By Bill Hirschman
After months of almost invisible activity, M Ensemble will resurface early next month in a new venue in south Miami-Dade County far from its previous homes.
M Ensemble, which bills itself as the oldest continuously operating African American theater in the state and the oldest theater of any kind in Miami, plans to present most of its coming 43rd season at the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center in Cutler Bay.
It is the second time in a week that a Miami company has announced that it is relocating to the SMDCAC; New Theatre, the venerable Coral Gables troupe, also will begin performing next month at the 2 ½-year-old venue.
M Ensemble’s first show at the SMDCAC, slated from Feb. 6-23, is Charles Smith’s drama Knock Me A Kiss focusing on figures from the Harlem Renaissance.
The company is “looking to holding on to its legacy with quality productions that reflects the African American culture that the community is accustomed to,” a news release stated.
The new venue is 19 miles from its most recent performing space at the Miami Light Project in the Wynwood district and 25 miles from its longtime home at 12320 West Dixie Highway in Miami.
That change is taking a chance, said Patricia Williams, the company’s producer, general manager and co-founder with Shirley Richardson. “Some people in the south don’t like to come north and some people in the north don’t like to come south,” Williams said.
Toward that end, the theater plans to rent buses for two performances if enough patrons express interest. Audience members would be ferried from a parking lot near its current office space next to the Museum of Contemporary Art at 770 NE 125th Street in North Miami.
Part of the relocation is an attempt to grow a larger audience and a longtime dream of reaching out geographically. “We have some audience from the Keys, but there are people in the south that don’t know about us,” Williams said.
Not coincidentally, M Ensemble’s lease at the Light Project ends soon. The troupe plans one last show there on undetermined dates in March, the drama Brothers of the Dust by Darren Canady who won the American Theatre Critics’ Association’s Osborn Award for an emerging playwright.
Uncertainty and change have been part of the company’s DNA from the beginning. M Ensemble was founded in 1971 by T.G. Cooper, a theater graduate student at the University of Miami.
Williams and Richardson took over a year later and have helmed it ever since in several locations, choosing plays, building scenery, loaning props from their own’ homes and supporting their passions by taking second jobs. Over the years, they have raised money with everything from bake sales to grants from Florida Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts. In recent years, its annual budget has been between $250,000 and $300,000, but it ended 2011 and 2012 about $27,000 to $30,000 in the red, according to its IRS filings.
In 2000, the company moved into a storefront space at 12320 West Dixie Highway. In 2010, citing fiscal restraints, it moved to the Light Box, but found the office space too cramped and scheduling became a problem since the space serves several performing arts tenants, Williams said.
Now, the company will perform in SMDCAC’s 129-seat black box theater inside the main building. New Theatre will perform in a smaller experimental space in an adjacent building.
The company has become known for the erratic quality of its patchwork productions. Some of its work has been problematic, some profoundly moving, occasionally in the same show. But it has more than its share of triumphs as well.
But no one has ever questioned its integrity, sincerity and dogged commitment to bringing the African-American experience to a decidedly multi-ethnic audience. It has been one of the few local companies to produce plays by Pulitzer-winner August Wilson focused on race relations and black history, and it featured other playwrights whose dramas are rarely seen in the region. Virtually the only other local professional theater covering the same ground is the African American Performing Arts Community Theatre run by Teddy Harrell.
For those who know M Ensemble only for its full productions, the company often seems to drop out of sight. Its last major production was the musical Ain’t Nothing But The Blues in April, and King Hedley II in November 2012. But Williams said they have always remained active bringing shows to area schools, providing an after school program at YWCAs and mounting staged readings of works at Florida Memorial University.
M Ensemble won a $30,000 grant last fall from the Knight Foundation to mount a new show at using Florida Memorial students behind the scenes sometime before the end of 2015.
Knock Me With A Kiss is a fictional account inspired by the actual events surrounding the 1928 marriage of W.E.B. Du Bois’s daughter Yolande to one of Harlem’s great poets, Countee Cullen. The cast directed by Lowell Williams consists mostly of M Ensemble veterans including several previous Carbonell nominees: Ethan Henry, Makeba Pace, Andre Gainey, Samuel Umoh, Carolyn Johnson and Lela Elam.
M Ensemble’s staff and supporters are currently looking ahead to what shows to produce later in the season. They expect to perform for the rest of the season at SMDCAC, but Williams reiterated their determination to find a permanent home in the foreseeable future.
Knock Me A Kiss, plays February 6-23 from M Ensemble, performing at South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center, 10950 SW 211 Street in Cutler Bay. Performances 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets $40 for opening night and cast party; $30 general admission; $25 for seniors and students. Call (786) 573-5300 or visit smdcac.org.