New Jersey’s Crossroads Theatre Facing Dead End

News   New Jersey’s Crossroads Theatre Facing Dead End In October 1978, Ricardo Khan and L. Kenneth Richardson, graduates of the Mason Gross School of the Arts at New Jersey’s Rutgers University, teamed up to found a theatre dedicated to African-American plays, actors, directors, culture and values. Within a decade, Crossroads Theatre Company became one of the premiere black theatre companies in America, premiering works by George C. Wolfe, Ntozake Shange, Ruby Dee and Rita Dove, and sustaining a high enough profile to warrant a move to a $4 million, 264-seat venue in New Brunswick in 1991. Despite behind-the scene struggles and financial woes thereafter, Crossroads continued to offer serious, professionally-mounted plays, garnering a Regional Theatre Tony Award in 1999. The 1998-99 season included Pearl Cleage’s Blues for an Alabama Sky and Vernel Bagneris’ Jelly Roll, and the 1999-2000 season offered Leslie Uggams in Play On! and Kim Coles’ critically acclaimed Homework.

In October 1978, Ricardo Khan and L. Kenneth Richardson, graduates of the Mason Gross School of the Arts at New Jersey’s Rutgers University, teamed up to found a theatre dedicated to African-American plays, actors, directors, culture and values. Within a decade, Crossroads Theatre Company became one of the premiere black theatre companies in America, premiering works by George C. Wolfe, Ntozake Shange, Ruby Dee and Rita Dove, and sustaining a high enough profile to warrant a move to a $4 million, 264-seat venue in New Brunswick in 1991. Despite behind-the scene struggles and financial woes thereafter, Crossroads continued to offer serious, professionally-mounted plays, garnering a Regional Theatre Tony Award in 1999. The 1998-99 season included Pearl Cleage’s Blues for an Alabama Sky and Vernel Bagneris’ Jelly Roll, and the 1999-2000 season offered Leslie Uggams in Play On! and Kim Coles’ critically acclaimed Homework.

There will not, however, be a 2000-01 season. As reported by the Home News Tribune (Oct. 3), Crossroads has cancelled its season slate, citing a budget deficit of nearly $2 million. Interim board president Rhinold Lamar Ponder, who succeeded outgoing President Dale Caldwell, told the Tribune, “It made no sense to put on productions and incur further debt, particularly when our financial and our business operations needed to be organized.”

Saying that the record-keeping at Crossroads had been in “disarray,” Ponder added that operating costs jumped $300,000 annually owing to the New Brunswick move, and that the company’s finances were so spotty, the New Jersey Council on the Arts postponed its usual grant to the theatre. On the positive side, Ponder, general manager Deborah Stapleton, executive producer Andre Robinson, interim artistic director Hal Scott and financial advisor Phil Thomas have submitted a “turnaround plan” to the Council, with a business plan of fundraising and debt reduction. Former artistic director Khan, on sabbatical in Trinidad, did not participate in the new plan, according to Ponder. Regarding Khan, Ponder added, “We hope he will play a prominent role” in Crossroads’ future.

The current goal is therefore to shut down, reorganize, and then return with a 2001-02 season. Helping matters is that the theatre may soon receive half-million dollar grant from the Senate Appropriations Subcomittee on Commerce, Justice, State and Judiciary, as part of the Department of Justice’s office of Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention Program. The Tribune noted that Senator Frank R. Lautenberg (D), who sponsored the bill, is a Crossroads supporter.

Calls to the theatre’s main number, (732) 249-5581 led to an answering machine message saying the number “has been temporarily disconnected.” The company's website, www.crossroadstheatre.org, has yet to be updated from last season. According to the Courier News, Crossroads has $192,000 in subscription money for the cancelled season, but no plans yet on whether to refund or otherwise allocate the funds. On the corporate side, Johnson & Johnson is continuing to support the company, both with funding and pro bono legal work, while the AT&T Foundation is still committed to its $80,000 grant for mounting Lynn Nottage's Las Meninas, originally scheduled for March 2001.

-- By David Lefkowitz