Kuntu Repertory Theatre to close after four decades

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VERNELL LILLIE

 

By Genea L. Webb

For New Pittsburgh Courier

After 40 years on the scene Kuntu Repertory Theatre, the oldest and largest African-American performing Arts Center in Pittsburgh, is closing its doors.

“We don’t have the money to continue,” said Kuntu’s founder and Artistic Director, Vernell A. Lillie, 81. “It’s expensive to put on productions-we need at least $4,000 to pay the actors and then you have to figure in the set designers, the crew and the royalties to the playwrights that we have to pay —and we don’t have money to cover advertising so we weren’t getting the audiences.

“If you compare Black theater to White theater, they have great funders and I haven’t had any Black funders coming forward to help Kuntu.

Kuntu Repertory Theatre was formed in 1974 by Lillie—who at the time worked as an associate professor in Pitt’s school of Africana Studies–as a way for her to showcase work written by then-up-and-coming playwright Rob Penny.

Its mission is to look at Black life from a historical and sociopolitical angle and to educate and entertain and move the actors and audience to social action. It exists to preserve, create and present the history, legacy and dreams of Africans throughout the Diaspora.

Kuntu is a word from the Bantu language, which is the native tongue of people in Central and West Africa. It combines the features of music, words and dance as a single art entity.

Kuntu Repertory Theatre did that and more.

The theater’s first production was Penny’s “Little Willie Armstrong Jones.” Kuntu quickly expanded to three major productions a year. It also produced 10 off-campus productions.

It has garnered numerous awards throughout the years including People’s Choice and Onyx Awards from the African American Council of Theatre.

 The theater was a staple part of the University of Pittsburgh’s Africana Studies Department through the 2010-2011season. It was the second oldest African-American theater company to be affiliated with a major university.

Kuntu helped launch the careers of many of the Steel City’s Black actors and actresses and playwrights including Sala Udin, August Wilson and Mark Southers. 

Wilson, Penny and poet Maisha Baton created the Kuntu Writer’s Workshop to help Black scribes with publication and production.

“In the early days we didn’t have problems with audiences and funding. Kuntu didn’t pay the performers that we had,” said Lillie who was born in Houston. “We had people who didn’t ask for money. They could act and they loved what they did.

“We had fun times and we had Pitt’s resources and there were kids in my classes that acted in the plays. We had a lot of fun and we really had a staff.”

Due to funding cuts at the University of Pittsburgh, the 2012 season found Kuntu in a new home at the Homewood branch of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.

Lillie said she hoped the theater would attract the library patrons to its productions but that was not the case. The loss of audiences led to a loss in revenue, forcing Lillie to sell some of the property she inherited from her paternal grandfather to keep Kuntu afloat.

“If I didn’t sell property that my grandfather left I couldn’t have survived this long. I didn’t sell all of the property, but when I was selling the last piece, I decided I wanted to leave something to my children and two grandchildren,” she said.

Lillie said Black theatergoers should not fret because there is still great Black theater in the city thanks to the Playwrights Theater, which is headed by Southers and New Horizon Theater, which is chaired by Joyce Meggerson-Moore.

“Times move on,” Lillie said. “I thought about passing Kuntu on to someone else, but young people don’t have the resources.”

Kuntu will present its final play, “Good Black Don’t Crack” by Rob Penny May 9-18. .

Anyone interested in purchasing tickets can call 412- 559-7114 or can send an email to

kunturepertorytheatre@gmail.com

Tickets are $20 for adults while discounts are available for groups, seniors and students.

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