Theater / Film

Miami’s M Ensemble Theater Company Turns 53 with plenty of history

Written By Christine Dolen
February 7, 2024 at 5:58 PM

Layon Gray’s “Kings of Harlem” inaugurated M Ensemble’s new home at the Sandrell Rivers Theater in 2017. Now Gray’s “The Girls of Summer” ignites M Ensemble’s 53rd season opening Thursday, April 8 at the theater in Liberty City. (Photo courtesy of Deborah Gray Mitchell)

In Miami-Dade County’s arts and culture circles or in the broader South Florida theater community, if you say “Pat and Shirley” (or “Shirley and Pat”), last names aren’t necessary.

Patricia E. Williams and Shirley Richardson, winners of the Carbonell Awards’ George Abbott Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Arts in 2016, have been presenting the work of Black playwrights, actors, directors (frequently John Pryor or Jerry Maple Jr.), designers, stage managers and crew members since 1971.

Writer-director Layon Gray, standing, and stage manager Carey Brianna Hart work with the cast of Gray’s “The Girls of Summer.” The production opens on Thursday, Feb. 8.  (Photo courtesy of Akins Allman)

That’s when T.G. Cooper, his wife Grace, Williams and Richardson founded the M Ensemble Company, Florida’s oldest still-operating Black theater company.  Cooper left the University of Miami the following year to become head of the drama department at Howard University in Washington D.C., so ever since then, M Ensemble has been the Pat-and-Shirley show.

About to embark on its 53rd season, the company has put together a pair of special events to bookend its three productions in Liberty City’s Sandrell Rivers Theater.

On display through Thursday, Feb. 29 and open from noon to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday is a “Golden Years” photo exhibition highlighting impactful productions from each decade of M Ensemble’s existence.  A tour of the exhibition will precede the opening night of Layon Gray’s “The Girls of Summer” on Thursday, Feb. 8, with regular performances of the show at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday, through Feb. 25.

M Ensemble’s Golden Years art exhibition runs concurrently with its production of “The Girls of Summer.” (Photo courtesy of Chasity Hart)

Pearl Cleage’s “Bourbon at the Border” is on stage from April 11-28, then Lanie Robertson’s Billie Holiday play “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” folllows June 6-23.  A Golden Gala to celebrate and raise funds for M Ensemble’s future is set for Friday, Nov. 16.

Clearly, M Ensemble has come a long way since Richardson and Williams thought of an inventive way to earn seed money for their young company.

“There used to be Saturday night dances in Coconut Grove,” says Richardson, a University of Miami graduate who grew up not too far from the Coconut Grove Playhouse.  “We’d make roasted peanuts and conch fritters to sell there.”

“Dancing made everyone sweaty and hot and hungry,” adds Williams, a Northwestern University grad from the Bunche Park neighborhood of Miami Gardens.

Patricia E. Williams, left, and Shirley Richardson received the Carbonell’s George Abbott Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Arts. (Photo courtesy of the Carbonell Awards)

The early days were tough.  Without grants or solid community financial support, Richardson and Williams did everything from paying the bills to cleaning the bathrooms.  One night, knowing the company couldn’t pay its rent, Richardson woke up to a strong feeling that they needed to retrieve all the M Ensemble documents at the space they were using – which they did, just before the locks were changed.

Until their retirements, both women held demanding day jobs – Richardson as a substance abuse prevention specialist with the Miami-Dade Office of Rehabilitative Services, Williams as director of the after-school programs at the YWCA of Greater Miami. Now they can pour their passion for theater into M  Ensemble fulltime.

Shirley Richardson, left, and Patricia E. Williams have been running M Ensemble since its founding. (Photo courtesy of M Ensemble)

“Shirley and Pat are missionaries. They do their jobs and never know if they’re going to get anything out of it,” says actor and drama teacher André L. Gainey, who won a Carbonell Award for his 2017 performance in Gray’s “Kings of Harlem,” M Ensemble’s first production at the Sandrell Rivers Theatre. “It’s not Black theater. It’s good theater.”

