“We had four shows left and we had to cancel the last weekend of ‘Spell #7’,” Ron Himes, the Black Rep’s founder and producing director said.
They were on the tail end of the near completely sold-out extended run of their production of the Ntozake Shange play. The third show of the company’s 43rd season was set to close on Sunday, March 15 at the Wash U.’s A.E. Hotchner Studio Theatre.
On March 11, The Black Rep learned that they would have to cancel because of COVID-19 precautions. Two weeks later, they are still unsure if their highly anticipated season finale, the musical “Marie and Rosetta,” will go on as scheduled in May.
Washington University hasn’t given them word on whether the Edison Theatre will be open for them to welcome audiences. But the school has cancelled their spring commencement – which takes place a week after the play opens.
It seems highly unlikely that they will be able to stage the production for its originally scheduled run, but Himes is keeping the door open on his end – though proceeding with caution.
“The design team is in place and on hold and the actors are on hold,” Himes said. “We’re holding on and keeping abreast of what the city, the county and the CDC is saying. If we cannot do the last show, we have probably close to $25,000 in presales that we will have to refund -which would be a major, major hit.”
Social distancing has taken a toll on the Black Rep beyond the stage. With the schools being closed through April 22 – and possibly the remainder of the year – they have lost an important revenue stream.
In addition to the mainstage productions, the Black Rep’s educational program runs year-round with student matinees, touring shows, workshops and more, at schools and recreation departments across the region.
Because this is about the time that The Black Rep would normally announce its upcoming season, they are losing presale and subscription renewal income. Himes wouldn’t offer any hints on the next season, except to say that it was one he can’t wait to present.
“I don’t want it to get swallowed up in the midst of the coronavirus news of the day,” Himes said. “I also don’t think that anybody would be thinking about season tickets for this year at this time – or renewing their season tickets for next year. I will say that we have a really, really great roster of plays.”
But even if the show can’t go on, the company is still moving forward.
“I committed to keeping our people on payroll for as long as we can, and we are confident that when things clear that people will want to come back to the theater,” Himes said. “We had a Zoom meeting yesterday. I wanted to check in with everybody to see how they were doing and bringing everybody up to date as far as where we are at this time.”
The organization is planning for a board meeting to strategize and determine how they will proceed as an institution in the wake of the financial toll of coronavirus.
The sudden stop came just as The Black Rep had settled into its reemergence.
“We spent the past few seasons really swimming upstream and turning things around,” Himes said. “We had rebounded. Last season was just incredible – and this season was getting ready to surpass last season’s numbers.”
Box office revenue and revenue from education programs were up. Funding had been restored through several sources that they had reestablished relationships with.
“Marie and Rosetta,” a gospel musical play about the legacy of Sister Rosetta Tharpe as the season finale was set to follow well-received productions of “Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope,” August Wilson’s “Two Trains Running” and “Spell #7.” It was set to be a commercial triumph.
“We expected record-breaking or close to record-breaking numbers in attendance for that show,” Himes said. And it was happening on the heels of “Spell #7.” Rapper Tef Poe and costume director Brandin Vaughn used their strong social media presence to attract a new audience for The Black Rep.
“I just think that we had really tapped into something rich – and hopefully we will be able to hit that vein again,” Himes said. “We were riding a high tide and it seems like ‘woosh, wipeout,” Himes said. “Total wipeout.”
Things are up in the air for “Marie and Rosetta,” but Himes’ immediate concern is for the handful of young adults who make up this season’s cohort of professional interns.
“Over half of our interns came to St. Louis just to work at The Black Rep,” Himes said. “And when people talk about living check to check, that’s pretty much how our interns live. I emailed and asked, ‘Is everybody good in the cupboard? The next time I cook a pot of chili, do I have to double the beans in it and do some drop offs?’”
Himes said, like thousands of displaced college students, the non-natives are not likely to have the money to get home.
“I’m concerned for them and about them and I feel responsible for them and to them,” Himes said. “I want to make sure that we are here for them.”
In the meantime, He urges longtime patrons and theater lovers to stay tuned.
“We are still here,” Himes said. “We will be back, and we hope that they will be there when we are able to come back.”
For more information on The Black Rep, visit www.theblackrep.org.