One of the most successful and time consuming bits of research I’ve done on this project was on an African American theater company called the Ebony Showcase Theater. Nick and Edna Stewart began the Ebony Showcase Theater in 1950. Nick had spent his career playing stereotypical African American roles: a waiter, a porter, an elevator boy, and even a janitor, when the radio show Amos ‘n’ Andy moved to television on CBS. With a background in vaudeville, Nick Stewart found himself cast as the dim-witted, shuffling, ironically named Lightnin’, in a TV show about blacks, but had been voiced for years on the radio by white actors.
Understanding the need for African American actors to find a creative output, and meaningful roles, Stewart recalled: “I was Lightnin’ by day, but I put on serious black theater by night…for positive portrayals of African Americans and longevity in the theater.” Stewart also used salvaged lumber from the CBS television construction site to remodel the first theater. The Ebony Showcase Theater was the first African American owned and operated theater for African Americans in Los Angeles.
It was shut down in 1996 and razed to build the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center known as the Ebony Repertoire Theater, a move that angered the Stewarts who had lost the theater years before due to costly building seismic code requirements and the use of eminent domain by the Community Redevelopment Agency. The family had spent years trying to raise the money to save the theater from foreclosure, losing 2 homes in the process. The situation was exacerbated by the plan to call the new performing arts center the Ebony Showcase Theater, a move blocked by the Stewarts. Nick Stewart himself arrived in a wheelchair to protest the groundbreaking of the new theater by holding a sign with the words “Ebony Rip-off.”
Rolland Curtis took photographs of the theater during a visit by Billy G. Mills and Gilbert Lindsay. Curtis not only took publicity photos of the actors with the councilmen, he also photographed their performances and took formal portraits of the actors, all taking place during the same day. In order to identify the actors, and provide a date for the photos, it was important to determine the names of the productions.
Perhaps it was not the most sophisticated way to search the newspapers, but I decided to comb the Theater section of the LA Times every month, looking at the names of productions at the Ebony Showcase Theater from 1963 to 1970. It was quite time consuming, but it yielded the desired result; I had a list of the different productions at the theater, a history of everything that played. I then searched for reviews using the name of the productions. I found one in 1967 matching pictures Curtis took. After a bit of searching on the internet, I found a description of the play: http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/pds/maai3/protest/text12/warddayofabsence.pdf.
The summary, description, even the makeup and costumes, were exactly as described in Curtis’ photos. I also searched for photos of the actors billed in the article, double checking to make sure they matched up with Curtis’ photos and finally putting names to the actor’s faces.
After matching such a distinctive play, I managed to narrow down the year and matched up the other 2 productions in Curtis’ pictures.
All of the productions took place in 1967. Here are some of the portraits that Curtis took the same day.
Here is a photo of Billy G. Mills with actors from Day of Absence.
Curtis also took a great picture of John Amos, with Nick and Edna Stewart and the rest of the Ebony Showcase players, during the Watts Summer Festival in 1971. Perhaps best known for his role as James Evans Sr. in the TV show Good Times, Amos celebrated his 76th birthday a few days ago. Amos was in a production of Norman is that you? The production was a Broadway flop that the Ebony Showcase Theater recast with black actors. The production became a hit that ran at the theater for seven years.
Oliver, Myrna. “Nick Stewart; Co-Founded Ebony Theater to Help Black Actors.” Los Angeles Times. December 21, 2000. Accessed December 28, 2015. http://articles.latimes.com/2000/dec/21/local/me-2834.
Shirley, Don. “Ebony Showcase Looks to ‘Norman’ to Bail It Out.” Los Angeles Times. April 14, 1991. Accessed December 28, 2015. http://articles.latimes.com/1991-04-14/entertainment/ca-67_1_ebony-showcase-theatre.