By: Jenny B. Davis
After several attempts at applying for the job as the director of the Jubilee Theatre over the years, William “Bill” Earl Ray finally got the gig last spring. So he’s been brainstorming forever about what he can do for the long-standing theater to make it bigger and better. His mission has always been to share the diverse stories and culture of African Americans beyond monotonous stereotypes, which will be told through musicals and plays with an emphasis on new talent.
This man has been acting and directing all over the country since 1978. He’s engrossed in all things African American theater as evidenced in his exhaustive resumé. Ray always had an insatiable appetite for reading and learning. Music and books have been this self-proclaimed “loner’s” passion since he was a child. He would escape into his room and dive into the lives and stories of others. This eventually led him to theater.
He will never forget that moment he saw The Amen Corner by James Baldwin while serving in the Korean War. The curtains parted one evening, and an entire cast of African Americans emerged on stage. The play spoke directly to his heart, telling him a story they all shared.
“There were all black people on the stage, and I had never seen that before,” Ray said.
Immediately after returning to stateside in 1978, Ray started acting in and directing in African American theater in Fort Lewis, Wash. By 1980 he became director of the Ndaba Cultural Ensemble in Washington for seven years. But he would say he didn’t become a good director until nearly 20 years later in 1998 when he had an epiphany. He was watching a Woody Allen movie when the camera zoomed into a photograph that came to life. He immediately wanted to figure out how he could do that on stage. For him, life is a series of photographs.
As director, he has many hats, but he continues his passion for reading and music because he chooses and directs the performances for each season. “I never stop learning. I don’t think you can ever stop learning,” Ray said.
Congruent with the directors that came before, Ray will continue to choose productions that speak directly to the hearts of African Americans. He said subjects like racial strife have not changed over the years, so a play based on events in the ’60s is more relevant now than ever.
“The mission is to do stories that reflect the African American experience going forward but to be inclusive. The bookend plays [this season] are multicultural. We don’t want to not be inclusive. Our goal is to maintain and engage a diverse audience,” Ray said.
Actor Marcus Mauldin has been working with Ray in various theaters for 22 years. He said acting in a production directed by Ray is as comforting as a grandmother’s Sunday dinner because of his comprehensive knowledge of acting and directing. They place all their worries and concerns in his hands.
“They should have hired him a long time ago…He has big ideas, but sometimes people need to get out of his way,” Mauldin said.
Mauldin said he knows Ray wants to grow the Jubilee from a local theater to a regional attraction where actors come from all over the country to work with him. And since Ray has worked all over the world “with major names,” he may be able to intrigue them. Mauldin said it would be hard to find someone who worked harder than Ray does.
“I never cared about being rich. What was important to me was doing what I love to do. I have eaten air for food,” Ray said.
His proudest moment was in 2001 when he worked with a group of teens in a juvenile detention center. He produced a play and saw that he was able to reach these children through the play’s message.
To continue this mission in sync with the theater’s mission, he plans to start a Monday night reader series next year to help new playwrights, young and old, workshop their pieces and possibly produce some of them at Jubilee. For this reason, he would also like to add a black box theater (which is a smaller, less-adorned venue) to showcase the new, up-and-coming artists.
“This is the place [Jubilee Theatre] where we have the opportunity to reach out and hopefully make a difference in someone’s life, and as artistic director of Jubilee Theatre — that is the vision that I can see most clearly for the future of the company,” Ray wrote in the 2016-2017 season calendar booklet.
This strong-willed, seasoned actor and director knows how to get things done. The evolution of the Jubilee Theatre will unfold over the next few years under Ray’s determined and diligent direction.
By: Jenny B. Davis