John Beasley got tired of being tired.
You’ve likely learned the John Beasley Theater & Workshop’s urgent appeal for funds to relieve its financial distress has been answered, and the once-endangered 2011-2012 season saved.
But you probably don’t know the back story, or why founding namesake and president John Beasley is willing to share the details, the better to make a case for the theater’s continued existence.
Ever since launching the theater in 2000 the stage-film-television actor has largely bankrolled the nonprofit himself. Year after year, with no real administrative staff and fronting a board short on resources and contacts, the scraped by. This, despite strongly reviewed work and some outright smash hits that included shows held over for extended runs. Its niche African-American plays, most notably the August Wilson repertoire, has distinguished it - but not always helped it.
The kindness of strangers, an occasional grant, meager season ticket sales and box office receipts from a 100-seat house only go so far. It has left Beasley holding the bag, writing personal checks for the shortfall.
"I've underwritten most everything we've done, but it's been at the point for a long time now that I thought the theater should be self-sustaining rather than to just keep going in my pocket," he says. "I'm not getting anything financially out of the theater."
There have been times, even quite recently, when there wasn't enough in the theater's coffers to pay Beasley’s his son, artistic director Tyrone Beasley, or directors’ fees, much less vendors. So he personally paid Tyrone and creditors himself.
Even the theater’s performing home in the LaFern Williams South Omaha YMCA at 3010 R Street, where the old Center Stage Theatre formerly operated, was no sure thing.
“We were going through a period there where the oral contract we had with OHA (the Omaha Housing Authority agency that owned the building before the YMCA acquired it) had expired. Without that space being donated we wouldn't have made it,” says Beasley. “That was a big consideration at the end of that contract. It was up for renewal and the YMCA was saying, ‘What can you pay?’ and I told them we’re really in a situation where we can’t pay anything. They worked out a really nice arrangement for us and I’m really grateful to the YMCA for the use of that space. Without that, I think we would have closed.”
He acknowledges that in some ways he’s ill-prepared to run a theater, but he’s stayed with it because, by his reckoning, the venture is a calling.
“I didn't set out to open a theater. I thought it was put on me for a reason. I believe things happen for a reason, so I’ve always talked to God in this way: ‘If you want me to be here, you're going to have to provide the way.’”
Divine providence was necessary, he says, “because we came in here without any grants. OHA gave us the space but they didn't give us any money to go with it, and not ever having a board that would raise funds for me, it’s been a struggle. The fact we've managed to stay here as long we have is a miracle in itself, given I never had any experience in theater administration.”
“But, you know, God has been good and has allowed us to be here 11 years, and I don't think He's brought us this far to say,’ Ok, it’s over now,’” Beasley says. “We haven't completed our mission and we still have a ways to go, and I still have a vision for the theater.”
That vision, which encompasses a second theater he wants to build from the ground up in North Omaha as a regional attraction, has often seemed far off.
"It's always been a day-to-day thing,” Beasleey says. “You can't imagine what it's like getting up every morning with this on your mind, wondering, ‘How are we going to take care of this? How are we going pay these people?’"
The recession hasn’t helped.
“Revenues have been flat and our expenses keep mounting. The box office only pays a little bit of the expenses,” Beasley says. “Our small house is not a big revenue source. It will pay some bills, but then you're scrambling where you’re going to get the money for this and that. Attendance numbers are down because of the recession. These are entertainment dollars, and with discretionary spending theater might not be at the top of the list.”
Other theaters have dropped prices, and Beasley has considered it. “but it won’t necessarily guarantee our attendance will go up, and I’ve always felt that if people think it’s too cheap, they’ll assume its probably not worth it.”
He’s heard grumbling in the black community that his theater’s too pricey, an opinion he disputes. “We weren't overcharging,” he says, noting that people don't think twice about plopping down considerably more money to see touring gospel plays.
