Roots of Black theater in Gary produces branches that reach well beyond

Vernon A. Williams

Stars of stage and screen with Gary connections include Avery Brooks, Karl Malden, Buddy Lewis, Ernest Thomas, Fred “The Hammer” Williamson, Chester Gregory, Alex Karras, and even Morgan Freeman – who spent part of his childhood in the Steel City.

But hundreds of others with a love for the stage have found Gary to be fertile ground in which to nurture the pursuit of theatrical aspirations.

Some found careers in the arts, while some simply found themselves as a result of the experience. It seems like only yesterday, but it was four decades ago this year that a group of ambitious young adults in Gary formed the Gary Creative Theater Ensemble—a true grassroots band of actors, directors, dancers, playwrights and theater techies.

The group was led by Jeffrey Williams and a talented, budding director Stephan Turner. There were no federal, state or local grants. No budget. No major sponsorship. Just a bunch of visionary young Black folk with talent and heart.

The long list of participants at one point or another included familiar names in Gary dance and theater such as thespians Samuel Brooks, Toni Simpson, Larry Brewer, Nina Turner, Dinahlynn Biggs, Sheila Gillespie, Morning Bishop, Otho Lyles III, Zack Thomas, Denise Kennedy, and John Taylor – just to name a few.

Two plays that I wrote were featured in our premiere performances at Gary West Side High School where we sold out The Little Theater (capacity about 200) for two weeks.

Later, the William Marshall Players Theater Troupe was founded in the Steel City with the blessings of its namesake – once dubbed the “Greatest Living Othello” but more commercially known for his 70s starring role in “Blacula.” Marshall was raised on the corner of 23rd and Jefferson in Gary. The home-bred star returned for that group’s opening night performance.

At the leadership was iconic Gary theater teacher and stage director Alger V. Boswell, Sr. It was a privilege to learn stage crafts under this savvy, resourceful veteran instructor known for classy productions that got the most out of every fledgling performer.

The Gary drama scene included the rise of the Morning Bishop Theater, and later stellar productions were staged by her gifted writer, director, producer daughter McKenya Dilworth.

Incalculable dancers, actors and singers around the country catapulted to professional stages around the country as the result of the amazing tutelage provided from the hallowed grounds of the Gary Emerson/Wirt Visual and Performing Arts Center.

On the other side of town, the job that Emerson alum Mark Spencer has done in his brilliant leadership of the Gary West Side Theater Guild since 1995 merits nothing short of a standing ovation.

The G.I. arts tradition extends well beyond the city limits. Stephan Turner now lives in Chiang Mai, Thailand, where his theater teaching and productions have earned such acclaim that Academy Award-winning filmmaker Spike Lee sought him out to work with him when he went to that part of the world to shoot his movie “Da 5 Bloods.”

Some of the other tentacles of homegrown G.I. theatre are taking center stage in the upcoming OnyxFest 2020 – the first and only theater festival in Indianapolis focused exclusively on the works of Black playwrights. The event is sponsored by IndyFringe Theatre Indianapolis and the African Repertory Theatre of IUPUI.

Gary Emerson talent lineage reflected in this event is amazing. It includes recording artist Alaina Renae in “I Feed You Defiance,” playwright-actress Aniqua Chatman who will stage “A Bluesy Night,” Atty. Bianca Black in a lead role in the play “Anniversary,” and versatile actress Latrice P. Young in the play “Being Black.” OnyxFest 2020 artistic director Charla Booth taught theater at Emerson for 25 years before retiring.

These timely and relevant productions will take place October 1st through October 11th in the socially-distanced outdoor setting of the IndyFringe Theatre Park in Indianapolis.

Tickets are available online now at If you can’t make it to Indy, don’t fret. Internet broadcasts of all six plays will air at dates and times to be determined.

Black performing arts are rising in significance with pervasive dialogue centered on social justice and societal changes. Theater has always provided one of the most viable platforms for that conversation. And performing arts talent honed in places like Gary, where the struggle is real, helps advance that dialogue with soulful honesty.

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