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No Business Like Show Business: True Colors Theatre

Our latest profile highlights the work of a theater company creating diverse theater for a diverse Atlanta audience, as well as managing a nation-wide competition for high school students, all while managing to keep the books balanced.

True Colors Theatre creates diverse theater for a diverse audience, focusing on the rich, and too often overlooked, work of African-American playwrights, as well as new-generation voices from all over the world. After a season that featured the electrifying and buzzed-about production of David Mamet’s RACE, True Colors Theatre’s current lineup just made a bit of theater history, featuring the second production of late legendary playwright August Wilson’s one-man show since he performed it in 2003.

It’s no accident, either, that Wilson’s estate trusted True Colors with his legacy. Since 2007, True Colors has been organizing the annual August Wilson Monologue Competition, a national program for high school students which “aims to expose a new generation of creative minds to the life’s work and artistic legacy of this seminal American playwright.”

An August Education

“It’s like two shows in terms of energy and preparation,” said True Colors’ founding Artistic Director Kenny Leon. The work, however, is worth it: “Number one, it promotes the writing of one of America’s greatest artists and writers. Just to pass on his writing—his genius—to younger Americans. But it also reminds them to make America theirs. It’s not about making these kids actors, but encouraging them to be the best they can be, and that you can be whatever you put your mind to.”

True Colors started the program with just one Atlanta school. It’s now a part of high school programs in eight cities, involving some 3,000 students every year, each performing a monologue from one of the ten plays in Wilson’s “Century Cycle.” For the final round, True Colors flies finalists from all over the country to New York City for a weekend of competition as well as career building. “It’s an amazing weekend. Last year we had Denzel Washington spend time with them,” said Leon, a busy director himself who splits his professional time between Atlanta and New York, but calls Atlanta home.

“Even if they don’t make it to New York, it’s a great experience,” said Leon. “August Wilson speaks to [high school students] in a way Shakespeare doesn’t, in a way all young people can learn from. We have kids from all cultures, races, and backgrounds joining this competition, and that’s something that makes me very proud.”

Recasting the Lead

True Colors has also faced its challenges: in 2010, the company was falling on hard financial times, a result of the economic downturn. Adjusting to the new market and planning for a sustainable, adaptable organization became the priority of True Colors’ executive team, including newly-promoted Managing Director Jenn McEwen.

Sifting through the numbers, they asked the hard questions, and made the hard decisions, to bring True Colors back into the black. Staff was cut. Programs were cut. “We really peeled back the surface,” said McEwen, “and started fixing everything from the ground up.”

It was a true grassroots effort, she said: “We made calls and got our donors involved in supporting us. We went from doing five shows a year to doing two, plus the monologue competition.”

The sacrifices were painful, but they also worked: “After the first 12 months, we had paid off all our debt,” said McEwen. “We also were able to go back to the original model of three shows a year.” After 18 months, they were able to hire back most of the staff positions.

Since then, True Colors has worked diligently to build a reserve fund, and now have between 4-6 months of liquidity in their bank, in accordance with the guidelines of the Nonprofit Finance Fund. “Right now we’re in a pretty good place,” said McEwen. “We can take risks, we can create theatre that’s challenging and thrilling and starting conversations.”

A Powerful Performance

One of the risks True Colors is happy to be able to take: the just-finished run of August Wilson’s one-man show, How I Learned What I Learned, a big success for the company which was by no means guaranteed. One-man shows can be tricky to stage and challenging for an audience, explained Leon, even when they’re written by theater legends: “It’s just one guy on a stage for 90 minutes, so it better be powerful.”

And it was; according to the AJC’s Wendell Brock, theirs was a “remarkable” production starring a “powerhouse American actor” in Eugene Lee. During its month-long run, the show enjoyed much similar praise.

The production makes Leon especially proud because he worked with August Wilson on Broadway before the playwright’s death in 2005, and considers him a friend and mentor. It’s another reason the Wilson estate chose True Colors for the second posthumous production, following a staging by the Signature Theatre in NYC, where Wilson had become a regular during the second half of his life. Leon calls the estate’s decision “quite an honor for Atlanta.”

The Shows Go On

With discipline, planning, and a clear vision, True Colors Theatre has become not just today’s source for compelling, challenging, globe-spanning art aimed at Atlanta’s diverse theater audience, but tomorrow’s and the next day’s as well. McEwen and Leon have always been convinced of the relevance and need for True Colors’ mission; now they’re also confident it will be in action for a long, long time to come.


Marc Schultz is contributing editor for GCN.

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