Dallas — If you haven’t heard of Dr. Ted Shine, then get ready to learn more about the playwright who was born in Louisiana in 1931, grew up in Dallas, and graduated from Howard University in 1953. He studied at the Karamu Theater in Cleveland, and earned his MA from the University of Iowa and his doctorate from the University of California at Santa Barbara. He has taught in colleges and universities for more than 50 years, and recently retired as head of the theater department at Prairie View A&M University. He now lives in Dallas.
At Prairie View, one of his students was Anyika McMillan, a co-founder of Soul Rep Theatre Company, which made a comeback in Dallas in 2014. The company is producing three of Shine’s plays—The Woman Who Was Tampered With In Youth, Contribution and Herbert III—in a program called “The Shine Plays” at the Margo Jones Theatre, running April 9-12.
If you’ve been a theatergoer in Dallas, chances are you’ve seen his neice, Rhonda Boutté, on stage, probably at Undermain Theatre or Kitchen Dog Theater, where she’s a company member. She also performs in this show.
TheaterJones talked with the playwright and educator about his life and these plays.
TheaterJones: The three one-act plays about to open at Soul Rep are some 50 years old now. Where were they first produced?
Ted Shine: Contribution was first done in New York in the ’60s with the Negro Ensemble Company and optioned for an off-Broadway production. Herbert III was produced by a number colleges and universities in the late ’70s. This will be the premiere of The Woman Who Was Tampered with in Youth. I wrote it in the late ’70s or early ’80s and it was stuck in a trunk somewhere—and now Soul Rep’s decided to do it.
How do the themes of these plays reflect the black experience of the time?
Contribution was written during the Civil Rights movement, and concerns the attitude of elderly people who felt they hadn’t made a contribution, while the youngsters were out marching. I’ve seen Contribution many, many times. A few months ago I saw a student production in San Marcos, and was very pleased with the freshness. I’ve seen some that were not so fresh, but you have to be polite.
Do you see any constants in your themes and in the black experience in America today?
I’ve seen a good deal of change and growth in many areas, but we still have problems. I didn’t really get into the protest plays of the time. I was dealing with family problems, and that’s where Herbert III fits in. Herbert’s parents are worried about where their son is because he’s out late. Black parents still have much concern about authorities intimidating young black men.
The Woman Who Was Tampered with in Youth is about the loneliness of an elderly woman who’s done well in the world, living all by herself in a big house. She has one memory that goes back to her childhood that emerges during the course of the play. I still meet both men and women unhappy because they are trying to cover their loneliness by living a life they aren’t really interested in or accustomed to.
You’ve seen so many aspects of theater. How many plays have you written in your career?
I’ve probably written eight long plays. I’ve written many half-hour TV scripts. I did a series out of Baltimore called Our Street. It ran on the East coast during the ’80s. I know it got to Houston for one season. I’ve written well over a hundred one-act plays, all about an hour long. I was directing and teaching and could do short plays more easily.
Have you seen Soul Rep productions over the years?
Anyika [Artistic Director Anyika McMillan-Herod] and some of the other people in the company were in my classes at [A&M] Prairie View. I saw some of their plays years ago, and was quite pleased with the quality of the work they did.
Dallas actress Rhonda Boutté is your niece, and credits your work as her inspiration for making theater her career. Have you seen her perform often?
I try to get in to see her plays at Undermain and Kitchen Dog. I even saw her when she was in college at Midwestern. The Chairs at Kitchen Dog was wonderful. I saw it years ago the University of Iowa when Theater of the Absurd had just been introduced in this country. The production here was so much better.
What is your sense of the black actor’s challenge in American theater at present?
I think nationally and here in Dallas producers and directors today have a much greater tendency to cast the person who best performs the role. More often than in the past, casting at colorblind. The quality of acting has grown because black actors now have greater access to performing a greater variety of roles. They don’t fall into a stereotypical style because they have a greater range of stage experience.
Did you have models as a young playwright?
I majored in playwriting at Howard University and Owen Dodson was a brilliant poet playwright and brilliant director there. He was my inspiration and guide. Other models were Langston Hughes’ early short stories and plays. I admired Tennessee Williams and Carson McCullers. I liked Lorraine Hansberry’s plays. Richard Wright’s adaptation of Native Son became too political for me.
How have the venues changed for black playwrights since you began?
I was fortunate to attend college theater conferences, and the teacher and directors would ask me if I had a new play. I’d say, “yes, I’ll send it to you.” My plays moved around the country through university productions. Then when students went to work in New York, they took the plays with them, and that’s how I first got a show produced there. I also was involved with Cleveland’s Karamu Theater, founded by two young social workers. It was the first integrated theater in the country. From 1920s on, they utilized actors from all over the country, black and white. Some young actors were snatched up by Hollywood and began film careers. Minnie Gentry started at Karamu. And went on to play leading roles in a number of movies. Her grandson is the lead now in the TV series Empire that just premiered.
Would you call the three plays at Soul Rep comedies?
I may write about a serious subject, but the script will have some laughs. I like to see plays where the humor grows naturally out of the characters.
What has been your role in the new production at Soul Rep?
I saw only an early reading. I look forward to the surprise on opening night.