By Darlene Donloe
LOS ANGELES — The joint was supposed to be jumpin’May 6, when the Ebony Repertory Theatre planned to celebrate its 15th anniversary with a high-energy, season-opening production of the Fats Waller musical, “Ain’t Misbehavin.”
Those plans got put on hold this week when the opening week of “Ain’t Misbehain’” was postponed after a member of the company tested positive for COVID. The show, which was scheduled to open May 4, will open instead May 13.
Directed by Ebony Repertory Theatre Co-Founder and Producing Artistic Director Wren T. Brown, the Tony Award-winning show is a musical tribute to Waller, the international jazz pianist whose passion for pleasure and play helped create and define American swing.
The production features Yvette Cason, Wilkie Ferguson III, Connie Jackson, Mary Austin Lamar and Natalie Wachen performing the hit songs “Honeysuckle Rose,” “Your Feet’s Too Big,” “Black and Blue,” “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter,” “The Jitterbug Waltz” and the title song, “Ain’t Misbehavin’.”
“In 2022, I had the good fortune of directing the Tony Award-winning musical revue, ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’’ at the Rubicon Theatre,” Brown said. “As the rehearsal process was developing, I kept thinking of how much our audience at Ebony Repertory Theatre would love the show, and how beautifully the production would sit on our stage at the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center.
“Celebrating the genius of Thomas “Fats” Waller and his colleagues, this show is a recipe for a joyful experience. I feel greatly fortunate to have assembled an extraordinary group of actors, designers, and musicians to bring this wonderful property to life.”
After obtaining the articles of incorporation in June 2007, Brown and his co-founder, the late Israel Hicks, formerly took over the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center in February 2008. August Wilson’s “Two Trains Running” marked the debut of the Ebony Repertory Theatre’s residency at the Holden Performing Arts Center. At the time, Brown, the venerable actor and theater executive, grabbed the reins with a clear set of goals he is proud to have met.
“One of the goals was to be sustained 15 years later,” he said. “It was never about a quick moment. It was always about the marathon. It was to be around and fill a void, where, in a vertical way, Black people were preparing and producing work from a culturally specific perspective. We wanted to be authentically who we said we were.”
One of the theater’s biggest champions, Brown wears his enthusiasm for the arts on his sleeve. Undeterred by critics of his elevated determination for theatrical excellence, Brown, known for being a loquacious speaker and for his eloquent and articulate orations, is unapologetic when it comes to bringing quality entertainment to South Los Angeles.
“They deserve it,” said Brown who believes 15 years is a good start.
“Fifteen years brings joy to me,” he added. When you are functioning in the lane of something you have passion for, it makes the journey that much more enjoyable. We have been able to lean into something and it has been tremendous.”
Over the years the rich history of the resident theater company’s seminal productions has included “Two Trains Running,” “A Raisin in the Sun,” “Crowns,” “The Gospel at Colonus,” “Blues in the Night,” “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill,” “Five Guys Named Moe,” and more.
Brown who grew up in close proximity to the theater, feels a debt of gratitude for the many lessons his community taught him.
“When I took the helm and founded [the theater] in the community that raised me I felt a profound obligation, the best that my travels and my journey could bring to bear,” Brown said. “Our community has earned it. We earned the goods and services.”
Brown lived in the neighborhood when it still had small mom-and-pop stores.
“I wanted to artistically bring that component back,” he said. “The Ebony Showcase Theatre, The It Club, The Hillcrest Club, Tommy Tucker’s Playroom, and, of course, the Parisian Room. This was an artistic corridor and I wanted to bring the highest standard that we could achieve to this community. It’s something I feel it earned.”
As a producer and artistic director, and as one who puts together the plays, Brown, said his criteria for buoying specific scripts to be produced at Ebony Repertory Theatre “depends on the times.”
“As an African American professional theater company, you must give the audience properties they are aware of,” said Brown, who comes from a long line of talented performers. “That’s why we launched ourselves with August Wilson.
“One of the greatest plays in American theater history is ‘A Raisin in the Sun,’ and that’s a title that is also known in a very real way. As we are coming back from the pandemic, I really felt that our country, from a social perspective — with its 24-hour news cycle — bludgeons us. ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’ is a recipe for a joyful experience. It’s a vitally important property to bring to our audience now so they can have a feeling of escape.”
Although he’s immersed in the mounting of “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” Brown is presently writing a book on the artists in his family called, “The Family Business – 100 Years of an African American Family’s Theatrical Odyssey.”
“One of the things I’m doing is, I’m a fourth-generation performing artist,” Brown said. “I’m a part of the family business. I want people to know, that even within the arts, there can be a legacy. At the end of the day, I was valued when I moved into the arts. It was celebrated within my family. I never heard about having to have something to fall back on.”
Brown, a fourth-generation Angeleno, and also a fourth-generation performer, comes from a long line of talented performers, including his father, jazz trumpeter Troy Brown Jr., his paternal grandmother, Bertha McElroy (a dancer at the Cotton Club in New York City), and his paternal grandfather, actor-comedian Troy Brown Sr. (the fifth Black actor in Screen Actors Guild).
His maternal grandmother, Ruth Givens, was a torch singer and dancer (Cotton Club Los Angeles and movies) and his maternal grandfather, Lee Young Sr., was the first Black staff musician in Hollywood (Columbia Pictures 1946) and the drummer and musical director for Nat King Cole. His great-grandfather, Willis Handy Young, was a multi-instrumentalist, teacher and owner of his own vaudeville troupe at the turn of the 20th century (The New Orleans Strutters).
Now that the celebration for the first 15 years is in full swing, Brown is already preparing for the next 15.
“As I look toward the next 15 years, I would love for Black folks to recognize in an abundant fashion, the importance of having our own,” he said. “I’d like to find someone to succeed me who has the passion to carry it forward and put something in place, along with Gayle Hooks (the Ebony Repertory Theatre’s managing director), to celebrate 50 years. My hope is that Ebony Rep will still be functioning at its highest.”
“Ain’t Misbehavin’’ was conceived by Richard Maltby Jr. and Murray Horowitz with music by Fats Waller. The production originally opened in the Manhattan Theatre Club’s East 73rd Street cabaret on Feb. 8, 1978.
The musical opened on Broadway at the Longacre Theatre on May 9, 1978. Maltby was the director, with musical staging and choreography by Arthur Faria. The original Broadway cast featured Nell Carter, André DeShields, Armelia McQueen, Ken Page and Charlayne Woodard. “Ain’t Misbehavin’” was the recipient of three 1978 Tony Awards including Best Musical.
Ebony Repertory Theatre’s “Ain’t Misbehavin’” is choreographed by Dominique Kelley, with musical direction by William Foster McDaniel.
‘Ain’t Misbehavin’” appears at the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center, 4718 W. Washington Blvd., Los Angeles, Thursday through Sunday through May 28. Tickets, ranging from $35 to $55 are available at www.ebonyrep.org or 323-964-9766.
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Darlene Donloe is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers who covers South Los Angeles. She can be reached at email@example.com.