Quentin Easter, Co-Founder of Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, Dies at 53 (LHT Was One of My Artistic Homes)

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As you may know, despite the fact that horrible news of the world abounds on a daily basis, I generally don't blog about that kind of stuff. I figure there are many outlets you can go to for news that makes you sad or makes your blood boil or makes you uncomfortably contemplative, and I try to keep Bamboo Nation light and bouncy—with occasional exceptions. Today, I am compelled to make an exception.

First, here's text directly from the San Francisco Chronicle. After this, I'll get into how it personally affects me.

Quentin Easter, co-founder and executive director of the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, died Wednesday of cancer in San Francisco. He was 53.

"I am heartbroken to learn of Quentin's death," said Carey Perloff, artistic director of the American Conservatory Theater. "He was a real force of nature in the Bay Area theater scene for over two decades. His generosity of spirit and artistry will be sorely missed."

Born in Baltimore, the youngest of five children, and a graduate of Princeton University, Mr. Easter co-founded the Hansberry in 1981 with his longtime companion, Artistic Director Stanley E. Williams. Their small San Francisco storefront operation soon grew to become the premier African American theater company in the Bay Area and eventually in the state.

Mr. Easter oversaw the relocation of the Hansberry to its first home in the downtown theater district and the creation of its 300-seat theater on Sutter Street in 1988. After it lost that space in 2007, when the building was acquired by the Academy of Art University, he finally was able to negotiate a new lease for the company at the larger, 729-seat former Post Street Theatre.

The company had just opened its new season there in February when both Mr. Easter and Williams became ill, resulting in their withdrawal from the lease and the cancellation of the rest of the season. Williams, who could not be reached for comment, is reportedly working on the details of a new season, to open in the fall.

A tireless and gently persuasive advocate for his theater and for black cultural groups, Mr. Easter forged ties with many of the region's other companies, including ACT and Berkeley Repertory Theatre. "He was a kind and generous colleague, always a joy to work with," said the Rep's managing director, Susie Medak.

"Quentin Easter was the conscience of the theater community," said Kary Schulman, director of Grants for the Arts, "constantly reminding us of our responsibilities to support the broad range of African American artistry. He accomplished this with endless good cheer, tolerance and patience, but also with incredible tenacity."

Besides Williams, Mr. Easter is survived by his father, Herman James Easter Sr., brothers Cedric and Wayne and sister Karlita Easter Johnson, all of Baltimore. Funeral arrangements are pending. In lieu of flowers, contributions may be sent to Lorraine Hansberry Theatre at 777 Jones St., San Francisco, CA 94109.

A year after I earned my MFA in Playwriting from San Francisco State University and with just one production under my belt (Big Hunk o' Burnin' Love at East West Players), Stanley and Quentin put their faith in me, a young artist still developing my voice and still trying to find my place in the theater industry. Back in 1998, I really wasn't aware of how tough it was for playwrights because theaters like EWP, LHT, and the New Conservatory Theatre Center nurtured me so early in my career that I didn't really get a chance to struggle as much as others were struggling.

At a Theatre Bay Area party (I worked for TBA's magazine at the time), I mentioned a play idea to Stanley and Quentin. Bee, I told them, was the story of an Asian-American man, who is invisible, and an African-American woman, who is the only person who can see him. It was an idea that came to me while sitting across from a black woman on a BART train. I was thinking about this thing we hear all the time, about how we're all connected, and I was wondering how two people like us—with surely disparate life experiences—shared common ground, aside from trite observations like "we're all human" or "we all love" and stuff like that.

Intrigued by the idea and impressed by my other writing, Stanley and Quentin rallied around the project. I barely had anything written down, but they were already thinking of ways to offer me a commission and get this play produced, sight unseen.

The following year, the Gerbode Foundation offered us a $25,000 grant—half went to me as a commission fee and half went to the theater towards the world premiere production. It was the largest amount of money I had ever received for my writing up until that point. And it was the biggest leap of faith any institutions had ever taken in regard to me and my artistic abilities.

For those of you not in the theater world, I must emphasize what an incredibly big deal this was. Not only was it highly unusual for artistic leaders to put so much trust in a young playwright's talent—especially committing to a production (which I know from experience makes artistic directors nervous to the point in which they simply won't do something like that)—but I was also the first non-black playwright to ever be produced on the Lorraine Hansberry stage.

Directed by Arturo Catricala and featuring Jaxy Boyd, Ginger Eckert, Randall Miller, and Robert Wu, the world premiere production of Bee is one of my fondest memories. And I really dug how the Consulate General of the Korean Embassy came opening night (!), and he was so impressed that he sent his children to see the play the following day. (Aside from the gimmick of the premise, Bee explores the very real issue of race relations between African Americans and Korean Americans in the wake of the 1992 L.A. riots.)



Quentin and Stanley (pictured at the top) could always make me laugh, and I could always make them laugh—a good feeling. And even after Bee closed, I would pop into the LHT office just to be around them, and I would attend their shows because it was (and is) one of the only theaters I've been to where I felt the audience was truly part of the culture and family of LHT, beyond being passive patrons. (By the way, I saw my favorite August Wilson play, Jitney, there—an excellent production.)

I have to second the above description of Quentin having "endless good cheer." He was the sunny yang to many people's yin, and his numerous contributions to the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, the Bay Area, and the national theater scene was remarkable—and its effects will be felt for years, perhaps decades, to come.

Today, when I think about Quentin, I immediately think of his big smile and delightful giggle. And I think about how, in the comfort of a shared laugh, we all make the world a better place without even knowing it.

Here's the full press release on Quentin's passing.

Here's the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre website.

[Update 07.06.10: Stanley Williams has now also passed. Read more here.]

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BAMBOO NATION: Quentin Easter, Co-Founder of Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, Dies at 53 (LHT Was One of My Artistic Homes)
Quentin Easter, Co-Founder of Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, Dies at 53 (LHT Was One of My Artistic Homes)
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