“Our work might not be as glitzy but the quality is as good as any that comes through as far as the acting is concerned, because I see what comes through and I don't think there’s a lot of talent sometimes.”
The theater’s woes extended to marketing and publicity, which have been largely limited to post cards and print ads, leading Beasley to doubt it was reaching its audience in this online social media age.
Approaching the start of the 2011-2012 season, kicking off with August Wilson's Radio Golf, Beasley decided he'd had enough.
"I told the board that going into this season I needed $20,000 for the first show and I wouldn't green-light it until I received $10,000. And I asked the board, 'Who's going to lead this?' I didn't have any volunteers because my board is more of a working board. They're willing to put in the work but they're just not fundraisers, and that's just the way it is.
“So out of frustration I said, 'Well, alright, I'll do it,' and so I stepped out. I didn't know how I was going to do it but I believe when you step out in faith good things happen, they just happen. God or whatever provides a way."
He laid out the precarious situation to friends of the theater with, "This is a crossroads for us. If this doesn't happen I can’t just go along with this kind of pressure anymore..."
Then he went public Sept. 1, posting a Facebook appeal that spelled out in dire terms the make-or-break scenario confronting his South Omaha theater. His message stated flat out the JBT would close unless $10,000 was obtained. KETV, the Omaha World-Herald and other media picked up the story.
By mid-September $30,000 was either donated or pledged, meaning the season was on and the theater's future, at least for now, secured. For Beasley, whose fierce demeanor and brickhouse physique belie a soft heart, the outpouring has taken him aback and given his theater mission a new lease on life.
"The best thing about going public is to receive the love from Omaha we received from people we didn't know. When I found out all you had to do was ask and people would respond ..." he says, his voice trailing off in wonder.
"It's put us in a place where I'm really optimistic about not only the season but about the future of the theater. This has given some breathing room we have never had before. It's given us a budget, and that budget will take care of a lot of things. It will also help us pay off the vendors we owe.”
He says the community’s embrace has come from long-time theater supporters and individuals with no connection to the organization. Support has come in amounts as small as $20 and as much as $5,000. The Myth bar in the Old Market threw a fund-raising party Sept. 20 that raised about $1,400.
Beyond the money, new blood has been cultivated. As a result, he says the JBT now has a circle of volunteers with the skills to build a stable enterprise.
“I’ve put together a committee of people I’ve never had in place before,” says Beasley. “These people know what it’s all about.”
Development professional Jeff Leanna is the new executive director. He, along with management communications specialist Wendy Moore and her real estate executive husband Scott Moore, are doing marketing, solicitation, subscription campaigns and beefing up online presence. Beasley’s in the process of “weeding out” some inactive board members and replacing them with energetic new members. Taken together, he says, the JBT has people in place to “take care of the administrative things and business part of it, and that’s such a relief. We've been really lacking in that end of it. My son and I are creative people.”
He expects fund-raisers, grant applications, membership programs and marketing-development campaigns to happen year-round. “That’s part of the plan,” he says. “We’re even reaching out to Oprah now,” he says, and hints that overtures may be made to actor-director Robert Duvall, whom he acted alongside in the The Apostle.
Now that the JBT is on more solid ground, he says, “I’m glad I went public with it. People now are aware of the need of the theater.”
He says telling the theater’s story has also laid to rest some myths, such as suggestions that the city was funding it. “There was a misconception that we had everything we needed,” he says, and that he had limitless deep pockets.
“I think we had to hit bottom before we could have this turning point. I think this really was the catalyst to take us to that next level.”
For a proud man like Beasley, talking about a difficult situation isn’t easy. But he sees it as the only way to explain why the theater is worth fighting to maintain.
"At first I had some reservations, because you don't want people to think you're struggling or failing, but then I came to the realization we serve a purpose,” he says. “Who else is going to do August Wilson or Suzan-Lori Parks or Eugene Lee or even Ted Lange? And where are the opportunities for up and coming black actors?”
