‘Theatre is for everybody’: Houston’s Ensemble Theatre bridging the gap and filling its seats

Midtown troupe provides opportunities for African-American actors, designers and playwrights

When you aren’t finding any suitable roles, it’s time to create them for yourself.

In 1976, that’s just what George Hawkins did when he founded the Ensemble Theatre in Houston. For over 40 years, the theatre has provided opportunity for African-Americans in all facets of theatre—actors, designers and playwrights—in the Houston area.

“We want people to walk in here and realize that theatre is for everybody,” says Janette Cosley, executive director of the Ensemble Theatre since 2003.

“It’s not just for people of certain class, race, gender or sexual orientation. It’s for everybody.”

Ensemble Theatre puts on six plays a year, meaning a new production hits the stage every two months. While their specialty is African-American stories, Cosley says the sky is really the limit when it comes to the theatre pieces.

“As far as stories go, we’ve done it all,” says Cosley. “It really depends on the playwright and what kind of cast members their stories call for.”

Most importantly, the Ensemble Theatre believes diverse representation can be applied to any narrative: “For the most part, storylines are universal,” she says.

Ensemble Theatre’s 2018-19 season includes five regional debuts, including productions of Too Heavy For Your Pocket, Pipeline, Josephine Tonight, and Freeda Peoples.

The representation of African-American actors makes a major impact on the Midtown area of Houston, a state-designated cultural arts and entertainment district. Looking forward, Cosley says the theatre hopes to do even more to act as a bridge between ethnic groups in Houston.

She can recall countless instances where she’s witnessed such impact on the community.

“We put on a black version of Cinderella one year. I’ll never forget this one mother-daughter duo and the daughter’s reaction when she saw the actress on the cover of the playbill and said ‘Look, Mom! She looks like me,’ ” says Cosley.

“It’s heartwarming to know each audience member has been touched in some profound way.”

This season, Enbridge has donated $10,000 to sponsor Freeda Peoples, a regional premiere drama/comedy by Joyce Sylvester that follows the relationships of servants within the church and illustrates how identities are not what they seem.

Enbridge is committed to strengthening social fabric in the communities where we operate—and each year, Enbridge sponsors an Ensemble play as part of a partnership started by the former Spectra Energy nearly 30 years ago.

The Ensemble Theatre was recently elated to receive a BOLD Theatre Women’s Leadership Grant of $250,000, which helped the troupe hire a female artistic associate and commission two female playwrights for 2018-19.

Additionally, the grant supports women designers for costumes, lights and sets. Only five BOLD Theatre Grants were awarded across the country.

“The grant really is such a big deal for us,” says Cosley. “It’s enabling us to help women achieve their goals in theatre.”