[RELATED: Read Christine Dolen’s review of “Kings of Harlem” from 2017]

M Ensemble’s stated mission is “…to preserve and promote the African American culture and experiences through the performing arts.”  The company has done just that for more than half a century, training and showcasing several generations of Black artists, giving uncounted children early theater experiences, illuminating Black lives through the powerful storytelling of playwrights like double Pulitzer Prize winner August Wilson, Gray and many others.

Keith C. Wade, left, and Jovon Jacobs in August Wilson’s “Fences” for M Ensemble. (Photo courtesy of Deborah Gray Mitchell)

The company has already presented all 10 of the plays in Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle, with each drama set in a different decade of the 20th century.  Among the talented actors who have appeared in the cycle – some who have since left the area, others who stayed – are Sheaun McKinney (a regular on CBS’s “The Neighborhood”), Ethan Henry, Makeba Pace, Lela Elam, Carolyn Johnson, Chat Atkins, Keith C. Wade and, in “The Piano Lesson,” MacArthur “Genius Grant” recipient Tarell Alvin McCraney, who is now artistic director of the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles.   M Ensemble continues working its way through the cycle again, with a production every two years, so that younger theatergoers can experience his powerful voice.

Beginning with “Kings of Harlem” in 2017, M Ensemble found a kindred spirit to showcase in playwright-director-actor Gray, who finds inspiration for many of his plays in Black history.

“I love telling stories from history that people don’t know,” says Gray, who is directing “The Girls of Summer.”

Layon Gray played Old West lawman Bass Reeves in his play “Cowboy” for M Ensemble. (Photo courtesy of Christa Ingraham)

Of the M Ensemble founders, Gray says, “Pat and Shirley are legends here.  They bring unique stories to the stage, and I truly appreciate them for bringing me back. They give me 100 percent creative control. They’re like my family in Miami.”

The company presented Gray’s “Meet Me at the Oak” (about racism and its deadly legacy in 1955 Louisiana) in 2019, “Cowboy” (about Black U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves, an Old West legend who also inspired the recent Paramount+ limited series) in 2021, and “The Dahomey Warriors” (about a fierce women’s army in the African Republic of Benin at the end of the 19th century) in 2022.

“Layon is very popular. Actors come from all over to audition for him,” says Williams.

Carey Brianna Hart, an actor, director and stage manager who has done all three things at M Ensemble over her many years working with the company, is stage managing “The Girls of Summer,” a rare Gray play not based on a historical event.  She has, in fact, stage managed every M Ensemble production of his plays.

She observes of Gray, “He likes bringing something fresh and new to old stories.  The event in ‘The Girls of Summer’ didn’t take place, but the play has a lot of layers. We’re looking for people to come back and see it more than once – they’ll want to look for those hidden clues.”

Layon Gray crawls toward his fate in the M Ensemble production of “The Dahomey Warriors.” (Photo courtesy of Christa Ingraham)

The play is set in the summer of 1946, as the all-Black women’s baseball team the Red Diamonds is preparing to play the white Racine Belles (a real team in the American Girls Professional Baseball League from 1943 to 1950, represented in the 1992 movie “A League of Their Own”) in an exhibition game. The Diamonds are being brutally driven by their coach, Odessa Hicks (Elam), the only woman to have played in the Negro Leagues (in reality, a number of women did so).  Shocks, secrets and a disappearance are woven into the script – those layers and clues Hart mentioned.

Performed by a cast of 10 Black women and two males, “The Girls of Summer” offers an opportunity more common in the world of musical theater.

“You don’t see a cast of all-Black women in a drama,” says Gray, who wasn’t certain he could cast the entire show locally – but did.

The fierce Coach Hicks was inspired by his father, grandfather and mother, who taught him to “stay the course” and work hard to sustain his goals.  He worried most about casting that role but was very happy when the Carbonell Award-winning Elam came to auditions.

Lela Elam plays Coach Odessa Hicks in the M Ensemble production of Layon Gray’s “The Girls of Summer.” (Photo courtesy of Christa Ingraham)

“She came in with that energy and nailed it. I knew I wanted to work with her,” he says.

Elam had never played softball or baseball, but she immersed herself in movies about women who did, including “A League of Their Own” and, she says, “every baseball movie on the planet.”  Cast member Toddra Brunson leads movement sessions before rehearsals to help the cast bond as a team

She is thrilled to be working with Gray, whose vision she describes as both challenging and clear, and overjoyed as she thinks about what seeing a stage full of Black women artists could represent: “I didn’t have anything like that when I was a little girl.”

