When John Ervin III has taken underprivileged teens to see shows at the Gallo Center for the Arts, many have asked him the same question:
Why aren’t there more black people on stage?
The question stuck with him, and he decided he needed to help change the situation. Ervin, who is chief executive officer of Modesto’s Project Uplift, joined with other area residents to form Modesto’s first black theater group, Sankofa Theater Company.
Ervin and the other founders got the idea to form the theater company after acting together in a rare local production featuring black actors — Prospect Theater Project’s smash-hit May 2011 staging of “To Kill a Mockingbird” at the Gallo Center.
They asked Jim Johnson, the white director of that production, to direct “The Piano Lesson.” He enthusiastically agreed. “Nobody had to twist my arm,” he said, adding that he loved working with the cast of “Mockingbird” and was delighted to continue.
The actors named their group Sankofa Theater after an African symbol of a bird, which represents taking from the past what is good and making progress in the future.
The company’s mission is to promote black history, life and culture. “We seek to create unforgettable moments that remind others of our common humanity, sharing the unique characteristics of the African-American Diaspora with the broader community,” the mission statement says.
Most of the company members have extensive experience in theater. Ervin had lead roles in “Mockingbird” and “A Raisin in the Sun.” Cheryl Knox of Hughson and Elizabeth Garmon of Modesto have appeared in area musicals and operas. Dwight Mahabir is a professional actor who performed as a child on Broadway and has appeared in productions throughout the region.
Knox and other Sankofa members said one reason they wanted to start a black theater group in Modesto was to give young people opportunities in theater. “We want to give them something positive.”
Sankofa Theater Company members hope people of all races will attend their shows and learn more about black culture and its rich history. “We’re more than BET reality shows,” Ervin said.