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After 17 years of introducing ambitious African-American works to Utah audiences, Richard Scharine says he plans to retire the brand of the People Productions theater company.
First up, though, is a regional premiere of August Wilson's "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," opening Thursday at Salt Lake City's Sugar Space Arts Warehouse.
At 78, Scharine has experience with retirement: He retired from the theater faculty at the University of Utah first in 2003 and then again in 2005. He threatens to show up at a photography shoot with a sign: "Will direct for food." He likes to joke he has invested his time and money in making black theater instead of taking up retirement hobbies such as refinishing furniture or owning a boat.
Scharine doesn't think it's unusual that a white guy raised in rural Wisconsin is invested in plays by black writers. He says his family's history as Northern European immigrants helps him understand African-American characters.
"My grandparents came to a whole new country," he says. "I went to a one-room school in the country. How unlikely is it for me to be directing black theater in Salt Lake City?"
His retirement should spark a louder and wider conversation about diverse voices and casts at other theater companies, beyond just one black or minority slot on a season, says Alicia Washington. With her sister, Camille, she founded Ogden's Good Company Theatre, the only black-run theater company in the state, five years ago.
"What Richard has done is hard," she says. As a young actor, Washington's schedule never allowed her to try out for People Productions shows, but she was encouraged just knowing the company produced Wilson and other significant black plays in Utah.
"He's a pioneer in helping artists of color find an artistic home in Salt Lake," says Martine Kei Green-Rogers, an assistant professor of theater at the U. who has helped update the theater company's social-media accounts.
"He's a beacon of light in creating opportunities for people of color and varying age ranges," she says. Some semesters, People Productions' shows are the only opportunity for students studying African-American theater to see local productions of the scripts they read for her class.
And through those productions, People Productions has helped build the talent pool of local African-American actors, says Jerry Rapier, artistic director of Plan-B Theatre Company, who worked with Scharine to create a festival spotlighting black plays and performances.
Through the years, Scharine has provided opportunities for emerging artists, as evidenced when his regular actors are unavailable after being hired by local companies with bigger budgets.
"I don't know how many folks saw our shows," says actor William Ferrer, who has performed in scores of People Productions roles, returning to Salt Lake City from Portland to perform in "Ma Rainey." "I think we always left an impression on those who did come. I never felt we mailed it in. I never felt we put on a bad show. I selfishly enjoyed People Productions because Richard and I liked a lot of the same plays, and I got good roles in them."
Back in college in Whitewater, Wis., Scharine was aiming to play football, figuring he would coach high school football and teach history. After a stint in the U.S. Army, he returned to campus, where he happened to be cast in his first stage role. "When you were in a play, you got to play on Saturday, and that wasn't happening in my football career," he says. Onstage "nobody hits you, but if they do, they apologize. And you got to play onstage with girls."
In 1962, he married his wife, Marilyn, also an actor as well as an accomplished costume designer. While they were both teaching at Iowa's William Penn College, Scharine focused on British political theater. In graduate school, "we kind of had this idea that we could save the world with political theater."
He began directing African-American plays when a representative from the Black Student Union asked him to produce Lorraine Hansberry's "A Raisin in the Sun."
Hired by the U. in 1978, Scharine was assigned to focus on theater history, and so he left directing for a time. After his wife's surprising death to cancer in 2002, directing a campus production of Rita Dove's "The Darker Face of the Earth" helped him keep his head together.
Actor Edward Lewis founded People Productions in 1971 in San Jose, Calif. Lewis, who was black, met Scharine after moving to Utah in 2000. The pair rebooted the company, which allowed Lewis to take on acting roles he wanted and Scharine to direct plays he loved.
Their first show, James Baldwin's "The Amen Corner," was a fundraiser for Calvary Baptist Church, and the cast included a handful of first-time actors from the congregation. "Starting with James Baldwin and ending with August Wilson," Scharine says, "you couldn't get any better writing."
The itinerant nonprofit company has introduced a variety of important plays to Utah audiences, ranging from Ntozake Shange's "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf" to Lynn Nottage's "Intimate Apparel" and Suzan-Lori Parks' "Topdog/Underdog," as well as Wilson's "Jitney" in 2004.
In the production credits for "Jitney," Scharine was listed as the producer, although he was "very hands on," he says, as Wilson requested that only black directors be allowed to helm his plays. After the playwright's death in 2005, his wife has agreed to grant rights to more companies, including white directors such as Scharine.
The company has performed in a variety of offbeat spaces, ranging from a Sandy bar to the former Ladies Literary Club building on South Temple, before settling in at the west-side Sugar Space.
Several years after Lewis died in 2009, Scharine planned to turn over the company to others but stepped back in to keep it alive. Recently, he broadened the company's reach by adding other socially conscious plays to the schedule, such as David Henry Hwang's "Yellow Face."
Scharine mostly funded shows on his credit cards. He wasn't very good at marketing or fundraising. Drawing big audiences and earning money weren't as important to him as bringing favorite stories to life. "I never wanted to give up power, and never really built an organization," he says. "I had plays that I wanted to do, and I was lucky enough to get some actors to do them."
He adds: "We're all epic, and we all have epic stories."
'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom'
The show, the first of playwright August Wilson's famed Century Cycles, is set in a Chicago recording studio in 1927. "By the time the tracks are laid down, one man is dead, and the audience has a record of what it's like to be black in the America of the day or maybe today," is how director Richard Scharine summarizes the themes of the show.
When • Thursday-Saturday, April 13-15, 20-22; 7:30 p.m., with 2 p.m. Saturday matinees; additional matinee on Sunday, April 23
Where • Sugar Space Arts Warehouse, 132 S. 800 West, Salt Lake City
Tickets • $15 ($10 seniors/students) at the door or peopleproductions.org
Also • When Scharine sent out a request for a stand-up bass for the show, he got a quick response from David Law, the president of the Iowa Music Educators association. "I'll pay the rental cost. Find the one you want and let me know the cost. My pleasure."
Forty-five years ago, Scharine cast Law opposite Jill Bainbridge in a production at William Penn College. The couple have now been married for 42 years.