Bill “Earl" Ray had one major goal upon taking the reins of Jubilee Theatre in early 2016: cut the theater’s deficit. Jubilee is North Texas’ longest-running African-American theater and was forced to replace its fourth artistic director since the death of its co-founder, Rudy Eastman, in 2005.
After Eastman’s death, Jubilee landed on a young and gregarious new artistic director, Tre Garrett. His tenure didn’t last long. Garrett shocked the theater and the Fort Worth community after his arrest for soliciting a minor. Garrett was charged and sentenced to 12 years in prison last May for sexual assault.
Jubilee quickly filled the open position with longtime actor and director Ray. With 40 years of experience and a soft spot for actors (“I am an actor, after all,” he says) Ray moved into the leadership position during an uncertain time for the theater. Replacing an artistic director is always hard, but doing it amidst scandal is even harder.
Ray is matter-of-fact. He says he thought a lot about what kind of season he wanted to plan for the coming year. He wanted plays with small casts that still managed to tell great stories. Ray hated to hire fewer actors, but he also knew it was the best way to cut costs for the season.
That decision helped reduce the theater’s debt and led Ray to a play he’d directed and loved years ago, Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters' First 100 Years. He first directed it nine years ago for Dallas’ African American Repertory Theater. That production starred Irma P. Hall.
Having Our Say is the true story of two sisters, Bessie and Sadie Delany, who, at the ages of 101 and 103, tell the story of the first 100 years of their lives.
The play began as a '91 story in The New York Times and became a best-selling novel, and then Emily Mann adapted the book for Broadway. It debuted on Broadway in '95, leading to a tour and many, many productions across the country.
The premise of Having Our Say is simple, and that's what attracted Ray. The Delanys were daughters of a former slave, grew up in the Jim Crow South and lived in Harlem during its renaissance. And it’s more than just a story of their lives, Ray says; it’s also a story about success.
“They each celebrated successful careers during a time that being a common domestic was what most colored women had to settle for," he says.
Ray recalled a comment by one of his favorite playwrights, Athol Fugard, and used that as a starting point for the production. Ray says Fugard once sat in a public park for an hour talking to a complete stranger. Once the conversation concluded, he said he had enough information to write a play.
“That is how we should all hope to live our lives: one day at a time, sharing with the world around us – our spirits, thoughts and stories," Ray says.
Ray sees the Delanys' stories as relevant and timely, although he wishes they weren't.
“It’s extremely urgent now in light of the state of our country," he says. "I feel like we’re about to go back to Jim Crow.”
The serious director is careful about his words, however. He doesn’t like to bring politics to the stage.
“I want to deal with the story in front of me,” he says.
And that story is layered and nuanced, as well as disturbingly relevant in a climate in which race relations are in the headlines almost daily. These women saw the country changing in a way that most of us cannot imagine.
The audience has a role to play in Having Our Say, too. Ray imagines them as interviewers of these two remarkable women. He credits the cast, Marjorie Johnson and Perri Gaffney, with making his job easy.
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“Ninety percent of directing is in the casting," he says. "They bring a richness to this story that brings it all together.”
It’s been a busy first year for Ray. He ended up directing more shows than he anticipated. For the future, the “actor’s director” hopes for larger casts and more opportunities for actors. He’s looking to make a mark on the theater that launches Jubilee forward and takes it to a higher level.
“I’m here to give this theater all I have.”
Having Our Say opens 8 p.m. tonight, Friday, May 26, at Jubilee Theatre, 506 Main St., Fort Worth. The play continues through June 25. Tickets are $19 at jubileetheatre.org.