By Deborah Ensor
Many stumbled across the Community Actors Theatre serendipitously. They kept driving by the old lemon-yellow building in Oak Park seeing the sign, wondering what was going on inside. Or they read a small flier posted in the neighborhood. Eventually, curiosity got the best of them, and one day they just stopped by and knocked on the door.
And then they met Jennie Hamilton.
I just walked in, and Ms. Hamilton handed me a script, said 68-year-old Thomas Johnson. “Get your feet wet, man,” she told me. “Come on in, the water’s fine.”
The same thing happened to Zakiyyah Saleem. And to set builder Henry Spencer. “She just roped me in, and now she won’t let me go.”
Even two of Hamilton’s children and two of her grandchildren were victims of her charm.
“She recruited me,” says her son, Earl Hamilton Jr. “I was driving a school bus. I wasn’t focused.” First, he was a sound technician. Then an actor and director. To date, he has written nine plays for the group since first getting involved in 1987.
All of the members of the Community Actors Theatre, known as CAT have been wooed by Jennie Hamilton. Some have been around for 20 years, others for just a few months. But they’ve all been wowed by Hamilton’s commitment to this theater. A commitment that doesn’t wane whether the audience is standing room only or, as sometimes happens, only three or four people.
“It’s got to be a labor of love,” CAT president Cleo Smith says about Hamilton. “She has endurance, long suffering, and patience, Lord, so much patience.”
The Community Actors Theatre, a nonprofit, all-volunteer effort, never has more than about 25 members. But the troupe, now entering its 20th season, stages several shows every year, most of which are written, produced, directed and performed by local black actors.
By day, the members of CAT are bus drivers or food service workers, teachers or students or retirees.
Many, like Johnson and Spencer, have membership cards from the Screen Actors Guild tucked in their wallets. They work as extras and bit players in the various movies or commercials that are made in San Diego.
Same have aspirations for the big screen and eagerly await that coveted call from Hollywood. Some show up just because it’s a blast, and it lets them play an adult version of dress-up.
“When I’m not doing any plays,” says Eva Jones, a foster parent and actress, “things just don’t go right. This is my justification. This is my opportunity to just be me.”
The theater itself, like the troupe of actors, is a jumble of ingenuity. The 94 faded red seats were donated from another small theater that was torn down. The small stage is only a foot off the ground and just a few feet from the front row of patrons. Candy sales bought the lights and sound system; members donated costumes, props and furniture. The troupe sells bumper stickers, and members work at concession stands at Qualcomm Stadium to raise money.
The curtains are made from leftover velvet material, the walls are painted lavender and mint green, and there’s a small portrait of Martin Luther King Jr. hanging on the back wall.
The curtains are made from leftover velvet material, the walls are painted lavender and mint green, and there’s a small portrait of Martin Luther King Jr. hanging on the back wall. The ticket booth is crammed with files and supplies, and an inviting, musty smell permeates the walls.
Local poet and playwright Calvin Manson, who teaches acting workshops at the theater, says you’ve got to be treasure-hunting to find the Community Actors Theatre.
“It’s like a mom-and-pop store, but they have the raw talent that could be developed into something wonderful,” says Manson, a former appointee to San Diego’s Commission for Arts and Culture. Manson also has his own theater troupe, called the Ira Aldridge Players, which is currently doing “Harlem, Harlem,” a musical by Manson about the birth of the blues. The show plays at Culy Theater downtown on Seventh Avenue through April 28.
CAT may be anonymous to most San Diegans, but to the members of Oak Park and surrounding communities, it’s a cornerstone of culture.
“I love this theater. It’s someplace I can call home,” says Bleu Moody, an actor, singer and songwriter. Moody lives in g studio behind the theater when he’s not traveling all over the country singing in his reggae band.
“We can project images that might make people think things,” says Moody, who’s performed in five or six plays here through the years. “Instead of using the bullet, we use the word. Every one we do makes people grow and learn. It’s a blessing to have this theater in this community.”
It’s a blessing, too, some say, because CAT does original productions and takes on meaningful work. And it does something more. It provides a voice and a stage for local black playwrights and actors.
One of a kind
In fact, when Hamilton signed the papers about five years ago and started paying the mortgage on the building — a former ironworker’s union office on the corner of 54th and College Grove Drive — CAT became what most believe to be the only black-owned theater in San Diego.
There are several black theater groups, but CAT is thought to be the only one with a permanent home.
“You just don’t want to miss anything that they do,” says Jacquie Day, with San Diego’s Associated Community Theatres, an organization of community theater groups with 12 troupes as members.
“I like it because I like theater that’s different. They don’t do Neil Simon. They don’t do the usual like the others all do. They have a lot of original shows, and a lot by black writers. They do a tremendous service to our community by bringing in a different perspective.”
When Jim Soules moved into the Oak Park neighborhood few years ago, he noticed the small theater and immediately became a supporter.
“This is the only theater of its kind that I know of doing such a marvelous job teaching about the spirit of the past,” Soules said. “I just make it a policy to absorb whatever they are doing.”
When the actors perform on this stage, they are so close to the ground and so close to the audience that it’s as if they are performing in your living room. It not only allows for an intimate experience, it encourages people to sit around and share ideas after the show.
Close to audience
“The energy is instant because the audience is so much closer to you,” says Saleem, who plays a leading role in CATs next production, ‘The Fishermen.’
The play, which opens April 19, was written by a college playwright named Dianne Houston in the 1970s. It’s the story of two reverends running for the same city council seat, and it touches on many themes that were relevant to the political times of the early 1970s, including the black power movement.
Hamilton — owner, producer, director, writer, actor and founder of CAT — has seen the group through years of evolution.
In the beginning, she and several friends were taking acting classes at the Educational Cultural Complex and working with the Southeast Community Theater. Then they branched off on their own, working in garages, storefronts, people’s living rooms. They performed in churches, schools and clubs. But now the theater has its own space, and it’s getting recognition from its peers.
CAT has won many Aubrey awards over the years — the San Diego community theater equivalent of the Tony — including the top Judges Award for Hamilton in 2000. Manson received a Best Direction of a Drama award last year for “Passion and Honey,” a story that follows a poet and her friends growing up through the Motown era and the years of protest in the 1960s.
“I watch so many people go into CAT,” Manson says. “And they don’t just learn to be actors and playwrights. They learn to work together, to commit to a common struggle. When they leave, they know how to work with people, to be team players.”