Kuntu splits from Pitt

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<!–IMAGE images/stories/_entertainment/2011/11_2011/11-30-11/VernellLillierot.jpg IMAGE–>Despite a move from the University of Pittsburgh campus and a cutback in funding, Kuntu Repertory Theatre is still providing the African-American community with the works and voices of some of the greatest Black playwrights.

“Our productions are now being held at the Homewood Brushton Library,” said Dr. Vernell Lillie, 80, founder and artistic director of Kuntu Repertory Theater. “We thought how wonderful it is to be in a specific neighborhood. The library is wonderful. It has 350 seats and they redid the auditorium and the sound system. It’s nice.”

VernellLillie
DR. VERNELL LILLIE

Kuntu, which has been a fixture on the Pitt campus since its inception in 1974, moved from the university landscape in August due to funding cuts from its sponsors including the PA Council on the Arts, the Pittsburgh Foundation, the Heinz Endowment and the Regional Asset District.

“Since moving out of the university, we have stored some things at Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre and sets are being built in my garage. We haven’t found a permanent home yet. We’re trying to negotiate with the city and writing proposals to find a place to buy. We’re struggling through,” Lillie said.

According to Lillie, the ideal spot for the theater would be one that has office space, space for training in dance and training for children and a space that has a 200 to 230-seat theater—all at a reasonable price.

Until that time, the theater is still producing top-quality work and showing it at the library.

Kuntu Repertory Theater has a year-long contract with the Homewood Brushton Library, which is located at 7101 Hamilton Ave.

Before choosing the library as its temporary home, Lillie said she looked at properties around the Hill District and other places in Homewood but she decided on the library because of its sentimental value.

“Playwright Rob Penny and August Wilson and I used to meet at the library on Saturdays when they were struggling playwrights,” Lillie said.

Kuntu’s 37th season will be continuing with productions penned by Penny, Wilson and Frank Hightower.

“I have a unique voice comprised of August Wilson, Rob Penny and those who I thought put aside the stereotypical roles and presented theater that showed how Black folks really are. People like to see themselves in theater,” Lillie said.

The season opened with “Little Willie Armstrong Jones,” which was penned by Penny who was a poet, Black Nationalist, University of Pittsburgh Professor who died in 2003 at the age of 62. He was also co-founder of Kuntu Repertory Theatre and served as its Playwright-in-Residence for years. Prior to this year’s season opener, “Little Willie Armstrong Jones” was staged by Kuntu in 1994 and 2005.

It will continue with August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” which will run from Jan. 19- Feb. 4.

The play was written in 1982 and is one of Wilson’s ten-play Pittsburgh Cycle installments, even though it was set in Chicago. “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” tells the story of the African-American experience in the twentieth century through race, art, religion and the exploitation of Black recording artists by White producers.

Kuntu’s season will roll along with Frank Hightower’s “The House that Carol Built,” from March 15-31. The production focuses on a Black mother who faces the challenges of raising three children—one of which has autism. Hightower was an original member of the Black Horizon Theatre and the Kuntu Writers Workshop. For six years (from 2003 to 2009) Hightower worked with poets to continue the legacy of the Kuntu Workshop. “The House That Carol Built” was performed during Kuntu’s 2010-2011 season.

The season will end with the racially charged “Happy Endings/A Day of Absence,” from May 3-19. It is two plays written by Douglas Turner Ward that scored him a Drama Desk Award debuted at St. Marks Playhouse in 1965 and ran for 504 performances. It tells the tale of a small southern town where its Black population disappears. The Black actors play their roles in whiteface and one White actress portrays a patronizing Southern reporter.

“The play is a satire and I’ve never really directed anything like it,” Lillie said. “I felt that if I’m going out, I may as well do something different.”

Despite the monetary and location hurdles, Lillie is hopeful that Kuntu Repertory Theatre will remain in Pittsburgh.

Lillie says if the company is lucky enough to remain in Pittsburgh, next season will consist of work written by young, unpublished writers.

“I’m ready to expand my world. It would be a loss to Pittsburgh to lose Kuntu. I’ve seen the total emergence of August Wilson and Rob Penny and that’s too much history to let go. These playwrights captured the essence of the streets. It was a wonderful experience working with them in every sense of the word,” Lillie said.

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