The joy of Christmas: Black Nativity, by Langston Hughes and co-directed by Annette Adams-Brown (right), brings a foot-stomping, hand-clapping telling of the birth of Christ to Syracuse. MICHAEL DAVIS PHOTO
“It needs, in all honesty, a more diverse board,” said Bill Rowland, executive director of PRpac, housed at 805 E. Genesee St. “Something about Syracuse that really needs to be worked on is the separateness of communities, and I think that is something we’ll be looking for in the future—to have a more diverse experiential board, as well as racial and gender diversity.”
Annette Adams-Brown, the Robeson Company’s associate artistic director, added to Rowland’s plea. “And not necessarily folks with an arts background only, because board members can be so helpful with marketing and finances and PR, as well as fund-raising.”
SU cut the salaries for Rowland, Adams-Brown and musical director Marcia Hagan, effective Oct. 23. “We still get financial support for programming from the university but it’s the salaries that we don’t get,” Rowland explained.
Still, Rowland and company harbor no bitterness toward the university. “I don’t want to come across at all in a negative way in response to the university,” he added, “because the university has been a friend to Robeson over the years. But the abruptness of it is difficult for us. If, six months ago, we had had some kind of understanding that was on the board we could have made some changes, because these changes are necessary. I really do feel that our board needs to be raising funds, and that is the fault of us as administrators of the company and the board itself. So on the one hand, I understand what the university is saying, but on the other hand the reality is painful.”
Rowland has known for several years that he needed a more proactive board, so the cuts by SU merely hastened the reality. Karin Franklin, a longtime member of the local theater community, agreed to take over as acting board president in 2006. “I decided I would step in until we can get things turned around,” she said. “This is one of those situations where you try your best and everyone continues to work with an organization they believe in but not everybody has the time to make the changes that need to happen.
“It’s difficult on a number of fronts,” Franklin continued. “Bill, whose health has been failing, has been looking to have a succession plan in place, and we were able to get funding from the New York State Council on the Arts to have consultants come in and work with us on that plan, and on fund-raising and board development. We already knew that the university was taking a hard look at all of their community partnerships, and this was one of the cuts they had to make. So when those cuts came, they slowed the progress of succession and fund-raising.”
Although The New Times made two calls to the university for comment, response came via e-mail. “This is an opportunity to better leverage our connection to PRpac and ensure that university resources are being utilized in the most effective way possible,” wrote Kevin C. Quinn, senior vice president for Public Affairs. “This new phase of the relationship will create new academic and performance opportunities for our students and faculty by bringing university and community units to the table with PRpac—including the department of African-American Studies, the College of Visual and Performing Arts and Syracuse Stage.”
Rowland maintains a positive outlook on the situation, and wants to use the salary cuts as motivation. “I do believe it’s going to charge us from getting out of this circumstance,” he said. “I don’t believe that anyone was sitting around maliciously and wondering ‘What can we do to hurt Robeson?’. But across the board they’re trying to do cutbacks and said, ‘We’ve got these three positions here that are being paid for. What positions is the theater company paying for?’ And that’s a legitimate cry. We are going to do something about this, and we aren’t going to let the company fail. We’re positive about that.”
This is the second year that the Robeson Company has mounted the Black Nativity, by Langston Hughes, a retelling of the nativity story in a gospel music drama mode. This year’s performance features 32 cast members comprising SU students, professional thespians and community members, including a 6-year-old, but no Christ child; a doll will play that part. Black Nativity was first performed on Broadway on Dec. 11, 1961, one of the first plays written by a black playwright to do so.
“One of our reasons for doing this production,” said Adams-Brown candidly, “is that we are hopeful that we can sell out all 18 of the shows. It’s such an inspiring production, and the Black Box Theater space is so intimate. The production doesn’t just take place on the stage. You feel as if you’re in the show: There’s a little bit of theater in the round, the proscenium theater on stage, people coming from the back of the house and singing, voices are being heard over the loudspeakers. It’s a very visually stimulating production.”
Once Jan. 10 comes and goes, taking Black Nativity with it, PRpac will still be facing budget cuts and the need to fill board of director seats; but they will remain along the Cultural Corridor. “This space itself does belong to the university,” Adams-Brown said, “and while they eliminated our positions, they are allowing us to stay in this space, and they provide for the upkeep of the building. We’re lucky that we’re still here; it’s an absolutely wonderful space, and we believe we play a vital role in the Cultural Corridor.”
Community members who agree are invited to contact Rowland or Adams-Brown to discuss helping out the Robeson Company. “Drop a line, or give us a call, and we’ll be more than happy to discuss the possibilities,” said Rowland. For more information, call 442-8727, or visit http://prpac.syr.edu. Tickets to Black Nativity are currently available at the Robeson box office, 805 E. Genesee St. They cost $15, $10 for students and seniors. Show times are Fridays at 7 p.m., Saturdays at 2 and 7 p.m., and Sundays at 6 p.m.; no shows on Christmas and New Year’s.