Ambassador Of The Arts Puts Theater In The Black

Cooper Sought Afterto Direct Company He Founded In Florida

August 09, 1991|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,Contributing writer

T. G. Cooper, the Howard University professor and artistic godfatherof numerous local theater ensembles that celebrate the African-American experience, is fast becoming one of Anne Arundel County's most accomplished ambassadors.

Earlier this year, Cooper was engaged to direct Joseph Walker's Tony-award winning play "The River Niger," by the M Ensemble Company of Miami, Fla.

Appropriately so, since it was Ted Cooper himself who founded thecompany that has become Miami's premier black theater troupe back in1971.

"I was a master's degree student at the University of Miamiback in the early 1970s," Cooper recalls, "and there was some pressure on the theater department to stage a black production, which they've never done before.

"As a result, 'Purlie Victorious' became my first show in Miami."

From his efforts -- including rehearsals in his own living room -- the M Ensemble was born. Twenty-years later, its founder was asked back to direct.

"I was very honored and flattered to have been asked," Cooper says.

"Joe Walker, the playwrighthimself, came down for the opening and and we got pretty good reviews from the Miami papers. I enjoyed myself thoroughly."

An interesting contact came out of Cooper's week in Miami in May and June. Philip Michael Thomas, of "Miami Vice" fame, has opened a theater in Miamiand serves as a local impresario.

Thomas has invited Cooper to return next May to direct a production of the Broadway smash "Dream Girls" with the M Ensemble at his theater.

"That's pretty exciting, too," the director says with a laugh.

In past years, Cooper's productions have ushered in the celebration of Black History Month in the nation's capital, and this year is no exception.

"Two years ago," Cooper remembers, "we put on 'A Hand is on the Gate,' at Ford's theater and last year we were invited back to produce 'Selma' at the Department of the Interior."

This year "Selma" -- the musical drama chronicling Martin Luther King's leadership of the civil rights movement-- will be reprised at the 1 Walker's Discovery theater.

It will run for 17 performances Jan.6-16, 1992.

Those familiar with Cooper's work know he is not bashful about touching up a script when the dramatic occasion calls for it and that's exactly what he plans to do in his upcoming "Selma."

"A lot of people who'll see the show are kids," Cooper explains. "But the play assumes that everyone knows who Rosa Parks, Stokely Carmichael and Ralph Abernathy are.

"So I've changed things around some and included more explanatory material. I think it will work better that way."

Even the name has been changed; the January production will be titled "A Song of Freedom."

Ted Cooper the playwright is also about to be heard from. He is at work ona play he hopes to produce in time for Anne Arundel County's Black History Month this winter.

Titled "The Lion and the Fox," the play is a courtroom drama that will take its audience back to the autumn day in 1939 when a white county district judge named W. Calvin Chesnutthrew out the wage scale that paid black teachers in the county far less than their white counterparts.

The case, which became an important legal precedent for civil rights lawyers nationwide, was arguedbefore Judge Chesnut by Thurgood Marshall, who rose to the ranks of the U.S. Supreme Court.

"I'm really getting excited about this play," says Cooper. "I'm as enthusiastic about it as I've been about anything in a long time."

Pondering the list of still familiar names that dot his cast of characters -- Thurgood Marshall, Annapolis attorney Noah Hillman and former school superintendent George Fox -- Cooper excitedly concludes, "Hey it's still happening. We're all still part of it, man."

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