Society Page: Ellington, Napkins and The Absence of Reality TV


Friday night and I left the comfort of my microwave popcorn, my “night-pants,” (what most non-Texans call “sweatpants”) and a Honey Boo Boo marathon at home to attend the premiere of the Ebony Repertory Theater’s play, Fraternity

The Nate Holden Performing Arts Center (which is the Ebony Rep Theater company’s home) is on Washington Blvd, just a few blocks east of La Brea. On opening night the understated lobby was filled with people dressed to the nines, sipping wine and speaking in that hushed theater-lobby tone usually reserved for New York.  I was warmly greeted by the friendly (and tiny!) Patty Onagan, a press rep for the theater. She pointed out the area set up for red-carpet interviews, where I saw actors Blair Underwood, James Pickens, and Eriq La Salle posing for a photo. Instead of the typical Hollywood sponsors (Grey Goose, MTV), this photo-op backdrop was filled with logos for Northrop Grumman. As in the defense contractors. Guess they get to have a piece of the L.A. theater scene, too. 

Inside, the set looked impeccable, the scope of the space was grand and, frankly, there wasn’t a bad seat in the house. The man seated next to me tapped his feet to the jazz playing overhead. “Mmm,” he said, “Mr. Ellington, The Duke himself.” I smiled. “Sorry,” he said, “I just love this collaboration with Louis.” I told him I dug it, too. “Clarence Avant,” he said, shaking my hand. I later realized he’s one of the biggest record executives in Los Angeles, affectionately known as “The Godfather of Black music.”  We talked a little Billie Holiday, a little Ella Fitzgerald, and about the upcoming Broadway play Motown, for which he’d just seen an early preview.

Sitting directly in front of me was the handsome actor/comedian Ralph Harris, who gave me a flyer for his upcoming show, “Manish Boy,” at Stage 52 right down the street.  Fraternity began and immediately I knew I was in good hands. Great acting, thought-provoking dialogue and a modern take on how tragedy and politics in the African American community (and really all communities) are so painfully intertwined.   

After the performance, the co-founder of the theater, Wren T. Brown, took the stage to show warm gratitude to the audience and the performers. I spoke with him later in the private reception, which was complete with a delicious spread, a beer/wine bar, and cool, blue lighting. I was also introduced to playwright Jeff Stetson, who seemed quiet and reserved but humble. I had one awkward moment trying to squeeze myself between Mr. La Salle and a napkin table, wherein I said, “I’m just gonna grab a quick napkin” and he insisted, “No, here take mine.”  “Oh, no need!” I said, and then he really insisted. “No, really. Take it!” I was told Robert Guillume was in the room and while I didn’t spot him, I was fortunate enough to meet another Robert, Robert Gossett, one of the play’s stars. He was charming and honest and we talked about the parallels between the play and the recent Trayvon Martin story. It was inspiring to have a conversation about something other than Honey Boo Boo.

Fraternity runs through October 28th at the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center. 

Photograph by Malcolm Ali

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