Ralph Greene, a pioneering producer of black theater known for his cultivation of talent for the stage through Unity Theatre Ensemble, passed away on May 15.
His death came after a series of health challenges that stemmed from a pair of strokes he suffered nearly ten years ago. He was 78. Just as she was with every production as Unity’s Managing Director, his wife Bonnie Harmon was right by his side.
“‘We unite for the success of the show.’ This was the mantra that Greene had the casts of Unity Theatre Ensemble productions repeat before every performance,” Harmon said. “The company of actors and technicians were the instruments and being unified gave strength and effectiveness to the message being conveyed to the audience.”
Unity was renowned for offering a platform for aspiring stage performers.
“Mr. Greene with his wife Bonnie at his side changed my life and the lives of so many people who decided to step onto a performance stage,” said singer and actress Mardra Thomas. “He was a gentle giant who poured his beautiful spirit and wisdom into so many people and kick-started careers from SIUE’s Broadway campus to ‘Broadway’ and beyond. When challenged with changes, he taught me how to make adjustments – on the stage and in life.
A native of Jacksonville, Florida and an accomplished director of theater, playwright, lyricist and arts administrator, in 1971, Greene founded Kutana Players as a graduate assistantship project while he studied at Southern University at Carbondale. His intention was to give African American theater majors a chance to grace the stage in roles beyond the stereotypical characters of butlers and maids.
In 1974, Greene served as stage manager for the theater and music departments collaborative production of Scott Joplin’s “Treemonisha.” The guest director, Miss Katherine Dunham, invited Greene to come and develop the theater training component at the Performing Arts Training Center at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, East St. Louis Center.
“For him, theater was not just entertainment,” Harmon said. “But a way to teach, inspire, motivate and to sometimes question its audience.”
From September 1974 to February 1996, his troupe was the resident theater company at the Katherine Dunham Center for the Performing Arts (KDCPA).
“Back in the day I had the privilege of working with Ralph Greene and The Kutana Players,” said Ron Himes, founder and producing director of The St. Louis Black Repertory Company. “His direction strengthened my foundation as a young artist attempting to develop his craft.”
In September 1979, the company’s name was changed from Kutana Players (“Kutana” is Swahili for “coming together”) to Unity Ensemble and, in 1984, to Unity Theatre Ensemble.
After their partnership with the Dunham Center ended, Unity headed across the water to St. Louis where they called Greeley’s 23rd Street Theatre home until the space closed in 2002. They produced countless shows within the canon of African American theater, created original work and sometimes adapted musical films for the stage – such as “Sparkle.” They continued to produce shows at other venue spaces, most recently at the Ivory Theatre.
Watching Greene during rehearsal was fascinating, because he bucked every negative stereotype of the neurotic process and antics often associated with directors.
“He rarely raised his voice and always sought to keep harmony amidst the chaos,” Harmon said “He knew that everything would come together for a successful outcome. And somehow it always did!”
He was so nurturing and supportive that many who were groomed for the stage through Unity refer to Greene and Harmon as their “theater mother” and theater father.”
Actor and singer Herman Louis Gordon Jr. is one of them.
“He took a chance on me back in 1998 – my first professional show,” said Gordon. “He pushed and trained. I never thought I would work in theater. I just wanted to sing. Now I can’t get away from it.”
And for everything he poured into his “theater children,” his son Ralph E. Greene Jr., received a double portion.
“My father was an artist in every sense of the word, “said the younger Greene. “My life was spent watching him write and produce show after show to support his family and to put out his art.”
He followed in his father’s footsteps into the entertainment industry, currently working as supervising producer for the Netflix series, Family Reunion:
“He worked tirelessly to present theater that entertained, inspired and most importantly to him… taught,” said Ralph Greene Jr. “He was a teacher in his soul. A soft-spoken man who let his works do his talking. Through the years he touched many people’s lives through his art and direction. He made people believe in themselves and he gave back in the form of community outreach projects.”
The last show he directed was Unity’s “Everything Must Change.” The musical revue also featured poetry, dance and prose – and starred some of the company veterans. The show was a fitting final curtain for a man who had been producing theater that offers context and celebration of the black experience for nearly a half-century.
“He will be missed, but his spirit will stay alive in those he touched,” Himes said.
Harmon vows to carry on his vision and the company that they poured into as life and work partners.
“Greene and I were united until the end,” Harmon said. “I will miss him greatly in the body, but I know he will be with me every step of the way as we continue his work.”
He was preceded in death by his father, Major Greene; mother, Irazona Knight-Greene; brother, Isaac Greene; and sister, Angie Nora Greene-Barlow; and stepdaughter, Marie Girardeau-Bianchetta.
A memorial fund will be established in his name to honor and continue his legacy with the goal to support developing young playwrights and performing artists. Because of the current social distancing requirements, a legacy memorial will be planned for some time in the future when it is clearly safe again for large gatherings. Expressions of condolence can be sent to Unity Theatre Ensemble at P.O. Box 1035, Florissant, Missouri 63031 or to 1832 Partridge Berry Drive, Florissant, Missouri, 63031.