COMPANY HISTORY

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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.

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     In 1974, Greene served as stage manager for the theater and music department collaborative production of Scott Joplin’s ragtime opera Treemonisha. The guest director for that production was the reknown dancer and anthropologist, Miss Katherine Dunham.  Impressed by his professionalism and talent, Miss Dunham 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 Afro American actors and technicians, devoted to Kutana Players, decided to follow Greene and Bonnie Harmon (his right hand assistant) to East St. Louis. Several, who were still students, transferred to the Edwardsville Campus of SIU to complete their degrees.

     Despite challenges over the years, 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.

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     When the new East St. Louis Centers administration decided to shift the focus of KDCPA and abruptly halted Unity Theatre Ensemble’s performances mid-season in December 1995, Ralph Greene and Bonnie Harmon resigned their positions with the university and moved Unity Theatre Ensemble as an independent company to St. Louis. In February 1996, UTE became the resident company at Greeley’s 23rd Street Theater (the former home of St. Louis Black Repertory Company). Unity Theatre Ensemble remained there until Greeley permanently closed its doors at the end of the production season in the spring of 2002.

     During 2001, Unity Theatre Ensemble had been selected to be one of the resident theater companies to share the newly proposed “Loop Theater” (in the Delmar Loop) that was scheduled to open in the fall 2002. However, the vacant church building chosen for the theater proved to be an unstable structure during the early stages of renovation and the proposed theater facility project was abandoned. This unexpected change forced UTE to seek out other venues in St. Louis and St. Louis County to mount productions while in the search for a new resident home.

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

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     However, divine intervention prevailed, and during August of 2003, UTE was invited by Leon Hamlin to the 14th Bi-Annual National Black Theatre Festival, to showcase six performances of its innovative adaptation of Terry McMillan’s first novel, Mama, at the North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The performances were well received and a highlight of the festival.

     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.

     Continuing the mission of theater, from 2004 thru 2008, Unity Theatre Ensemble presented productions 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 Greene became ill at the close of the October 2012 production and the company was forced to take a hiatus that lasted five years.

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     The theme used for its 30th anniversary season has been 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 a message and an experience to their audience that is authentic and sincere.

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.

     We encourage those of you who may be experiencing similar challenges that we have survived, to take a serious 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.”

 

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© Unity Theatre Ensemble 2018