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Virginia Union University Theater Ensemble Promises a Safe Space For Black Actors

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Margarette Joyner didn’t set out to start a theater company. At 25, she was working at the Cultural Arts Center in Miami when a director asked if she acted. She didn’t, but he suggested she audition anyway. What he called natural, raw talent secured her the lead.

With no training, she spent the next 20 years on the road acting, singing and costuming shows before deciding she wanted to teach. A summer gig at the Santa Fe Opera led to a 2004 interview for a costumer position with Virginia Repertory’s Theatre IV. At the same time, she worked toward a master’s degree in theater pedagogy, graduating in 2011 and eventually taking a position as an adjunct teacher at Virginia Union University.

There, in the theater of the Belgian Building, she and partners Shalandas Wheeler and Stephanie Pope saw a void. They chose to fill it by creating Heritage Ensemble Theatre Company.

“I strongly believe no one can tell your story like you can,” Joyner says. “African-American actors don’t work nearly as much because there’s not as much out there for us. We’re providing a safe space for those actors to have steady work.”

Created a little more than a year ago, the fledgling company became artists-in-residence at the private university and co-produces two of the its annual productions, affording theater students an opportunity to work with professionals.

But VUU’s theological roots mean some plays aren’t suitable for campus. Joyner mentioned to Firehouse Theatre’s artistic director Joel Bassin how she always wanted to produce the 1976 classic, “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Wasn’t Enuf,” in repertory with the 1986 play written in response to it, “For Black Boys Who Have Considered Homicide When the Streets Were Too Much.”

Bassin was enthusiastic, offering his facility. The collaboration is in rehearsals, with the plays scheduled to run the first two weeks of March.

“It’s important to have representation in Richmond because at auditions you see an extreme amount of talented African-Americans fighting for the same few roles,” Wheeler says. “We need to be able to see all of the talent Richmond has to offer.”

Besides four main stage productions, Heritage does a summer staged reading series. It offers more exposure to black playwrights and provides opportunities for up-and-coming black directors. Last summer, it produced all four of award-winning playwright Emily Claudette Freeman’s work. “I love August Wilson, but he’s not the only black playwright,” Joyner says. “He’s just one wonderful writer.”

Acknowledging the same goal as every theater company in the world — “trying to get butts in seats” — the partners plan for an eclectic mix of traditional theater, new works, something for children and staged readings to build an audience. At $15 or less, ticket prices are among the lowest in town because Joyner prefers cheap tickets and a full house to empty seats.

“Our thing is, we’re going to keep doing what we do in our little backyard,” she says. “Hopefully that’ll be a platform for these African-American actors and a way for people to realize that ‘these folks got something.’ I do this because there’s a need, because I love the theater and why shouldn’t we work?”

In the meantime, Richmond Triangle Players is interested in collaborating. Down the road, goals include a freestanding building, a paid staff and classes and workshops to complement the season.

Having already directed “For Colored Girls” three times through the years, Joyner has turned over the reins to Shanea N. Taylor for this run. Still, she’s excited to see it again.

“It’s different every performance,” she says — “that’s the beauty of coming to live theater. You get to come on that journey with the actors that one time. After that, it’s gone.” S

“For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Wasn’t Enuf” runs March 3, 10 and 12 at 8 p.m., and March 5 at 4 p.m. “For Black Boys Who Have Considered Homicide When the Streets Were Too Much” runs March 4, 5 and 11 at 8 p.m., and March 12 at 4 p.m. at Firehouse Theatre, 1609 W. Broad St. Tickets are available at forcoloredgirlsrva.bpt.me and forblackboysrva.bpt.me.

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