Marva Douglas realized her dream 30 years ago when she and a friend started a theater company, but she’s still dreaming, this time for a place Aldridge Repertory Theatre can call home.
Aldridge Repertory Theatre is a multicultural nonprofit theater organization best known for its annual production of Langston Hughes’ Black Nativity.
“Aldridge was founded in 1984 by Yvette Jones-Smedley and me,” says Douglas, a vibrant 75-year-old who still works as a professional actor and leads Aldridge, or ART.
She and Jones-Smedley, who now works for the Alabama State Council on the Arts in Montgomery, met when they were in a play at the Bell Theater. “Many of the plays did not have parts for black women,” she says. “Yvette said, ‘We can start our own theater.’”
So they did, naming the theater after Ira Aldridge, the first black tragedian, who was on stage in New York in the 1800s. “It is said he was playing Othello and kissed a white woman,” Douglas says. “He had to finish his career in Poland.”
She says ART is one of about 20 theater organizations or troupes around the nation that are named for Aldridge. Those groups now are trying to get a commemorative star for Aldridge in Poland.
ART staged its productions at Sixth Avenue Baptist Church for a number of years, but Douglas says using that venue created issues. “Rather than seeing us as an independent organization, people saw us as the church’s theater,” she says. That, in turn, limited the attraction to potential theatergoers who are not members of Sixth Avenue. So ART’s board of directors sought a site that would draw a wider audience.
For several years after that, ART used the Carver Theatre for its productions, but even that had its issues. Douglas explains that royalties for theater productions are based on the size of the venue, which meant ART was paying fees for Carver’s nearly 500-seat capacity even though the show never sold out.
Tentative plans now call for staging Black Nativity as a dinner theater Dec. 13 and 14 at the McWane Science Center, Douglas says. “That would be a neutral space” where people from a wide variety of cultures and backgrounds would feel welcome, she says.
“We are a multicultural theater,” Douglas says. “We try to have mixed casts when we can. … We would like to perpetuate that feeling of unity. In my opinion, talent is talent.”
Even if the McWane Science Center proves to be a viable venue for Black Nativity, ART needs its own home, Douglas says.
Having a venue for performances is just part of the issue, she says. ART also needs space for rehearsals without having to pay rent, a place to build and store sets, space for costumes and spaces where classes can be taught to the community.
Douglas, who lives in Midfield, says ART backers would love to find a space in or near downtown Birmingham to house its activities. Even a house could be converted to accommodate a stage and the other spaces that are needed. She notes that the theater’s nonprofit status would allow a property owner who donated use of a building to receive a tax deduction. “We promise we would take good care of it,” she says with a smile.
The lack of a home is not stopping ART from conducting activities for the community. A free workshop held in July at the Avondale Public Library drew 62 youths and adults.
“We now have a project. It’s a competition for a one-act play,” Douglas says.
Entries must be submitted by Dec. 5. The competition, which is open to current residents of Birmingham, limits the plays to a 30-minute length. “We want them to be about Birmingham – [set in] the 99 neighborhoods or 23 communities,” she says.
Douglas says there is no minimum age for submitting an entry and organizers are encouraging youths to write plays for the competition.
The top prize will be $250, and it is possible that second and third prizes also will be added if the contest draws enough entries. “We would love to have many, many, many,” she says.
Meanwhile, plans are under way for this year’s Black Nativity. Auditions are set for 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Oct. 17 and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Oct. 18 at the Jefferson County Committee for Economic Opportunity building on Graymont Avenue.
And Douglas – whose position as president of the ART board of directors is a volunteer one – is keeping busy, both in her private life and with ART business.
A Charleston, S.C., native, she earned a degree in elementary education from Bennett College and taught school in Virginia and New York before moving to Birmingham in 1972. She changed careers at that point, working in public relations for South Central Bell Telephone Co. until her retirement in 1991.
In the years since, Douglas has had a number of endeavors, including owning a tutoring center in Fairfield for eight years, traveling the East Coast as a professional actor and being a professional speaker. She still has an agent and performs professionally and as a member of the Seasoned Performers, a troupe of senior citizens.
If that weren’t enough, Douglas often can be found volunteering as an usher at a variety of Birmingham venues. Simply put, she says she gets to see the shows for free when she volunteers.
Promoting ART, its plans and its need for a space are in the forefront now, however. Douglas says ART is always seeking grants and donations. Its total budget for 2014 is $45,000, with $15,000 set aside for Black Nativity. The current funding is money remaining from a grant from the city of Birmingham several years ago.
“We’ve held on and carefully done our productions,” she says.
Asked about her wishes for ART, Douglas replies, “My hope for Aldridge is to have a home and an audience that loves and appreciates theater. … Having a home will help people identify with us. We want to continue to do the finest work.”