Crossroads Theatre Company, one of the leading African-American drama troupes in the country, shut its doors in September 2000, citing management turmoil and a $2 million debt. Interim Board president Rhinold Lamar Ponder, who succeeded outgoing President Dale Caldwell, told the Home News Tribune at the time, “It made no sense to put on productions and incur further debt, particularly when our financial and our business operations needed to be organized.”
Several months later, Ponder was whistling a far more optimistic tune, telling Playbill On-Line that Crossroads is getting its house in order, fundraising heavily and even planning "a truncated season starting in late fall" 2001.
Fall 2001 has come and gone, but there is still more than a hope for Crossroads. The New Brunswick theatre has just appointed choreographer George Faison as acting artistic director. Faison will stay on for one year as he and the board conduct a search for a new permanent artistic director.
A spokesman for the theatre said Faison and company were in the process of selecting a new season. When the season would start or what plays it would contain has not yet been decided.
July 23, 2001, saw the hiring of Leslie M. Edwards, an executive director for Crossroads — a new position which, Ponder says, "reflects the Board's decision to enhance the direction of the theatre. We'll continue to produce and present high-quality theatrical performances, but we're going to create products and services which are more community oriented, with arts and education, though it's premature to describe exactly what."
A former TimeWarner corporate communications executive, Edwards served as board president of Harlem's Aaron Davis Hall and was a CBS news producer.
"When we closed," explained Ponder, "everyone was laid off; Les Edwards is our first hire. This reflects a series of victories we've had since closing. We were granted $100,000 by the State Council of the Arts for hiring staff. Subsequently, we signed a contract for $500,000 allocated by the State Legislature, which will go toward debt reduction." That bill came 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 newspaper noted at the time that Senator Frank R. Lautenberg (D), who sponsored the bill, is a Crossroads supporter.
As for the cost of subscriber debt for the canceled season — pegged at $192,000 — Ponder said "a great number of subscribers have forgiven the debt, which is very helpful. We also held two benefits, a gospel evening with special guest Cissy Houston that raised $10,000, and an evening with Charles "Mississippi" Bevels [It Ain't Nothin' But the Blues] and Sheryl Lee Ralph ["Moesha"] that raised $20,000."
According to Ponder, the Crossroads building is still in excellent shape, "though we may need to do inventory and rehabilitate some of the equipment." The search has begun for an artistic director, though getting one may not be a pre-requisite for having a season. "We have lots of friends and resources and many people willing to assist us in mounting a season," Ponder told PBOL. "We are light years away from where we were a few months ago, but we still have a long way to go."
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.
At the time of the venue's closing, Ponder told the Home News Tribune the company's finances were in “disarray” and that operating costs jumped $300,000 annually owing to the New Brunswick move. 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 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 at the time, “We hope he will play a prominent role” in Crossroads’ future.
According to the Courier News, Crossroads has $192,000 in subscription money for the canceled 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 Robert Simonson
and David Lefkowitz