central Avenue, the historic and cultural hub of Los Angeles’ black community; the street had its heyday in the jazz age.

This year, the focus shifts to work the company has presented. The festival is titled “Awakening the Past, Present and Future: A Retrospective.”

“We have selected scenes from several of the past productions, some through archival tape, as well as recreating some of the productions live, in five- to eight-minute stagings,” said Ben Guillory, co-founder and producing artistic director of the company.

Before the jump to the past, the company is capitalizing on the present. Friday at 8 p.m. brings the first staged reading of The Queen of Los Angeles.

Written by Oscar Arguello, Kurt Maxey, Melvin Ishmael Johnson and Julie Taiwo Oni, the play has been in the works for two years. Directed by Bernadette Speakes, it is a drama that follows a woman with supernatural abilities over the course of more than a century around Southern California.

Although the play is fictional, the Robey Theatre Company spent months interviewing members of the Los Angeles African-American community about family history and their time in the city. The playwrights used elements from those conversations to inform and guide the work.

Queen of Los Angeles was shaped in house, according to DiSmith, the company’s office and theater manager. She added that it was developed through its creative workshops.

“Almost everyone that’s a part of this are people who came out of the acting workshops,” Smith said. “We intermingle with the playwrights lab. They learn, develop and grow from each other.”

To the Past

The Robey Theatre Company got its start in 1994, and was co-founded by Guillory and actor Danny Glover; the moniker came from a nickname for Robeson. The company regularly stages works at the LATC.

Some of those works will be revisited when the company restages or otherwise shows scenes from 20 past performances. That will be done rapid fire, with quick transitions, according to Smith.

The goal, she added, is not to re-create plays from the past, but to emphasize the power of the text and the actors’ ability to bring the drama to life.

Performances are on Saturday at 2 and 7 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. The scenes come from works such as Philip Kan Gotanda’s Yohen, Randy Moss’ Birdland Blue, Clare Coss’ Dr. DuBois and Miss Ovington, and Tim Toyama and Aaron Woolfolk’s Bronzeville. The works will be backed by live music.

In some cases, certain actors wanted to reprise roles but could not make it to Downtown this weekend, so the performances will feature archive video. Guillory will direct a few of the live scenes and act in some others.

Guillory and Smith acknowledged that after a quarter century, it was hard to narrow down which plays to select for the festival. They ultimately chose works that they felt best exemplified the black experience, and have a strong social commentary.

“It’s about what the Robey Theatre is about. Paul Robeson, his social consciousness guides the theater company’s choices in everything we do,” Guillory said. “That may sound like getting on a soapbox, but boy do we avoid that. It needs to have a social consciousness, but it needs to be theater.”

He pointed to Levy Lee Simon’s The Magnificent Dunbar Hotel, which has a strong comedic streak. He also mentioned Birdland Blue, which the company recently staged. The play is not a musical, Guillory said, but since it deals with Miles Davis and John Coltrane, it uses a lot of music.

“I wish we could do everything with this festival, but there’s only so much time,” he added.

There’s another element of the festival. On Sunday at 12:30 p.m., there will be a discussion that explores the current state of black-focused theater in Los Angeles and what themes playwrights are exploring. The event is free, but a reservation is required.

The Paul Robeson Festival is Friday-Sunday, Aug. 23-25, at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, 514 S. Spring St. or robeytheatrecompany.org.

nicholas@downtownnews.com