Donald King, known as Don, graduated from Brown University in 1993 where he studied Africana Studies, Modern Culture & Media, and Theatre. He saw in Providence a city bursting with untapped artistic and creative potential, but set between Broadway and Berklee, it struggled with an identity crisis when it came to the performing arts. For people of color, that crisis was compounded by the fact that a Black artist proclaiming they are from Providence might get a sideways glance and asked, “They got Black people in Rhode Island?” It is hard to form an identity without even being visible.
Despite a lack of visibility then, there were many talented directors, producers, actors, and musicians of color in the state; they had less exposure than other performers because there were no representative leaders in arts spaces to create a platform for their talent. Without a platform, it was difficult to perform, educate, and inspire other BIPOC young talent to pursue their passions.
King not only recognized this problem, but saw a solution. He created the Providence Black Repertory Company in 1996 to present “artistic performances inspired by the cultural traditions of the African Diaspora that bring people together, provoke thought, inspire hope, and create understanding.” Its dual mission focused on producing high-level Black theater and educating and inspiring young artists.
The Black Rep grew out of acting workshops King held at AS220, the arts incubator and collective downtown. To secure funding for his idea, he met with former Mayor Buddy Cianci, who grilled him on his voting registration status (he had registered a day earlier, thanks to a tip). King’s early mentor and advocate was Michael Van Leesten, the civil rights icon whose name graces the newest pedestrian bridge over the Providence River. Black Rep productions were featured on the stages of the Providence Performing Arts Center and Trinity Rep. The Sound Sessions festivals they held for four years were attended by tens of thousands and paved the way for PVD Fest. The Rep was a beacon that lifted many voices in the community, not just Black ones.
Despite its broad community impact and success, funding was always an issue. Though King applied for and received grant money from the City of Providence and nonprofit organizations, much of that went to simply maintaining their facilities at 276 Westminster Street; donors rarely supported Black theater and programming on a level that would sustain the organization. The company was forced to close its doors in 2009.
The Black Rep has been gone for over a decade, and many of the same barriers to entry remain for Black artists today: A scan of current leadership at local arts organizations is not exactly a picture of diversity. Then, after the deaths of George Floyd and the protests that followed, there was a scramble for inclusion of artists of color.
King wants to see a long-term commitment to these artists and to developing Black leaders in the arts. “There is a reason people in the community still talk about the Black Rep and Sound Session,” he says. “What we achieved was by design. It was deliberate. We did not stumble upon our successes. We scraped and earned every bit of success we had.” He wants us to know that when it comes to inclusion: “This moment is a great reset. An opportunity to redesign a way forward. To get it right.”