Anthony Bean has heard enough. With his arms folded across his chest, the founder and executive director of the Anthony Bean Community Theater (ABCT) sits alone in the empty auditorium, staring long and hard at the two teenage actresses onstage. He is holding auditions for 504: A Hip Hop Drama, a play he wrote about African-American kids' experience in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The young women have finished a scene titled "2 Sistas — Tryin' 2 Do a Katrina." Scripts in hand, they wait for Bean's response.
"You do understand this is a traveling show?" asks Bean, who is taking the production on a small tour later in the month. "People are going to be paying $35 to $40 a ticket. Are you listening? I need a mindset of 'I'm ready for the big time.' But I'm not going to put you up there, if you're not ready."
The girls return to the scene. A moment passes before Bean yells, "Stop, stop. This isn't spoken word," Bean says. "(These two characters) are comparing a broken heart to Katrina, one of the country's worst disasters. This is not poetry."
Bean wants raw emotion, and he pushes the actresses — Jade Radford, 15, and 18-year-old Leah Rouege — to deliver it. Afterward, Radford, who has been Bean's student for five years, smiles when she's asked about the director's critiques.
"I take it like a man," Radford says.
Bean refuses to coddle his students. He has a show to put on, an audience to satisfy and, most importantly, young adults depending on him for their first exposure to the theater world. He runs the city's only African-American community theater, and 2010 marks ABCT's 10th year of offering a full season of plays reflecting black perspectives, whether they are August Wilson classics or Bean's own creations. He also operates a drama school.
Like the scenery windows hanging by invisible wire from the theater's ceilings, support for this kind of enterprise is never nailed in place, but Bean doesn't worry.
"I'm used to making brick without straw," he says.
In 2000, Bean reworked The Desperate Hours, a Tony Award-winning play from the 1950s about three escaped convicts who terrorize a family. Bean cast the family as multi-racial: a black mother, a white father and biracial children. He knew he had a good script and a solid cast: Bean's former student Gwendolyn Foxworth played the mother; Charles Bosworth, a veteran actor, took the role of the father and Bean was the lead convict.
What he lacked was a theater.
Bosworth told Bean about Central St. Matthew United Church of Christ on South Carrollton Avenue, which had available space for lease. Bean took a tour of the church/school and was impressed with the location: a 256-seat auditorium, dressing rooms, abundant storage, a spacious courtyard and the clincher, classrooms. It offered a place for actors, writers and others to display their talents, but it also gave Bean somewhere to train the next generation.
Although it was too late for The Desperate Hours (which ran at the Municipal Auditorium), Bean negotiated an annual lease, and ABCT was born. He held his first drama camp in the summer of 2000.
"I knew it was just a matter of time," Bean says. "I can't be roaming the earth forever."
Bean had dreamed of this kind of venue for years, trying to make it a reality since he'd returned home from Los Angeles in 1996. By then a veteran actor and drama coach, Bean decided to teach an acting workshop at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA). Afterward, an African-American student approached Bean, thanked him for the class and told he was the first black drama teacher she'd ever had. The comment resonated with Bean, and reminded him of his own frustration with the art he loved so much — as a black person, where was his place at the table?
When he entered John McDonogh High School in the early 1970s, Bean had been fortunate enough to find a teacher, Pat McGuire Hill. Besides teaching, Hill was a founding member of one of the city's first African-American theaters, the Dashiki Project, which existed from 1968 to 1992. She would assign her students to go see the Dashiki shows and come to class ready to discuss and critique. Hill says Bean's talent stood out, and when he complained there weren't any plays written for people like him — young urban African Americans — she told him to start writing.
"He had a good feel for situations, particularly the black situation," Hill says.
One of his first efforts was America, Look What You've Done, Done. It was Bean's take on the Vietnam War and how it had killed many young black men, or, if they survived, returned them to a country that was still segregated. Bean says he too had been a victim of racism in the New Orleans theater community when he tried to audition at the New Orleans Recreational Department (NORD) Theater, which was one of the only local organizations presenting young adult productions.
"They wouldn't let me past the door," Bean says. "Some people may argue with that, but that's the fact."
In 1973, Bean and his older brother Jomo formed their own company, Ethiopian Theater (ET), in the back of their father's candy store in the 7th Ward on Lapeyrouse Street. Bean continued to stage his own works, and he says the brothers produced a number of Afrocentric plays, including the regional premier of the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Soldier's Story and Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun.
He also taught adult acting classes at NOCCA. Gwendolyn Foxworth was an early student of Bean's, although her start was less than auspicious.
"He likes to say it was the worst audition he'd ever seen," says Foxworth, who has since performed in more ABCT productions than any other actress.
Bean's drive to establish a theater and drama school in his hometown wasn't fueled only by his childhood. Under circumstances that are still being argued in court, Bean's 16-year-old daughter, Toni Bean, died the year the director came back to New Orleans. As he relates it, Toni went into the hospital for a backache and telephoned her father later the same day, complaining about the food and asking Bean to pick her up in the evening. By the time he arrived, his only child was dead.
"Someone told me that's why I love my kids," Bean says about his pupils.
Bean says young black actors still have to be "twice as good" to get noticed, and there are few venues that allow these kids to explore and appreciate who they are. Even NOCCA — which Bean commends for much of its work — doesn't have an African-American teacher in its drama department, he points out, and requires all applicants to perform Shakespeare as part of their auditions. Bean takes a different approach: writing plays and selecting works that allow urban black kids to speak their own vernacular and celebrate who they are, instead of feeding into negative stereotypes and self-loathing.
