MODESTO — When John Ervin III has taken underprivileged teens to see shows at the Gallo Center for the Arts, many have asked him the same question:
Why aren't there more black people on stage?
The question stuck with him, and he decided he needed to help change the situation. Ervin, who is chief executive officer of Modesto's Project Uplift, joined with other area residents to form Modesto's first black theater group, Sankofa Theater Company.
The group debuts in February at the Gallo Center with a staging of black writer August Wilson's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama "The Piano Lesson."
"This is a universal story about the family, legacy and heritage," Ervin said. The production features eight performers, from youths to seniors.
Ervin and the other founders got the idea to form the theater company after acting together in a rare local production featuring black actors -- Prospect Theater Project's smash-hit May 2011 staging of "To Kill a Mockingbird" at the Gallo Center.
They asked Jim Johnson, the white director of that production, to direct "The Piano Lesson." He enthusiastically agreed. "Nobody had to twist my arm," he said, adding that he loved working with the cast of "Mockingbird" and was delighted to continue.
The actors named their group Sankofa Theater after an African symbol of a bird, which represents taking from the past what is good and making progress in the future.
The company's mission is to promote black history, life and culture. "We seek to create unforgettable moments that remind others of our common humanity, sharing the unique characteristics of the African-American Diaspora with the broader community," the mission statement says.
Most of the company members have extensive experience in theater. Ervin had lead roles in "Mockingbird" and "A Raisin in the Sun." Cheryl Knox of Hughson and Elizabeth Garmon of Modesto have appeared in area musicals and operas. Dwight Mahabir is a professional actor who performed as a child on Broadway and has appeared in productions throughout the region.
Many have worked in the past with Tommie Muhammad, who has directed several black productions over the years for Modesto Junior College and other local theater companies. "I think it's a great idea," he said about Sankofa. "I'm pretty proud of these people. It's good that they're working with Jim because Jim is very experienced."
Muhammad, retired director of Modesto's King-Kennedy Memorial Center, had wanted to start a black theater company in Stockton but was not able to get it off the ground. The closest other black theater companies are in the Bay Area and Sacramento -- including San Francisco's Lorraine Hansberry Theatre and the Sons/Ancestors Players at California State University, Sacramento.
Knox and other Sankofa members said one reason they wanted to start a black theater group in Modesto was to give young people opportunities in theater. "We want to give them something positive."
Ervin said he is appalled at how little young blacks know about their history. In one class he taught, few students knew what NAACP stands for: the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
"A lot of our kids today, they don't know anything," said Garmon.
Though some white directors in the area have said it is difficult to find black actors, the Sankofa company members said that won't be a problem. They say it's easy to find performers. Already, friends and acquaintances have been asking how they can participate.
Sankofa has no plans yet for other shows after "The Piano Lesson," but the group eventually would like to stage a musical.
The company members are thrilled to have the support of the Gallo Center. They originally thought they would stage a show at King-Kennedy Memorial Center in Modesto and were surprised when Gallo Center Executive Director Lynn Dickerson offered the center.
The Gallo Center is fronting the money for Sankofa's sets and costumes and will split the profits with the group from the Feb. 1-3 performances.
The center has offered similar deals to Prospect, Modesto Performing Arts and California State University, Stanislaus.
"We're really proud of this association," Dickerson said, adding that it helps her show the community that the Gallo Center is not just for rich, older whites, as many inaccurately assume.
The budget for the show is $6,000. Sets are being constructed by Jack Souza, the white artistic director at Modesto's Prospect Theater Project.
"It will be somewhat in between full realism and minimal," said Johnson. "It includes a parlor, kitchen and a staircase going to the second floor."
The backstage crew will not be black, but Sankofa actors hopes to recruit and train black crews for future productions.
Sankofa Theater Company members hope people of all races will attend their shows and learn more about black culture and its rich history. "We're more than BET reality shows," Ervin said.
For information about Sankofa Theater Company, call Ervin at Project Uplift at (209) 882-1479.
ABOUT THE PLAY
August Wilson's "The Piano Lesson" is the story of an African-American family's conflict over its ancestral heritage. The 1990 play, one of the most popular in Wilson's cycle of 10 plays detailing the black experience in the 20th century, revolves around an antique piano dating from the time of slavery.
The action takes place in Pittsburgh in 1936 at the house of a family that has migrated from Mississippi. The piano, which has a family history carved into its wood panels, is now owned by an adult brother and sister who are descendants of the original craftsman.
The brother, Boy Willie, wants to sell the valuable piano and buy some land -- the same Mississippi land that his family had worked as slaves -- to start his own farm. His sister, Bernice, feels the instrument contains too much family legacy to let it go.