Legitimate theater, a classical term, is generally thought of as the presentation of long-established serious plays. Since 1971, M Ensemble has presented such performances and a variety of others. It is Florida’s longest-surviving black theater group.
Also, as Miami-Dade County’s oldest black cultural arts program, M Ensemble predates the establishment of the Model Cities Cultural Arts Center (renamed the African American Cultural Arts Center) and the founding of The Black Archives.
M Ensemble was started by T.G. Cooper, now deceased, on the campus at the University of Miami. A no-nonsense person, he operated the theater company as a business. After relocating to Washington, D.C., Cooper became chair of the Howard University Department of Theatre Arts.
In 1972, the leadership for The M Ensemble Company was assumed by volunteers Patricia Williams and Shirley Richardson. They continued Cooper’s legacy of utilizing a business model, which might account for their company’s longevity.
MEC has received many awards and accolades including Bill Hirschman’s 2016 review for the presentation of August Wilson’s play, “Fences,” and a 2016 Knight Arts Challenge grant finalist.
For nearly 45 years, two black women, Williams and Richardson, have struggled with full-time jobs and families operating the theater after work, nights and weekends. What began as fun and passion continues as a commitment to preserving black culture and history through theater.
Richardson, a native Miamian, grew up in 1950s and ’60s in the section of Coconut Grove then assigned solely to black people. Often she helped her mother clean up after white audiences left performances at the nearby Coconut Grove Playhouse. She became interested in legitimate theater at the age of 16 while watching Liza Minnelli perform in “The Fantasticks” at the playhouse.
While a student at George Washington Carver Junior-Senior High School, Richardson watched as upperclassmen were selected for plays. Finally, at the end of her senior year she was selected for a school play by drama teacher Clarence Brown.
Although Richardson’s family encouraged her to major in nursing she decided on a life in theater. As a student at Florida A&M University she changed her major to Drama after watching a production of “The King and I.”
Williams graduated from Miami’s North Dade Junior-Senior High School in Opa-locka. Originally from Mobile, Alabama, her parents relocated to Miami when she was an infant. While a student at North Dade Junior-Senior High, she joined classmates in school plays.
After high school, Williams kept in touch with several who later supported her efforts to develop a theater company. Former Miami-Dade Commissioner Betty Ferguson became an advocate, and former drama teacher John Pryor started as MEC’s artistic director in 1987. After retirement, her high school drama teacher, James Randolph Sr., chaired MEC’s board of directors.
Williams majored in theater at Northwestern University, and studied theater in New York and New Jersey, where she worked with off-Broadway and regional theaters. Currently an active member of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and Actor’s Equity, she has performed on stage, in television and film. Years ago she worked with the Ruth Foreman Theater.
Since MEC did not have a building of its own, they rehearsed and performed in numerous locations in North Miami, Wynwood, Overtown, South Dade and Liberty City.
Over the years, loyal patrons have donated money and volunteered many hours. MEC receives funding from Miami-Dade County Cultural Affairs, Funding Arts Network, State of Florida Arts Council, Knight Foundation, and the Miami Salon Group.
Jerry Maple of New York has directed at least one production a year since 1991 and Apon Nichols has designed the lighting for productions for more than 15 years. Evans Paul manages the stage and lighting crew.
Williams and Richardson have worked with local actors including Andre’ Gainey, Carey Hart, Lela Elam, Carolyn Johnson, Dorothy Morrison, Keith C. Wade, Ethan Henry, Makeba Pace, Don Seward, Roderick Randle, Ya Ya Brown, Christina Alexander, Herman Carabali, Michael Robinson, Raja Richardson, Viviene Dawson, Ray Lockhart, Chat Atkins, W. Paul Bodie, John Archie, Melba Moore and many others.
Tarell Alvin McCraney, an actor who performed at age 14 in “Santa Goes to Oz,” returned to play a role in August Wilson’s “Piano Lesson.”
MEC participates in Miami-Dade Cultural Affairs Cultural Shock program, which offers tickets at a discount cost to all productions. MEC partners with the YWCA of Greater Miami to conduct theater workshops for it’s after school programs and the North Miami Senior High Drama Club provides training in technical theater, a theater workshop and internship program.
MEC presents plays that reflect African-American history and experiences. In addition to legitimate theater, the plays are classical, contemporary, musicals and new works.
The 2016-17 season offerings include: “Kings of Harlem” by Layon Gray, Jan. 5-29; “Brothers of the Dust” by Daren M. Canaby, March 9-26; “Flyin’ West” by Pearl Cledge, June 8-25; and Students on Stage Theater Saturday Workshops, July-August. Auditions for African-American male and female actors have begun. Equity and non-equity actors are invited. For more information, visit M Ensemble at http://themensemble.com.
On Oct. 1, supporters celebrated M Ensemble’s permanent location at The Sandrell Rivers Black Box Theater at the Audrey M. Edmonson Transit Village on Northwest Seventh Avenue and 62nd Street (Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard). The village is intended to be a catalyst to economic development, affordable housing and cultural experiences.
In addition to the theater, the village contains The Liberty City Family Album Mural, a permanent installation by artist C.J. Latimore, commissioned by Miami-Dade County Art In Public Places.
According to Williams and Richardson, “as a residential company in a new permanent space MEC is expected to thrive in years to come as we continue to entertain and educate. Perhaps those who have never seen an M Ensemble Company production will be inspired to attend and may leave wanting more!”
Dorothy Jenkins Fields, Ph.D., is a historian and founder of the Black Archives, History and Research Foundation of South Florida Inc. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.