He is proud of what the theater has done with and for some young players.
"Through the years we've touched a lot of lives. We've changed lives. We've got some good people we've brought along. Andre McGraw first came on the stage in our theater, now he's going to school to study theater at UNO. TammyRa (Jackson) is an outstanding talent I'm going to lose soon; she's talented enough to work out of town. I'm just so proud of her. Dayton Rogers is another fine actor coming up. Phyllis Mitchell-Butler is in a production at the Playhouse now.
“Where else would they have gotten this opportunity?"
The JBT has also offered a window into the black experience that's given white Omaha a perspective sorely lacking outside that prism.
"I guess I'm most proud of the exposure to black culture we've given Omaha," he says, adding that “75 percent of our patrons come from West Omaha."
Fear or loathing of other cultures, he says, is less likely when there's communication and knowledge.
"The more you learn about something, the more you understand something, then you can’t hate it. I think we're bridging gaps."
He says the divides that stymie America plague the city as well, and the arts and theater, perhaps his theater especially, can serve to heal.
"The country can't move forward because of politics and ideologies. Nobody's trying to understand the other side, there's no compromise. If you can understand the other side then you can create a dialogue. If you have a dialogue then things can happen. That's true nationally and it's true in this city. The disparity between blacks and whites in this city is the worst than any place in this country."
Among the reasons he's hung his theater on the back of August Wilson's body of work is the playwright's cycle of 10 plays revealing the arc of African-American life in the 20th century, as seen through the eyes of denizens of Pittsburgh’s Hill District.
"I love August Wilson's work because it's a true reflection,” says Beasley, whose extensive credits include productions of Wilson plays in major regional theaters. “I know these people. One of the goals when I opened the theater was to introduce Omaha to August Wilson, because he's such an important part to my whole career and has created work that will keep middle aged black men working forever. I can do Wilson till I'm ready to die. It's just a rich legacy he's left black actors and the world for that matter. His stuff crosses all lines.
"You've known people like Troy Maxon (Fences). I've had people come up to me wherever I've done this and say, 'That was my dad' or 'I knew that guy.' You know these people and these situations, the relationships between sons and fathers. Life has passed them by and they haven't dealt with it very well."
With Radio Golf, the last in the cycle, the JBT’s now performed each of the 10 Wilson plays, including some (Fences, Two Trains Running, Jitney) staged multiple times. Radio Golf’s look at gentrification efforts in a historical black neighborhood has particular resonance for Beasley and the new North Omaha theater he envisions. Leo A Daly is nearing final designs for the unfunded project, which would not replace the existing site, but rather complement it. It’s a project dear to Beasley on several levels.
“We’d like to put it between 25th and 24th Streets in that Lake Street corridor. It would be right off the Interstate. If you build up it, they'll come. That would be my field of dreams,” Beasley says. “We want to be a destination and an anchor to the cultural revitalization of this district. I grew up in this neighborhood, it’s my neighborhood. I was here when they tore it down and burnt it down. I remember giving a little speech here to rioters - ‘Why you tearing down your own neighborhood? If you’re that angry, go downtown.’ It was opportunistic hoodlums that did that stuff and then you have that mob mentality.”
“I just want to be a part of rebuilding the neighborhood. It’s changed. Regentrification is happening.”
Should the new theater come to pass, it would be another piece in the resurgent arts-culture district slated for the area, where the Loves Jazz & Arts Center and Great Plains Black History Museum already operate and where Brigitte McQueen’s Union for Contemporary Art is due to locate.
None of it means the JBT is out of the woods.
“I don't want people to think we’re OK, we’re not OK,” says Beasley. He says the influx of funds is a start, but he is look for a $200,000 budget for this season.
As a thank you to the community the theater offered free admission for its season-opening, Sept. 30-Oct. 2, weekend.
Visit www.johnbeasleytheater.org for donation and season ticket info.
Read more of Leo Adam Biga's work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com