Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati has had to be scrappy over its 35-year history, long before Over-the-Rhine was a go-to destination, surviving and thriving thanks to the creative leadership of Producing Artistic Director D. Lynn Meyers. Like theaters everywhere, ETC screeched to a halt in March 2020 when the pandemic shut down the world, especially venues where audiences gathered. They’d presented one performance of Dominique Morisseau’s Pipeline when Ohio was suddenly locked down.
Ever the optimist, Meyers thought the timely show about a young Black man drawn into a downward spiral could be restarted in a few weeks, never anticipating that more than a year later the show’s set would remain onstage, looking as if “aliens took the actors away,” she says. But her team hasn’t been dormant. In February and March, they assembled a virtual production of Susan Miller’s 20th Century Blues with a cast of some of Cincinnati’s best professional female performers in a poignant, sometimes humorous tale of four friends. They’ll launch their third streaming show, a reading of the commissioned play I Shall Not Be Moved, on April 19.
Locally trained playwright Isaiah Reaves presents a portrait of his grandmother, Betty Daniels Rosemond, a civil rights pioneer who had a memorable journey through the American South in the 1960s as one of the first Freedom Riders. Her battle for equity and equality, which she continues today in her 80s, will be told in a one-woman reading of the play’s first draft.
His grandmother encouraged Reaves, a 2020 graduate of Northern Kentucky University and now enrolled in a graduate program at the University of Iowa’s Playwrights Workshop, to be a writer. At age 11 or 12, he began to imagine a career as a playwright, seeking out Meyers as a mentor. In his first letter to her, he wrote, “I want you to do one of my plays.”
She stayed in touch with him as he matured and wrote works for the 2017 Cincinnati Fringe Festival and NKU’s 2018 Y.E.S. Festival. His writing has been presented at New York City’s Lincoln Center and Washington, D.C.’s Kennedy Center, where one of his scripts placed second in the American College Theater Festival, and Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park produced his “pod play,” Richie and Blanche, last summer. Reaves presented Wake Up, Child! as part of ETC’s program of 10-minute plays on the theme of justice in February 2020. His grandmother attended the performance and told the audience, “People need to write these plays. I was a Freedom Rider.”
After the tragic deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, Meyers invited Reaves to write a script about his grandmother, supported by a commission from a generous ETC board member. Just before Christmas 2020, she says, “I got a first draft, really well done.” With direction by Torie Wiggins, another Cincinnati theater veteran, Reaves’s script—rooted in his grandmother’s journals from the 1960s—will stream on-demand from April 19 to May 2. It’s a work in progress, but Meyers imagines it could be onstage at ETC in a future season.
Reaves is excited by this opportunity. In his graduate program, he says, he’s come to appreciate “that Black stories are worth telling honestly, not holding back, not censoring our experiences, not putting them down or making them ‘palatable,’ whatever that means. We can tell these stories across the spectrum, and audiences anywhere can relate and see themselves because these are bigger human truths. What I’m learning every day is how to tell the truth.”
Meyers, who has championed young artists and presented dozens of local and regional premieres of new plays at ETC, feels Reaves is an important voice. “He’s a young, gay Black man writing with the same passion that his grandmother was as young, beautiful Black woman,” she says. “I don’t think there is anybody who could do that story justice the way Isaiah can.”
With live performances cancelled through the spring, Ensemble Theatre has focused this year on presenting virtual plays. After 20th Century Blues, Meyers reached back into ETC’s past with a dramatic digital reading of Warren Leight’s 1999 Tony Award winner, Side Man, a show she credits with attracting new patrons back then who became committed subscribers. A new virtual staging of the play, about a talented musician whose marriage has been damaged by his erratic professional life, has streamed online since March 22 and was recently extended to April 11.
Meyers directed the Zoom-style production with seven actors in separate frames, interacting very naturally. It’s a different cast from the one she had 22 years ago, but as with 20th Century Blues it’s another showcase of actors familiar to local audiences and fans of ETC, Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, and Know Theatre.
Virtual readings of Side Man (through April 11) and I Shall Not Be Moved (April 19–May 2) can be viewed through ETC on Demand, the company’s digital streaming platform. Tickets are $10 for one 48-hour rental.