"That self-hatred comes about because they don't think they're worth anything," Bean says. "They're so quick to kill each other in 2010, because they don't know their own value."
The school is open year round, though, for the first time in its history, it's been closed since December. Bean says he needed a break, but he plans to open it up for classes starting in April. Normally, he holds after-school sessions for kids 8 to 17 years old, as well as a summer drama camp. Bean says like his theater, the school may be geared more toward the black experience, but it isn't exclusive. Greta Zehner, one of Bean's white students, had the leading role in ABCT's 2009 production of Carson McCullers' The Member of the Wedding, which takes place in a small Southern town during the 1940s and centers on 12-year-old Frankie, a lonely young woman who is ignored by her father and cared for by the family housekeeper, played by Carol Sutton. This season Bean is mounting the Thornton Wilder drama Our Town, which is not usually considered a staple of black theater.
"She's [Greta's] the reason I'm doing it," Bean says. "I find things for my kids."
Steal Away was the inaugural production at ABCT, and Bean recently staged it again as the opening show of the theater's 10th anniversary season. The comedy tells how a ladies' auxiliary group plots a bank robbery to supplement their church's college scholarship fund. The star was former Orleans Parish School Board member Gail Glapion, who reprised her role from the first season.
Bean says the January 2001 show set the tone for future ABCT productions: the house was packed, but there also was an unexpected glitch. One of the actresses was missing.
With minutes to go before showtime, Gwendolyn Foxworth, sitting in the audience, felt a tap on her shoulder. Bean needed to see her backstage. He exxplained the predicament, and asked Foxworth, who had never played the part, to replace the absent actress. Bean walked out onstage and offered an explanation to the crowd.
"I said, 'Be patient. I don't want to close the show,' and they all started applauding. Nothing but love," Bean says.
Through its 10 seasons, Bean has held his season ticketholders' interest with a mixture of musical theater and seminal black dramas, including several written by Wilson, America's most renowned African-American playwright. In the summer of 2001, Bean directed Wilson's Two Trains Running, set in a 1960s Pittsburgh diner with former New Orleans councilman Oliver Thomas playing one of the leading characters. Longtime Times-Picayune theater writer David Cuthbert praised the show, even though the auditorium was without air conditioning.
"People were fanning themselves and wiping the sweat off with their handkerchiefs," recalls Foxworth, who was also in the production. "But not one person left, and in the end, they gave us a standing ovation."
Bean decided to give a novice actress a chance in that first season and even wrote a script for her. Simply Irma was a musical biography of New Orleans music legend Irma Thomas, and Bean persuaded Thomas to play herself. It was a learning experience for both; Bean had yet to write a musical, and Thomas hadn't acted.
"I had never done theater as an adult," Thomas says. "Junior high plays and elementary school, but that's nothing like a legitimate community theater."
Other challenges surfaced in the decade since, but none as daunting as the days following Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures. Before the storm hit, Bean and his cast had been rehearsing Wilson's Joe Turner's Come and Gone, but some of the cast had lost their homes, including 10-year-old Tony Felix, whose family stayed in his grandfather's house. Ironically, the play deals with the inhabitants of a boarding house, one of whom is a man looking for his missing wife. With more than 1,000 deaths in the city and families broken apart and scattered across the country, the theme of loss was something New Orleanians, particularly the black community, could identify with.
Fortunately, the theater didn't flood, and Bean only had to replace two cast members. By January 2006, ABCT became one of the city's first theatrical venues to reopen, and by month's end Joe Turner's Come and Gone was up and running. Gambit's theater critic Dalt Wonk gave a nod to Felix (who is currently part of the 504 cast) and wrote of the production, "Anthony Bean assembled an impressive cast that brought this intense, preternatural boardinghouse to vivid and, for the most part, convincing life."
Bean, who is the 2010 Big Easy Awards Honorary Theatre Chairperson, connects the community and generations of actors through his productions. When ABCT debuted with Steal Away in 2001, Bean ensured the cast from the Dashiki Project Theater's 1988 production, including Pat McGuire Hill and Carol Sutton, were in attendance. Young Jade Radford plays the granddaughter of Glapion's character in the 2010 rendition of the play, and Hill and Foxworth both have taught classes at the school. In last year's A Raisin in the Sun, Bean played Walter Younger, who is the son to Hill's Mama Younger.
"We laughed so many times because he could really be the last angry man," Hill says.
Charles Bosworth, who has played the sole white character in two of the theater's August Wilson productions, also sits on the ABCT board. He says ABCT struggles for financing — there are no big donors bankrolling them, or a large endowment to depend on during economic downturns — but Bean somehow manages to secure funding even in the darkest hours.
The lease on the church building was up this past January, and Bean knew he was short thousands of dollars for the renewal. He had hoped to secure grant funding from the city, but that fell through, as did his pleas to various politicians in the area. His board became nervous, but Bean refused to be flustered. He called the church and was granted a two-week extension. Near the new deadline, a friend, who wishes to remain anonymous, made up the lease shortfall.
For Bean, it was another example of ABCT's divine plan.
"When you know this is your calling — and I'm not trying to be a mystic — you know God will find a way," he says.