Jubilee kicks up its heels — too far? Buddy Myers
Tre Garrett has been artistic director of Jubilee Theatre for almost two and a half years now. He replaced Ed Smith, who served briefly as the first new artistic director since much-loved founder Rudy Eastman died unexpectedly in 2005. Garrett arguably faced his biggest test only this month, when the original musical that he commissioned,Black Spurs, had its world premiere. The show is a family-friendly look at cowboys of color in North Texas in the 1870s, focusing on one African-American cattle herder who falls in love and attempts to forge his own identity after his father’s tragic death.
Of course, the original musicals of writer-director Eastman and composers Douglas Balentine and, later, Joe Rogers are what put 32-year-old Jubilee Theatre on the map locally, regionally, and even nationally. Shows like Negroes in Space, Alice Wonder, and The Book of Job were critical hits and even bigger box-office smashes that helped establish an informal but tight-knit company of Jubilee star performers. Black Spurs, directed by Garrett with book by Celeste Bedford Walker and score by Ron Hasley, does feature one of the old-guard Jubilee stars, Robert Rouse, in a key role. But so far, reviews by North Texas stage critics have ranged from lukewarm to downright negative. When Garrett speaks about the “constructive criticism” his staging has received, his voice is energetic, frustrated, and a little protective of his reputation as the new creative leader at Jubilee.
“I wish people could see that this is not an easy process, that we’re trying to build something grand [withBlack Spurs],” Garrett said. “I’d call this show the first full production of a work-in-progress. The audiences who’ve come to see it are laughing and clapping, but I didn’t expect it to be a critical success at first. A show like this needs to be workshopped two or three times, and we absolutely plan to do that.”
Part of the problem, Garrett insists, was that the National Endowment for the Arts, which funded the development of Black Spurs with Jubilee’s first-ever NEA grant, required that the production be staged in the same calendar year as the money was awarded. The grant arrived in February. The artists and designers at Jubilee had originally planned to produce the show next summer but had to bump it up to December 2012 and work under punishing time restrictions. Garrett admits that he’s not fully satisfied with the current show, either, but he never intended it to be the final version.
It’s all part of the learning process for Garrett, who came to the artistic director gig as a national freelancer who always wanted to take risks. Mostly, those have paid off, with both critics and ticket-buyers enthusiastically greeting the non-traditional Jubilee fare he’s chosen, like Suzan-Lori Parks’ surreal comic drama Top Dog/Underdog, Charlayne Woodard’s one-woman, multi-character memory play Pretty Fire, and especially his mostly African-American recasting of Stephen Sondheim’s musical Company. You can’t get much further from the experience of being black in America than a typical Sondheim show. Or maybe that’s not fair –– Garrett insists he always saw the universality in the legendary playwright’s musical about a single man negotiating the politics of romance and friendship in New York City.
“There are a lot of black Bobbys out there,” Garrett said, referring to Company’s central character. For the production, “we saw an influx of something like 400 to 600 audience members who’d never been to Jubilee before, and many of them became season subscribers. Some people said Pretty Fire wouldn’t fly because it was a one-woman show, but it became one of the biggest box-office hits in the theater’s history. If I’m guilty of anything, it’s thinking big and wanting more national exposure for the theater.”
Garrett said the biggest surprise and challenge of his artistic directorship at Jubilee has been the responsibility of “cultural ambassador” that comes with the job. While the shows he selects and directs must represent the many complicated aspects of African-American life and history, he also calls the Jubilee audience “the most diverse I’ve ever seen,” which means there are a lot of non-black ticket-buyers, particularly Anglos, that he has to keep in mind too. He feels the need to program seasons with stories and characters that a lot of different people can relate to.
“I don’t take that responsibility lightly,” Garrett said.
And as far as the somewhat bumpy ride that has characterized the creation of Black Spurs, he insisted, “I hope people will consider the entire season at Jubilee as an artistic whole and not just one show they love or hate. We’ll keep on doing the Negro spirituals and the old-guard African-American theater that people love, but I’m also going to do things others wouldn’t do. It’s not always easy, and it’s not always clear, but there’s a plan here.”