Fort Worth — New Orleans native Wambui Richardson has been named the new artistic director of Jubilee Theatre, the longest-running black theater company in North Texas and the second-longest running black theater in Texas (after Houston’s Ensemble Theatre). He becomes the fifth artistic director of the company, its fourth since the 2005 death of co-founder Rudy Eastman.
He starts his new position on Sept. 4. He moved to Fort Worth two weeks ago, after a summer of traveling to Cowtown several times this summer for interviews and to prep for the job.
Richardson, 40 and née Darnell Anthony Wambui Richardson—“wambui” is Swahili for “singer of song”—comes to Texas from nearly 15 years in Baltimore, where he was a lead teaching artist for the LORT theater Baltimore Center Stage and the director of college and career readiness at the National Academy Foundation, a public secondary school that preps students in the areas of finance, information technology, engineering, law, culinary arts and other skills.
Growing up in the Third Ward and the St. Thomas Development in New Orleans, Richardson fell in love with theater and, from high school, planned to be a playwright. When working on his Bachelor’s in speech and communications and theatre arts at Dillard University in New Orleans, he discovered his knack for directing. That’s when a mentor told him: “To be a director you have to speak every language,” meaning all facets of theater.
So he went to New York to get his Master’s degree in directing and theatrical production at Brooklyn College.
After graduation, his plan was to move back to New Orleans and start a theater company—but then Hurricane Katrina devastated the city. He hasn’t returned to the Crescent City since. “There was so much loss, and the city changed so much,” he says, “I haven’t been able to go back.”
He landed a job at the National Academy Foundation in Baltimore, but his love for theater led him to pursue work at Center Stage and other theater companies in the Baltimore and Washington, D.C. area. In 2007, he was a fellow in the Drama League Director’s Project, where one of his colleagues was Joanie Schultz, now the artistic director of WaterTower Theatre. His drive to lead a theater company led to the pursuit of an artistic director job, applying for a number of positions around the country in recent years.
“I wanted to be in a place where I could use my gifts in one house,” he says. “It was either run a theater or be a school administrator—and I really wanted to return to theater full-time.”
The job at Jubilee Theatre seemed like a natural fit. Despite growing up in Louisiana, he has only been to Texas (to Houston) once before this. He realizes there are challenges with this company, which since Rudy Eastman’s death, has pulled in two artistic directors from outside North Texas, and one with ties here. For various reasons, none worked out.
Having been attracted to playwriting first — his works include his own adaptation of James Weldon Johnson’s sermon-poems God’s Trombones, a title that has been popular throughout Jubilee’s history—Richardson plans to grow Jubilee as a place where local and regional playwrights can have their world developed and produced.
“In five years, I want Jubilee to be the leader in new works that explore the African-American diaspora,” he says. “African-American theater is American theater, told through a different lens.”
Jubilee’s 2018-19 season has already been selected by interim artistic director Bernard Cummings, and each of the six shows already have a director attached. That works out perfectly for Richardson, who wants to spend this first year getting to know the local artists and talent pool, seeing the work at other North Texas theaters, and learning more about the community.
Richardson loves the line-up Cummings picked, with its mix of musicals and plays that pose challenging questions about the current issues of race in this country. It’s the kind of balance he plans for future seasons.
“Musicals are beautiful, but we can push the envelope more than Jubilee has in the past, and sometimes that means we need to sometimes flip the situation on ourselves,” referring to the 2018-19 selection of Dennis McIntyre’s Split Second, which deals with a police shooting—but it’s not what you might think.
As for contemporary plays and playwrights Richardson would like to program at Jubilee in the coming years, he names Truth Stands by Oklahoma native Cynthia Hardeman; Hooded, or Being Black for Dummies by Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm (author of Br’er Cotton, seen at Kitchen Dog Theater in 2017); and “anything” by Marcus Gardley, a playwright whose work has not yet been produced in North Texas.
Contemporary playwrights and new works are a passion, but he also knows that the classics of black drama—the works of Lorraine Hansberry and August Wilson, for example—are important to revive every once in a while.
“The question for me will be how are we not just producing those plays, but how are we teaching those plays,” he says.
Among his short- and long-range goals are collaborations with local and regional theaters, developing playwrights and emerging directors of color, becoming a focal point for artists of color, as well as a regional theater where theater students from historically black colleges and universities want to audition and work after college.
He also recognizes—as did Jubilee’s co-founders Rudy and Marian Eastman, and others throughout the organization’s history—that the support of white audiences, donors and board members is part of the equation. “Those voices should not be dictating our mission, but I fully welcome them to explore it with us.”
Ultimately, it’s about the transformative power of theater.
“I love it when, at the end of a [piece of theater], those lights come up and everyone in the audience is laughing, or smiling, or crying because we’ve all been on this journey together,” he says. “It’s that human connection.”