Stage: Wednesday, June 08, 2005
Rudy Eastman: 1944-2005 (Photo by Scott Latham)
Curtain Call

Remembering Jubilee Theatre’s founder and artistic director, Rudy Eastman.


There was something about the way Rudy Eastman looked at you when you talked. Behind those large owl-like glasses, his eyes managed to be soft, intense, and very engaged all at once. The founder and artistic director of Jubilee Theatre seemed to care about your opinions, whether he agreed with them or not. In a world saturated with too much chatter, he conveyed the rare impression of being a curious and appreciative listener. There was no viewpoint that he was too busy or too sophisticated to digest.
“Theater” is still a foreign word to many people, so let’s simplify it and say that Rudy Eastman was a storyteller. As director-writer-producer, he told tales from his own experiences as an African-American born and raised in Texas, as well as stories from the many playwrights and performers he nurtured and admired. Eastman, 60, died last week. Cause of death is still unknown.
Jubilee Theatre debuted in 1981 as The Jubilee Players, when Eastman was a public school teacher with a passion for the stage so strong that it survived his early realization that acting was not a personal strength. He learned quickly to incorporate his roles as educator and artist into the job of directing. When, as he told me once, “I saw that nobody was telling the stories that I wanted to tell,” he also started writing plays.
Horatio Porter, the current president of Jubilee Theatre’s board of directors, was a high school student in 1987 when Eastman gave him the lead role in a production. “A critic said my performance was ‘wooden and awkward,’” Porter said. “Rudy agreed with that, but he was great about it. He let me know that there were areas of the theater that could use my abilities.”
Porter indeed did everything from ushering to running the box office before heading Jubilee’s board. But he has never forgotten how Eastman tried to instill a sense of “the Jubilee flavor” in him when he was a neophyte.
“It was a fine line,” he said. “It was about discussing issues of race and cultural identity — issues that can make people angry and resentful — without turning [people] off. He knew that if you tried to insult people, they’d stop paying attention. But at the same time, he didn’t shy away from sensitive parts of the African-American experience.”
Audiences who enjoyed Eastman’s brief, witty personal introductions to the startling array of musicals, comedies, and dramas he staged over the past 25 years were often amazed at the way a Jubilee show could tackle explosive subject matter with a unique combination of grace and honesty. Whether revealing color lines within the black community (his stellar adaptation of Romeo and Juliet) or the absurdity of romantic myths about poverty and hard labor (Woman from the Town), Eastman was on a mission to entertain and to provoke serious thought. The reality of racism was a theme in many of his shows — boundlessly interested in human foibles, he could hardly have ignored the topic — but Eastman refused to settle for the easy diagnosis of “victim” or to condescend to Anglos who became patrons, admirers, and collaborators.
“People were attracted to him as an artist and wanted to help,” said Joe Dulle, a longtime friend of Eastman’s and chairman of Jubilee’s capital improvement campaigns. “He wasn’t a businessman, and he didn’t pretend to be one. He knew when to ask for help. He had the ability to unite people of different racial, economic, and educational backgrounds.”
There was no emergency transition plan in the event of Eastman’s absence, but Jubilee’s board of directors and its artists have held several meetings and determined that the theater will move forward as an artistic entity. They see it as a kind of role handed to them by Eastman, albeit prematurely. The organizational infrastructure is there, the refurbished Main Street space has a 10-year lease, and composer Joe Rogers and actor-singer Sheran Goodspeed-Keyton are set to finish Eastman’s script for an upcoming musical version of Homer’s Odyssey that has already been cast. Last weekend, Jubilee opened Samuel L. Kelley’s Thruway Diaries as scheduled. It was the last show Rudy Eastman directed; he was rehearsing the actors just hours before he died.
“He was in good spirits,” Rogers said, of the last time he saw his friend. Thruway Diaries, he explained, recounts the story of how a grandfather and his grandson are stopped by police for “driving while black” in the same Cadillac 40 years apart. “Normally after you rehearse a show so many times, it loses its emotional impact,” Rogers said. “But the actors were getting it right that night. Rudy had tears in his eyes. The passion was there at the end.” l

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