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Black Repertory bounces back in South Berkeley

Saturday April 20, 2002

By Chris Nichols 

Special to the Daily Planet 


With smiles on their faces and culture all around, members of Berkeley’s Black Repertory Group use theater as a tool in constructing a better community. "The theater is used as a means to uplift the individual and in turn uplift the community," said Mona Vaughn Scott, Executive Director of BRG. 

Started as a drama program at Downs Memorial United Methodist Church in 1964, BRG is the oldest African-American theater group west of the Mississippi. 

Though founder Nora Vaughn never envisioned BRG as a professional theater, the repertory group has produced over 100 plays by such African-American writers as Langston Hughes, Charlie Fuller and Ishmael Reed since being launched as a community theater in 1967. 

BRG lists as its purpose to facilitate personal development and self-esteem using theater as a tool and to encourage an awareness of and encourage Black Culture by providing an outline through Black Theatre. 

Vaughn Scott emphasizes that BRG is also committed to encouraging youth involvement in theater productions. The group speaks to local high schools and provides on the job training and internships to local youth interested in theater. 

According to BRG, young people and the youth workshops have always been at the heart of the theater’s mission. The theater has been the starting ground for the careers of many black actors in the Bay Area. 

Throughout its history, BRG has also been committed to cutting-edge social, cultural and health issues through its Health Education Through Theatre program. BRG was one of the first theater groups to sponsor a group of HIV-positive actors as well as taking on such issues as teen pregnancy, violence and delinquency prevention, and adolescent hypertension. 

Despite the cultural significance of the repertory group, in the past some community members and city officials have been critical of BRG’s management and operations. A 1998 city audit concluded that the group was missing minutes for meetings, lacked time cards and had board policies that were inconsistent with other publicly-funded organizations. 

BRG had also been criticized by other theater groups for not fully utilizing its current facilities – leased to the group by the city at $1 per year – and for attracting only sparse crowds to its 250 seat theater. 

According to Mayor Shirley Dean, the repertory group has moved past these problems. "I think they’ve made considerable progress," said Dean. "The audit didn’t find any serious financial problems, mostly things like missing minutes and time cards." 

Critics claimed BRG’s Board was made up predominantly of family members of Vaughn and did not include enough members of the community. "It’s my belief that all of these issues have been cleared up, the board has now been expanded." 

According to Dean, the City of Berkeley has worked to strengthen and preserve the theater’s place among community members. "It has roots in this community that are irreplaceable," said Dean. 

Many were afraid that after the death of founder and director Vaughn the theater’s success and strength might diminish due to internal problems. "Nora wasn’t able to be as strong a voice as she got older, they got into some tangles and people feared that Nora’s vision had disappeared," said Dean. 

Dean said that the theater group has made great strides in eliminating this fear and continues to enrich the lives of individuals and the community itself. 

Currently, BRG is presenting "In Search of a Legend," a tribute to Josephine Baker, written and conceived by Johnny Land. Producer Al Yates said he looked to BRG to take on this presentation because he "knew they would be open and welcome to a show of this type." 

Yates said the show was not picked up by other theaters but that BRG has given it a chance. "It’s a universal story and it’s being told that way," said Yates. 

Yates said that BRG Director Mona Vaughn Scott, daughter of founder Nora Vaughn, has been very receptive to the show. 

Land, a foremost historian on the life of Baker, said each show has sold out and received standing ovations. "The word of mouth has been great, the word is getting out mostly through fliers and the invitation of personal friends," said Land. 

"In Search of a Legend," the musical story of a little black girl from St. Louis who took Paris by storm, will run at BRG through Sunday, April 28. Land and Yates hope to extend the run of the musical at BRG or take it to a new location after April 28. 

Land and Yates also hope to continue with their "Sassy Diva" cabaret show and are pushing for a university circuit tour. 

The Berkeley Repertory Group theater is located at 3201 Adeline St. The phone number for tickets is 510-652-2120.