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The Curtain Rises for Ensemble Theatre

Paradise Blue continues a tradition of Black storytelling excellence.

Paradise Blue cast members (l-r) Crystal Rae, Jason Carmichael, Brandon Morgan, Liz Rachelle, and Curtis Von (Photo by Aesthetic Alkhemy)

The theater has long been a refuge for marginalized voices. For both the LGBTQ and African American communities, it can be a place of storytelling, community, and—most importantly—acceptance.

During Black History Month, it seems fitting to celebrate the Ensemble Theatre’s legacy as a venerable Houston performance venue for people of color, as well as one of the best places in town to find quality entertainment.

Ensemble Theatre was founded in 1976 by George Hawkins as an outlet for Black playwrights, actors, and stage workers. According to the organization’s website, Hawkins “observed that professional roles were few and far between for Black actors, and his frustration led him to create his own company.”

Hawkins persevered in establishing a theater that would provide diverse roles for Black artists, and today’s Ensemble Theatre is the fulfillment of that dream. It is the oldest and largest professional African American theater in the Southwest, and it holds the distinction of being one of the nation’s largest African American theaters with its own facility and in-house production staff.

The organization welcomes more than 65,000 theater-goers each season. Its Performing Arts Education program provides educational workshops, artist-in-residence experiences, and live performances for students both off-site and at the theater. Also, its Young Performers Program offers intensive summer training in all disciplines of the theater arts.

Founder George Hawkins at Ensemble Theatre’s original location on Tuam

Paradise Blue, running now through February 26, is the latest opportunity for Houstonians to witness the Black storytelling experience through the dramatic arts. The production chronicles the story of trumpeter Blue, his Detroit-based jazz club, and songbird Pumpkin, the object of Blue’s affection. Just when Blue starts to ponder whether or not to sell the club, a mysterious woman shakes up the scene, and everyone’s fate is left in the balance.

“It’s sort of a roller coaster. There are various highs and lows. You go through an emotional exchange between the five actors on stage. Each actor has a narrative that propels them to engage with each other in this intense search for their own being,” says Andre Harrington, Paradise Blue’s costume designer. “The way Dominique Morisseau wrote the play, each character is searching for some type of peace and comfort that will help sustain them during this time of potential dislocation from the neighborhood.”

Harrington brings his own costuming touches to the story, and he has just the right background to make everything pop. As a theater professor as well as a costume and makeup design specialist, he has worked with numerous professional theater companies including Alliance Theatre, TheaterWorks USA, Chicago’s Court Theatre, and the St. Louis Black Repertory Company. He holds a master’s degree from the University of Iowa and a bachelor’s from the University of Maryland at College Park, where he had his early costume-design training.

As tailor-made as he might seem for a theater career, he found his way to the theater almost by accident. He was working as a visual merchandiser in Boston when he took a family friend to enroll in college. While there, he thought it would be a good time to explore the idea of graduate school, and someone suggested costume history as an option. “I didn’t know what that meant at the time. My undergraduate degree was just in textiles,” he admits.

Yet, armed with the advice of an academic mentor and a solid portfolio, it would not take long for the admissions team to see his talent.

“My mentor looked at my portfolio and saw something that I didn’t see. I had a sense of color and [a talent for] maneuvering materials and fabrics to tell a story,” he recalls. “I took a couple classes as a provisional student—a history course, an acting class, a paint and design course—and then I applied to graduate school. That’s where my career in theater began.”

Harrington was soon immersed in the research work required to create historically accurate costumes for each production by looking at visual information to spark his thinking—be it a painting, a sculpture, architecture, or other people’s work. Of course, he had to keep the context of the production in mind.

“You have to read the script to get a sense of where these people are,” he explains. “How is their psychology working? What is their sociology? What is their anthropology? What are these characters about? Find a moment for your audience to connect with them. Find nuances that will keep the audience engaged, as well as keep the character [true to] their choices as a performer.”

This is Harrington’s first time to work with Ensemble Theatre, but he describes the vibe as an institution with deep roots—both in the Black community as well as in Houston’s lively performing-arts scene.

“When I walk into the theater for rehearsals, I feel a sense of welcome. I feel that the work is going to represent the community. And when I say the community, I mean the community at large—the African American continuum,” he adds. “The theater allows us to tell a story about what we did, where we did it, when we did it, and why we did it. Telling stories is ingrained in our cultural DNA as African descendants. From oral traditions to written verse, we have to continue that practice. Ensemble Theatre is thriving, and it is working diligently to continue that legacy.”

What: Dominique Morisseau’s Paradise Blue
When: Through Feb. 26
Where: Ensemble Theatre, 3535 Main St.

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Sam Byrd

Sam Byrd is a freelance contributor to Outsmart who loves to take in all of Houston’s sights, sounds, food and fun. He also loves helping others to discover Houston’s rich culture. Speaking of Houston, he's never heard a Whitney Houston song he didn't like.
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