COMPANY HISTORY

Unity Theatre Ensemble, originally named the Kutana Players, began as a graduate assistantship project for Ralph E. Greene at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale in the fall of 1971 to provide performance opportunities for African American theater majors, who until that time could only play the stereotypical walk on roles of butlers and maids. Within a few months, assisted by co-founding director, Johnny Lee Davenport (now a prominent actor of stage and screen), Greene developed a talented nucleus of twelve African-American theater majors (graduate and undergraduate) through audition. This company of actors received academic practicum credits to perform a season of productions and to tour the Midwest college/university circuit during the traditional black history month. The success of the project led to an opportunity for the company to mount a major production as a part of the SIUC theater department’s main stage series. The nucleus of the company grew from twelve to a base of twenty actors and technicians who built a reputation of performance excellence and professionalism.

     In 1974, Greene served as stage manager for the theater and music department collaborative production of Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha. The guest director, Miss Katherine Dunham, impressed by his professionalism and talent, invited Greene to come and develop the theater component at the Performing Arts Training Center at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, East St. Louis Center. The company of actors and technicians, devoted to Kutana Players, also decided to make the move to East St. Louis. Several, who were still students, transferred to the Edwardsville Campus to complete their degrees.

     Despite the challenges, Greene, Harmon and the Kutana Players created a thriving theater presence at the SIUE East St. Louis campus and in the East St. Louis community; teaching classes and workshops to SIUE students, community adults, youth and senior citizens.

     In September 1979, consistent with the evolving philosophy and progressive ideas of the artistic director; the company’s name was changed from Kutana Players (Kutana is Swahili for “coming together”) to Unity Ensemble and eventually in 1984 to Unity Theatre Ensemble so as not to be confused with a music ensemble discovered to be known by the same name.

     From September 1974 thru December 1995, Unity Theatre Ensemble remained the Resident Theatre Company at the Katherine Dunham Center for the Performing Arts (KDCPA) at SIUE, annually presenting a local production season and a touring repertoire to colleges, universities, and civic events.

     When the university decided to shift the focus of KDCPA and abruptly halted Unity Theatre Ensemble’s 1995 performance season, Ralph Greene and Bonnie Harmon resigned their positions with the university and Unity Theatre Ensemble moved to St. Louis and eventually became resident theater company at Greeley’s 23rd Street Theater in February 1996. The company remained there until Greeley closed its doors at the end of the 2002 season.

     Unity Theatre Ensemble had been chosen to become one of the St. Louis theater companies to be resident at the newly proposed “Loop Theater” (in the Delmar Loop) that was scheduled to open in the fall 2002. However, the vacant building chosen for the theater proved to be an unstable structure for renovation and the proposed theater facility project was abandoned. This unexpected change forced UTE to find other venues in St. Louis and St. Louis County to mount productions while in the search for a resident home.

     The 2003 season was presented at the St. Louis Bibleway Church auditorium in Pagedale, Missouri but by the end of spring production run, Greene and Harmon exhausted of the constant struggles, challenges and opposition to do quality theater, became discouraged and decided that their would call it quits.

     However, divine intervention prevailed, and during August of 2003, UTE was showcased at the 14th Bi-Annual National Black Theatre Festival, for six performances of its adaptation of Terry McMillan’s Mama at the North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

     On August 5, 2004, Unity Theatre Ensemble received the Black Theatre Network’s “Path Finder” Award, along with Karamu House (the oldest African American Theater company in the country), for persevering and keeping the legacy of the African American Theater alive through performance at their national conference at Kent State University, Ohio.

     2004 thru 2008 season productions were presented at The Ann MacDonald Family Center in Florissant, Missouri, the St. Louis Regional Arts Commission Studio and the Des Lee Auditorium in conjunction with the Missouri History Museum as co-sponsor. Then, informed about a theater facility in south St. Louis, after discussion and negotiation with the venue’s manager director, Unity Theatre Ensemble presented its first production at the Ivory Theatre and considered it a permanent home until the close of its last production in October 2012.

     The theme used for the 30th anniversary season in 2001 was inspired by the television show, Survivor. It was called “Unity Theatre Ensemble, A True Survivor, “Surviving Against The Odds”. This theme greatly summarizes the company’s legacy up to now. First and foremost, in order to survive there always has to be a passion for the theater and its possibilities to speak to our people first and to others who wish to listen.  For us, our evolving philosophy of theater is that: 1) if people sit in the audience for 90 minutes to two hours, they should walk away with something that uplifts and inspires them to improve and to do more; and 2) that true art comes from within, the performing artist is an instrument, a channel obligated to deliver message and an experience to the audience that is authentic and sincere.

     We encourage those of you who may be experiencing similar challenges that we have survived, to look at your purpose, evaluate it, and consider: “Why are you REALLY spending time and energy to do theater?”  Your answer will determine whether you will fall by the wayside or continue to survive.   If you love the theater and the truth that it should represent, we admonish you to persevere, for “the race is not given to the swift but to him who holdeth out until the end.” 

     Despite the struggles to survive and make a difference, Unity Theatre Ensemble has always been a company focused on now, shaping its messages with a critical eye towards developing real individuals who have a commitment to life and how to live it…to love and how to prove it...and to humanity and how to best serve it.

 

 

 

 

© Unity Theatre Ensemble 2017