The Crossroads Theatre Company, like many regional black theaters, faced an uncertain and often perilous financial future when it was founded four decades ago.
Despite being artistic and cultural bedrocks for works dedicated to the African American experience, some black theaters have been forced to close, collaborate with larger facilities or change their business model from for-profit to nonprofit just to survive.
Crossroads, small but vibrant and tucked away in the heart of New Jersey, has thrived since it opened its doors in 1978, but in a nod to the future, it recently decided to enter a partnership with the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center. The center’s new building has two state-of-the-art theaters, 450 and 275 seats, and will host productions by Crossroads, the American Repertory Ballet, the George Street Playhouse and Rutgers University’s Mason School of the Arts.
On Saturday, in an effort to showcase its new quarters, polish its legacy and raise some money, Crossroads is giving the award-winning actor and filmmaker Denzel Washington its inaugural Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee Living Legends Award.
“This is an award that celebrates the richness of black theater and is the centerpiece of what Crossroads has been about for our entire journey,” the company’s president, Anthony Carter, told NBC News. “It’s a business imperative and a cultural and social imperative as well.”
Crossroads, with 350 subscribers, is a modest but thriving theater. Its revenue during fiscal years 2017-18 was about $500,000, while its operating budget today is an estimated $600,000.
“As we all know, a healthy subscriber base allows Crossroads to have the foundation to expand its audiences,” Carter said.
“We’ve been on the road in different theatre venues for a couple of seasons which introduced us to a new base of subscribers,” he added. “With a great season of shows for 2019-2020 and the gala, which is not only a fundraiser but a friend-raising event, we look forward to our subscriber base becoming more robust.”
Crossroads has produced more than 200 plays, including August Wilson’s “Jitney,” George C. Wolfe’s groundbreaking “The Colored Museum” and “Two Hah Hahs and a Homeboy" by Dee, who served as a playwright in residence at the company and starred in the play along with her husband, Ossie Davis, and their son, musician Guy Davis.
“African American theater in many ways is the foundation of American theater,” Johnny Jones, assistant professor at the University of Louisville’s theater arts department, told The Burlington Free Press.
That history is not lost on Washington.
“Crossroads is the vessel through which stories are told that build bridges for knowledge and understanding of people, places and perspectives,” Washington said in a statement. “I am especially honored to receive the Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee Living Legends Award because throughout my career I have been touched by them personally, by their activism and their body of work of best in class acting.”
Named for the first couple of African American theater, the Davis-Dee award will be the climax of the gala at the State Theatre of New Jersey, a 1,800-seat venue next to the Performing Arts Center. The actor David Alan Grier will serve as the evening’s host, and the Grammy-winning jazz singer Gregory Porter is scheduled to perform. Scenes from “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window” by Lorraine Hansberry; “Fly” by Trey Ellis and Ricardo Khan, one of the company’s co-founders; and a sneak preview of “The Divine One,” a play based on the life of singer Sarah Vaughn, will be interspersed.
“We live in an environment right now where the stories that we tell about various cultures is probably important as we look at this whole field of diversity and inclusion and equity, so we showcase that and we are quite proud of that and we present it in such a way where it invites people into the pain, the joy, the spirit, the laughter, the enthusiasm of who we are as a people,” Carter said. “And if not us, then who?”