This is Elam’s first time performing for M Ensemble at the Sandrell Rivers Theater, though she has been in several earlier productions of Wilson plays and others for the company and works at theaters throughout South Florida.  She is quick to emphasize the company’s importance.

“If you’re Black and want to be in theater here, M Ensemble should be the first place you look. It’s where I got my start, that jumping off place when no one else would pay attention to you or see you,” says Elam.

“God’s Trombones” was among the musicals presented by Miami’s M Ensemble. (Photo courtesy of Deborah Gray Mitchell)

The actor points out that M Ensemble’s fare is for diverse audiences, that these stories from the Black experience and perspective are have a universal power.

“Shirley and Pat are movin’ and shakin’. The work they’ve done is beyond impressive” says Elam. “And they get diverse crowds. Some might think, ‘That’s not for me.’ But the plays speak to everyone. Our stories are American stories.”

Chasity Hart (no relation to Carey Brianna Hart) plays Coby Rae in “The Girls of Summer.” A New World School of the Arts graduate who teaches middle school  drama, she has worked behind the scenes in multiple ways with M Ensemble since 2019. She calls Richardson and Williams “my girls.”

“They have such a commitment to honoring our voices.  I’ve watched them be so tired, stay up late to get grant writing done. They have such pride in our stories. But so many kids don’t know who they are – and who we are as a people,” says Hart.  “M Ensemble is important. It exposes Black people to work they would probably never see otherwise.”

Today, having gone from (literally) peanuts to a budget of $278,000 for their 53rd season, Williams and Richardson are necessarily looking ahead.  They remember with gratitude every home M Ensemble has ever had, every politician or government entity or foundation that has helped the company.

August Wilson’s “Seven Guitars” is among the 10 plays of his Pittsburgh Cycle presented by M Ensemble. (Photo courtesy of Deborah Gray Mitchell)

If Williams and Richardson ever do move on from the company they created – though they have no plans to do so – that will be a challenge for M Ensemble.  It’s always tough when an arts organization’s founders seem irreplaceable.

“Pat and Shirley are pioneers. They have high standards for the quality of  their productions, and they’re the epitome of teamwork. It’s wonderful to see them working together the way they do,” says Carey Brianna Hart. “That type of perseverance is so important to legacy building.”

Richardson and Williams remain mindful of that legacy.

“We consider M Ensemble to be an institution.  You can’t walk away and leave it in just anybody’s hands…You have to get people who won’t abandon it,” Richardson says, and given the Pat-and-Shirley track record, it seems likely that they’ll handle a future handoff as well as they’ve coped with every other challenge in their company’s history.

Patricia E. Williams, left, and Shirley Richardson on the set of M Ensemble’s “The Girls of Summer” at the Sandrell Rivers Theater in Liberty City. (Photo courtesy of Chasity Hart)

In that spirit: Did you ever wonder what the “M” in M Ensemble signifies?  Richardson explains that it stood for Maria, the name of the Coopers’ daughter.  When the founding couple moved away, she says, “we decided that the M would stand for magical, which always happens when we’re confronted with the many challenges of putting a show up; mystery, which was we were never quite sure what we’d be doing in the earlier years; and movement – we were always moving.”

WHAT: M Ensemble’s “The Girls of Summer” by Layon Gray

WHERE: Sandrell Rivers Theater, 6103 NW Seventh Ave., Miami

WHEN: Opens 8 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 8; regular performances 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday, through Feb. 25

COST: $41 plus $4.59 fee for opening night, $36 plus $4.25 fee for other performances (student and senior discounts at box office only)

INFORMATION:  305-705-3218 or themensemble.com

EXHIBITION:  The Golden Years exhibit is on the second level of the Sandrell Rivers Theater and can be viewed from noon to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday until Feb. 29.

ArtburstMiami.com is a nonprofit media source for the arts featuring fresh and original stories by writers dedicated to theater, dance, visual arts, film, music and more. Don’t miss a story at www.artburstmiami.com. 

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