COVID-19 Theater Series: Robey Theatre Company and COVID-19 - Reflections by Ben Guillory


Producing artistic director and co-founder of Robey Theatre Company, Ben Guillory has long graced the entertainment field as director, producer, and actor in film, theater, and television. Born in Louisiana and raised in San Francisco, Ben has been an advocate for human rights, black culture, and black theater for decades. In 1994, Ben and Danny Glover formed Robey Theatre Company, named in honor of Paul Robeson, the late, great actor, activist, and famed operatic singer. Ben took time from his busy schedule to interview in May 2020.


Dwain A. Perry and Ashlee Olivia in "Anna Lucasta" - Photo by Tim Alexander

When did your theater begin and what led to its creation? What is your mission?

Ben Guillory: The Robey Theatre Company was founded in 1994 by myself and Danny Glover in Los Angeles. We recognized a need for a continued and concentrated representation of black culture in the Los Angeles theatre community. Robey’s mission is to develop and produce plays about the global black experience and to reinterpret black classics.

Robey was Paul Robeson’s nickname. Paul‘s artistry and activism were the inspiration for the theater. Danny and I were both attracted to theater because it was a platform to present social consciousness through this art form. In creating this theater, we honor Paul’s life-long commitment to human rights and his unyielding, outspoken stance on the brotherhood of man. As a result of his uncompromising need to be active, he sacrificed much of what he had earned as a successful artist. He would not rest on this seeming success and remain silent. We were passionately interested in creating and contributing by presenting to audiences a point of view through a black consciousness that contained how we felt about many things. We also recognized the need for an institution that would provide artists of color a place to grow, develop, and mature in an atmosphere that understood, was unhurried, and possessed a sensibility that placed these artists first - and not as an afterthought, which was so often done in the past and is still frequently happens even today. We wanted a company where artistic disciplines could be nurtured and cultivated, where raw talent and gifts could be honed. Most importantly, Robey was founded to produce works that speak to the black experience and through that prism.

Jermaine Alexander and Marcus Clark Oliver in "Birdland Blue" - Photo by Ian Foxx

When did you close the theater due to COVID-19? Were you in the middle of a run? 

BG: We’re not closed. Obviously, production is shut down because of COVID-19; but our developmental work, playwrights’ lab, commissioned plays, Board meetings, and fundraising continue through the internet, zoom, and ongoing meetings and discussions. Given all that has happened in our society in 2020, we are not presenting our program this year. Our 2021 season is being designed for spring and fall productions. We are also planning our summer Paul Robeson Theatre Festival. Those who wish to volunteer, participate, and support Robey need only contact us at (213) 489-7402, and I will gladly speak to them. Right now, we have conversations about our upcoming plans. People can also visit our website to make contributions – something that we need and would really appreciate. We feel boundless gratitude for any support and want to sincerely thank our supporters for their ongoing interest and help. Without that support, we could not continue our work. It is through public grants and individual donors that we find the resources to do this work and fulfill our mission.

Over the past weeks, how has COVID-19 impacted your theater?

BG: Obviously, right now we are unable to bring in our audience to see our productions. We are hoping that will change soon, but we realize that we must wait until it is safe to again perform for large groups.

Elizabeth June and Tiffany Coty in "The Magnificant Dunbar Hotel" - Photo by Tomoko Matushita

Are you doing anything right now to keep your live theater going? Are you streaming? Do you have virtual meetings? Are you planning for your next show when the theater can reopen? Are you auditioning or fundraising?

BG: We haven’t been doing any streaming. We strongly feel that theatre must be a live event. This is the essence of theater. Anything else would not be the same. Of course, we are planning for our 2021 season. But that’s a lot of months away. At the moment, everything is in flux; and we have to wait and see what the future brings.

What do you think will be the impact of COVID-19 on live theater in general in Los Angeles? Do you foresee any permanent changes?

BG: One has only to look around to see the impact of COVID-19 on all of us. I do not know of any production that is running. Everything is at a standstill. After it is safe – and especially when our audiences feel that it is safe to return – then we can enjoy live theater again. At that point, some companies will be able to continue; but others will not be able to return. I believe that this will happen gradually - with the result that the theater community will diminish somewhat. But then I strongly feel that it will rebound – just like it has always done in the past - because there is no substitute for LIVE theater. Our artists will always have the creative urge to continue - because it is and will always be our nature.

What do you  need right now to keep going forward? What would you like from the theater public? 

