(l. to r.) Cliff Frazier, Woodie King Jr. and director Bob Sherwood during a rehearsal for the filming of Rev. Malcolm Boyd's trilogy, Study in Color, originally produced by Concept East in 1963.

In the Beginning: Concept East

By Cliff Frazier

Detroit is to the Black Theater movement what New Orleans is to jazz, because of the contributions of three men: Lloyd Richards, Woodie King Jr., and Ron Milner.

— August Wilson

In 1962, there was no Black theatre in Detroit with a permanent home. In the so-called legitimate theatres, such as the Vanguard and Northland Playhouse, Black actors were cast only if a play had a specifically Black role. Community or coffee house theatres, such as Unstabled Theatre, offered somewhat greater diversity in casting. Some opportunities also existed in the productions at Wayne State University.

The energetic and dynamic Woodie King, Jr. had a specific vision: Why not build a theatre that would represent an opportunity for aspiring Black actors, writers, directors, costume or scenic designers to work in a professional theatrical environment tailored to their experience? To achieve this, King surrounded himself with equally committed people who were also eager to have their own theatre. David Rambeau, who co-founded Drama Associates with Kent Martin, was also committed to creating a working environment that fostered the development of Black theatre. King and I, who had both studied acting at Will-o-Way Apprentice Theatre program, often discussed the need for such a theatre. King also reached out to others: Beldon Raspberry, Tim Dawkins, Ann Coleman, Jim Wright and Herschel Steinhardt. We were the original financial contributors who, through our contributions ranging from $100–$150, helped to launch the theatre. Other contributions came from Council Cargle, and Dr. Charles Wright, who also became a member of Concept East’s first Board. In addition to being a very successful gynecologist, Wright was a playwright who was committed to Black culture. In fact, King directed Wright’s first play Were You There? featuring Rambeau, Raspberry and myself. The Charles Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit was named in his honor.

In December l962, we rented an empty tavern at 401 East Adams Street, in the heart of Detroit’s Black community. Concept East was incorporated in January 1963. The name of the theatre came about because it was a new “concept” and was located on the “east side” of Detroit. Along with a number of volunteers we worked day and night to renovate the space. Spearheaded by White technician and carpenter Dick Smith, who became the company’s technical director, we removed the bar, cleaned up the space and painted the walls. We got sixty-five seats free from an old movie theatre in Rosedale, Michigan. Smith built the platform for the seats, cleaned up the seats and installed them. Afterwards, he built a grid to hold the lights. When it was finished, the theatre was made even more attractive by the display of original art work by Detroit artists that decorated the walls.

In its first season, Concept East produced nine plays. The theatre opened with Spoof in Spades, an improvisational theatre production that ran from February to March 1963. The next production was a dance performance, Blues Concepts, which ran throughout April. This was followed by Please Don’t Talk About Me When I Am Gone. In August we opened with Rev. Malcolm Boyd’s Study in Color followed by another of his plays, The Community. The audience was mesmerized by the productions. Study in Color was Rev. Boyd’s analysis of race relations and his poignant and perceptive depiction of role reversals. The Community confronted the relevance of religion in today’s society. Woodie King, Phil Purcell, Harrison Avery, Mary Schorn, and Tommie Mize were fabulous. At the end of the performances, many from the audience expressed a sense of pride that we had successfully opened our own theatre.

In an interview with Kalamu Ya Salaam for the Winter 1997 issue of African American Review, King discusses the first days of the theatre. “The theatre was a hit from the time it opened. From Motown, Berry Gordy gave us a little bread, and all the people started going down. When we opened, on Thursday, we [had] hardly anybody in the audience; by Friday, we had half a house; ...Saturday and Sunday we were packed. We were able to pay the rent and give everybody fifty dollars for their weekly pay. Then these plays by Reverend Boyd were such a hit that there were lines a block long.”

We were never discouraged. We felt the creative juices evidenced by the phenomenal success of Motown. The Detroit creative talents endowed us with an ability to do anything. Those were magic moments. This was our theatre. We made it. We controlled it. This had never happened before. What vibrancy! What excitement! What joy! This reinforced what we could do. Many times the limitations we experience are self imposed, because the vision is not there or because of self-doubt. Too often other people define who we are and our limitations.

Occasionally a customer of the old bar would come wandering in and be startled to find culture where beer once flowed. Two even came back to see the plays. They were intrigued with the idea of turning a bar into a place of culture. It made them proud of being Black.

Concept East was also championed by local critics such as Louis Cook, critic for The Detroit Free Press who wrote, “Concept East has been truest to its trust, giving a hearing to new plays by local writers....It is a brave experiment and long may it survive.” Likewise, a review in the Michigan Chronicle stated, “The two plays at Concept are gripping with intensity....Great acting by Cliff Frazier and Woodie King, Jr and Mary Schorn is superb....It carries the audience out of any self-complacency and tosses them into a whirlwind of new concepts concerning the significant living of persons in this world.”

Eventually Concept East garnered national acclaim akin to that later received by the Negro Ensemble Company in New York City. Concept East was a continuing affirmation that you can do a great deal if you believe in yourself and then proceed to act on it. It was only an idea, but it moved from an idea into a reality. It provided the groundwork that has helped numerous actors, writers and directors emerge, including Ron Milner whose first play, Life Agony, was produced by Concept East.

When King and I decided to remain in New York City following a tour of Study in Color in 1964, the management of Concept East was passed on to David Rambeau. He remained its artistic director until 1969 when he began to pursue his interests in television production. But the dream that had started when Woodie King, Jr., David Rambeau, Beldon Raspberry, myself and several other friends and supporters came together to create Concept East Theatre continued on another nine years and was, as scholar Kathryn Ervin notes, "a major theater in the Detroit area from its beginnings in 1962 until it closed in 1978."

Cliff Frazier is a renaissance man: a very successful humanitarian, executive, educator, lecturer, writer, television and motion picture producer, director, actor and social activist on a local, national and international level. He recently received the International Peace Award in Japan in recognition of his efforts to create a world of harmony and to build bridges of human understanding. An Emmy Award-winner, he is currently founder and chair of the International Center for World Harmony, executive director of the New York Metropolitan Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Non-violence, and president of the International Communications Association. He also co-founded and serves as chair of the Harriet Tubman Charter School, the first charter awarded by the New York State Board of Regents. In addition, Frazier is the chair of the New Federal Theatre, founded by his longtime Detroit friend and associate Woodie King, Jr.


July/Aug 2007

This article originally featured in Vol. 18, Issue. 2

Also in this issue:

  • The Detroit Connection: The Circle Unbroken

  • The Detroit Connection: Lloyd Richards

  • Ron Allen's Macrocosm of the Mind

  • Editor's Notes: The Detroit Spirit

  • Guest Editor's Notes: From a Detroit Perspective

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    Woodie King Jr. in 1962, at the time of the founding of Concept East in Detroit.