By Phil James
The Black Repertory Group, a community theater initiative based in Berkeley, is currently halfway into its production run of Langston Hughes’ Mulatto: A Play for the Deep South, a play about a black mother and her children torn apart by her uncivil union with a Georgia plantation owner.
The play is one of many significant works by Hughes who, among other things, was a pioneer of black literature and a leader of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. Set in 1935, Mulatto focuses on Cora, the mistress of an abusive plantation owner in the Jim Crow-era South. With mixed-race children, Cora’s children must deal with the reality of having a “neither-nor” identity — that is, being neither fully black nor fully white.
But for Sean Vaughn Scott, the owner and artistic director of the Black Repertory Group, the production is about far more than educational entertainment. Far from being a leisurely side-project, the play brings together a diverse tapestry of actors old and young who use performance as a way to mend personal and social problems.
That’s why the plays of Langston Hughes, James Baldwin and Lorraine Hansberry are meaningful in more ways than one. The history of the Black Repertory Group is grounded in the very social and racial struggles that prompted black theatre to flourish in the first place.
Before they moved to Berkeley, Scott’s grandparents and his mother lived in Vicksburg, Mississippi, a city famed for its decisive Civil War battle, and in the years following the confederate defeat, for its large Ku Klux Klan membership.
When Nora Belle Vaughn and her husband, Birel L. Vaughn, were attacked in their home for the third time, they made a pledge to leave Mississippi once and for all. As college-educated teachers who learned theater from a young age, they made one promise: to continue spreading their message through the stage.
Today, the Black Repertory Group is located at 3210 Adeline near the Berkeley/Oakland border in a lavender-colored building. As a staple of the community for more than 50 years, its opening in 1964 coincided with the blossoming of Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement. In fact, Scott says the reason his family moved to Berkeley was for its progressive reputation. “They migrated here because of its history of providing a place for people to speak and to teach,” he said.
Before they established the theater, his grandparents opened the nearby Down’s Methodist Church, but Nora Vaughn was soon kicked out for wanting to produce mainstream black theatre. “She always said she ‘spun’ out from the church,” said Scott. “Later I realized she was kicked out.”
On Nora’s 40th birthday, Birel L. Vaughn surprised her by buying a storefront on Alcatraz, where they had a permanent spot to produce theater. But after the fire department deemed the venue as violating the fire code, they were forced to close up shop and reopen elsewhere.
In 1987, they chose a vacant community garden lot on Adeline to build the new theater. During that time, the community was struggling with the rise of crack cocaine and HIV, so they vied to reopen the theater with personal and social growth in mind. “Metaphorically speaking,” said Scott, the garden would take on a whole new life.
Mulatto aligns quite well with The Black Repertory Group’s vision for community healing through theater. Less of a racial polemic than a play of personal exploration, many of the play’s black characters long to be free from an identity they feel trapped in. Scott explained that many join the group because they feel just that.
“My grandmother basically saw theater as a way to change lives,” he said. “They came here we put them into small groups we had them write down what was the reason that they got in trouble, and the common factor was they didn’t have a male role model in their lives.”
The Black Repertory Group provides acting opportunities that are nothing short of rehabilitative. Grace Tuttle, one of the family’s daughters in the play, comes from the Center for Independent Living, located just down the street. During the summer, too, Scott hosts workshops for former convicts and community members on probation.
“When your family who you were doing wrong sees you on stage and they give you a round of applause,” said Scott, “the transformation is life-changing.”
That’s not to say that the theater lacks any artistic eminence. As a pillar of the black community in the Bay Area, it has hosted the early works of several local playwrights, including Ishmael Reed, winner of the MacArthur Fellowship and founder of PEN Oakland.
The play also coincides with Black History Month, something Carla Hardiman, the star of Mulatto, took to heart when she prepared for her role. Hardiman plays Cora, the mother of mixed-race children who sacrifices her freedom and wellbeing to give them a future. “I researched her and I researched that period,” she said.
Set in the 1930s on a cotton plantation, the play takes a hard look at what little had changed since the emancipation proclamation. While the black workers are technically free, they are forced to work hard labor for low pay in dehumanizing conditions. Mulatto examines the external forces and inner turmoil that hindered progress at the time.”I looked at the writings of Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Dubois,” said Hardiman. “They made me really want to do it right.”
Hardiman is a veteran of the Black Repertory Group, but Mulatto is her first play in years. She was only inspired to return after her daughter enrolled in the Group’s summer program, a workshop that teaches children the ins and outs of producing theater.
But Hardiman admits that the pleasure of being on stage is what’s most important to her. The production concludes with a riveting monologue from Hardiman that lasts over five minutes.
“I have a problem with accolades,” she told me after the play. “When I’m on that stage,I love the high that I get. I feel absolutely full.”
Mulatto runs Feb. 27 and 28 and March 1. Check out the Black Repertory Group’s website for upcoming showtimes.
Phil James is a student journalist enrolled in the Berkeley School of Journalism’s Masters’ program. He is also the lead editor of Qwiklit.com, an e-learning website focused on literature and the arts.
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