BG: We need our audience to understand and continue to recognize our value. When this is all over, we need our audiences to return and continue to support live theater. We also need our artists to weather the storm and continue on their creative path. We know that our patrons will keep supporting us any way they can; and, of course, donations are always welcome.

What are some of your future plans?

BG: As I said before, we’re planning our 2021 season, as well as our Robey Theatre Festival next summer. In the longer term, we will secure a permanent home for the Robey Theatre Company.


This article first appeared in LA Splash Worldwide.



JOAN OF ART: Three Different Kinds of Theatre and A Celebration of Beer - What Could Be Better?

Last weekend I saw a powerful, emotionally moving, beautifully acted one woman show entitled The Meatball Chronicles and I highly recommend it. If you do only one thing this weekend, run over to the he Hudson Theatre in Hollywood and get your tickets for this excellent must see production.

This is actress Debrianna Mansini's story and one you won't forget. Mansini is a brilliant storyteller and she takes us on a journey of her life and asks the question, 'What happens when from the day your are born you are made to feel invisible by your mother, who just happens to be a narcissist.'

The Meatball Chronicles which first played last year at the Fringe Festival follows Debrianna's journey through humorous and sometimes heart wrenching meals that align with stories of her childhood, her relationships with men and in particular her complicated relationship to her mother.

Mansini crafts the piece in a way that transcends her own story into universal themes that anyone who has a family can love and understand. As she kneads the dough and thickens the sauce through each Italian recipe, the stories associated with those recipes reveal the complex ways that families cope, laugh, grieve and show their love through food.

To purchase tickets go to OnStage411.com/meatball. The show plays Friday and Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm. The Hudson Theatre is located at 6539 Santa Monica Blvd, Hollywood. The play closes on April 14, 2019.

On Friday I'll be going to another kind of theatre and one I'm a huge fan of...SLAM POETRY which will be playing at Greenway Court Theatre, 544 North Fairfax Avenue, Los Angeles from April 5th - April 27th. This is the 3rd Annual LA Get Down Festival celebrating hip-hop and the spoken word.

Da Poetry Lounge Co-Founder Shihan Van Clief serves as the Festival's Artistic Director. The festival features: Atlanta based Poetry vs. Hip-Hop; invitational team and Indie slams from all over the country from youths to adults. If you're a fan of this medium then this is an event you do not want to miss. Also April just happens to be National Poetry Month.

Spoken word expands all ages and cultures. Besides watching the various shows there will be a diverse schedule of talent leading various poetry workshops availabe for you to take. You've never experienced poetry like you will at the LA GET DOWN FESTIVAL

To purchase tickets go to boxoffice@greenwayartsalliance.org. or call 323-655-7679.

Come Saturday evening I'm headed downtown to see BIRDLAND BLUE a play with music that takes us back in time. The year is 1959. The place is Broadway and 52nd Street in New York City, the nightblub is the world famous BIRDLAND which was the legendary center of the jazz world, where the glitterati of Broadway, Hollywood and the sports world regularly filled its 500 seats.

In August of 1959 the biggest star in jazz was Miles Davis who earlier that year recorded KIND OF BLUE, regarded then and now as the most innovative and best jazz album of all time.

BIRDLAND BLUE is a behind the scenes look at Miles on one evening. He flirts with a beautiful reporter for a jazz magazine. He copes with division within his rank as two of his musicians Julius Cannonball Adderley and John Coltrane are on the verge of leaving the Sextet to start their own groups. He also deals with substance abuse problems, his own and that of one of his musicians.

The play is put on by the Robey Theatre Company and promises to be a very memorable one.

To purchase tickets go to TheLATC.org or call 866-811-4111. The play runs through Sunday May 12. Showtimes are Thursdays through Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 3:00 pm except Sundays April 21 and May 12 when the showtime will be 7pm.

So in between experiencing alll this culture you might get thirsty so luckily on Saturday April 6th from 12-8pm at Los Angeles Center Studios located at 450 South Bixel Street, the11th annual LA BEER FESTIVAL is taking place.

The event will feature dozens of international and domestic beers, over a dozen food trucks as well as live entertainment. Your general admission ticket ($45) includes unlimited beer tastings with food sold separately.

If you buy a Connoisseur's Ticket ($85) you get air conditioned bathrooms (that alone is worth the extra money) a taco bar, an indoor/outdoor event deck overlooking the event featuring limited beers/one-offs that are not available with general admission.

I went last year and it was a blast. For more information visit LABeerFest.la.

Whatever you do this weekend folks, have a great one.