New goals for the Martin Luther King Jr. Theatre Project
It’s become a tradition. As soon as New Year’s Day fades, we turn our attention to California Musical Theatre’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Theatre Project production, one of January’s main theatrical events. But this year things will be different.
It all started in the early 1990s, when late Sacramento City Councilman Sam Pannell challenged the management of California Musical Theatre—producers of the Music Circus and the Broadway Series—to do something involving the region’s African-American community. The Martin Luther King Jr. Theatre Project was born.
During its early years, the program brought shows featuring New York performers (including a few Tony Award winners) into Sacramento. The project’s emphasis shifted in the late ’90s to staging locally produced shows and helping to develop talent in our region. Another shift came in 2003, when the project commissioned a new piece, Keeping the Dream Alive, which included a gospel choir, dance and spoken word. That led to And the Dream Goes On!, a very popular original show that was developed over the past three seasons.
Now the focus—and the project’s slot in the calendar—is changing once again. “We are collaborating with the Sons/Ancestors Players at Sacramento State University,” said Scott Eckern, artistic director for California Musical Theatre. Sons/Ancestors was once a well-regarded training ground for young African-American actors, and sent several graduates to professional careers in other cities.
“The MLK Project is committed to telling stories about the African-American experience, or stories created by African-American artists. Sons/Ancestors has the same goal,” Eckern explained. “So we’re not shifting our goal, just changing the way we go about it.”
California Musical Theatre put some of its resources behind last November’s lustrous CSUS production of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, directed by Melinda Wilson. A CSUS faculty member, Wilson is also the adviser to Sons/Ancestors, with the goal of rebuilding the program.
California Musical Theatre also will help with the upcoming spring production of a week’s worth of plays from Suzan-Lori Parks’ 365 Days, 365 Plays series. The Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist wrote a play for each day of the year; some are very short, other run several pages.
“We’re still working out the details with Melinda Wilson,” Eckern said. “The plays are also being presented in many other cities, by the Public Theater in New York, and also by theater companies in San Francisco and Atlanta, and at several universities. It’s pretty cool.” The plays will be staged locally in late April or early May.
Eckern noted that several artists who gained experience through their involvement in the MLK Theatre Project over the last four or five years have embarked on new efforts. Anthony D’Juan, who wrote Keeping the Dream Alive and co-authored And The Dream Goes On!, has joined Actors’ Equity and has become a member of the B Street Theatre’s acting company. D’Juan also wrote a play about Jackie Robinson for the Children’s Theatre of California last year. Lisa Tarrer-Lacy and Charles Cooper (co-author/director and composer, respectively, for And the Dream Goes On!), have launched Images Theater Company, which staged the musical Evangelize! last year.
Eckern said the relationship between California Musical Theatre and Sons/Ancestors is still evolving. “Each year will be different. … In time, there will be an opportunity to develop more new works, as well as these artists. It’s only limited by our imagination, in terms of where we go. Melinda’s got some great goals and great passion, and we’re excited about being a part of that.
“It ties into one of our goals as an organization, which is to nurture aspiring artists,” Eckern said. “And I can’t think of a better place to do that than as part of their education.”