September 21, 2000, Thursday

by Theresa Hyde

(L-R) Karey Statin, Wilma Barnett, Deborah Wilson, BeBe Wilson, Director Kelley Dianne Smith and the Director's proud mother Dianne Smith

Melissa Cross and I walked into The Ensemble Theatre’s grand, spacious lobby surveying the much talked about $4 million dollar renovation to this theatre facility. My eyes and ears were greeted by the magnificent flower arrangement that adorned the Hors d’oeuvres’ buffet spread and the soothing jazz music by the Joe Carmouche band. The Ensemble Theatre’s Marketing / Audience Developer, Mr. Wilbert O. Taylor, Jr. gave us a tour of the 4 different “spaces” of the Art building, which included the George Hawkins Theatre and the Audrey H. Lawson Arena Theatre. Mr. Taylor explained that the “spaces” were named after the founding pioneers of the awe-inspiring theatre. I asked him how he got involved in theatre and he stated that being an architect himself, it is in his opinion that Art, Theatre, and Architecture, they all go together.

Opening Night Reception, Thursday September 21, 2000 Featuring Jazz by Joe Carmouche

After making my selection of Chardonnay wine for tonight’s beverage, my eyes sampled the first class buffet table. The delicious smell of perfectly seasoned rice wafted through my nose. I definitely had to find out who is responsible for this. In keeping up with The Old Settler’s “Two Sister” theme for the evening, I met two sisters whose names are Renee and Cynthia Ferrell. They run The Bennie Ferrell Catering Company together, which was founded in 1959 and is named after their father. They have provided catering service to the President of the United States and they are the creators of the 24 Karat Gold Covered Truffle. I asked her for a brief description on what’s for dinner tonight.

Wine and Hors d'oeuvres' Reception

Theresa: The buffet looks delicious. What a beautiful presentation........
Renee: We wanted to create something that was warm and inviting for the Opening Night Reception of The Ensemble Theatre’s “The Old Settler.” We wanted to put some comfort foods in there. But also, kinda stretch the imagination to make it interesting. So we have the pecan smoked sirloin, served with the home made rolls and condiments. We have a vegetable tempura with the ginger sauce. We also have the salmon mousse, international cheese and fruit fresh vegetable tray and we have a crab manier. It’s a real good dish that is spiced with a little wine. Basically, it’s fun types of foods. For drinks, we are serving Chardonnay, Cokes and assorted beverages. That’s what we wanted to create for the Opening Night of the First Event of the Season. So, we are all excited about the New Season. We work exclusively with the Ensemble Theatre and we do all the events here. We keep everything light and lovely and beautiful like the Theatre.

(L-R) Renee and Cynthia Ferrell of Bennie Ferrell Catering

Theresa: Do you cook all the food?
Renee: (laughs) No, I don’t cook all the food, but they’re my family’s recipes. My sister, Cynthia Ferrell is the executive chef and we have a staff of great, wonderful cooks and chefs in our kitchen. And they prepare all the foods.
Theresa: Thank you very much. It looks great and it’s very appetizing.

Bennie Ferrell Catering
Catering Service Location: 5100 Westheimer, Suite 200 Houston, Texas 77056
Kitchen Location: 4141 Hollister (at Clay in Spring Branch) Houston, Texas 77080
Phone 713-968-6515


September 21, 2000, Thursday

By Theresa Hyde

President of the Board of Directors of The Ensemble Theatre Ms. Argentina James

Founded in 1976 by the late George Hawkins, The Ensemble Theatre is one of the oldest and most distinguished professional theatres in the southwestern U.S. devoted to the African American experience. From its humble beginnings as a touring company, The Ensemble now boasts a main stage auditorium with seating for 200, an arena stage that seats 150, and a grand performance hall that accommodates 500. The Ensemble presents a full season of classic and contemporary African American works by local and national playwrights and artists. In addition, The Ensemble provides educational community outreach through its touring company and Young Performers Program.

I had the most wonderful opportunity to interview the President of the Board of Ensemble Theatre, Ms. Argentina James The interview was conducted in the Green Room where on the wall hung a picture of the old Ensemble Theatre on Taum Street and of the founder and visionary, the late George C. Hawkins.

Theresa: Congratulations on the beautiful Theatre and the New Season!
Argentina James: Thank you.

Theresa: Who makes the decisions for the New Season?
Argentina James: The Artistic Director does. The Programming Committee made those decisions for this year. We are in absence of an Artistic Director, which we hope to have filled by January, 2001.

Theresa: You look too young to be a President of the Board (laughs).
Argentina James: 35 (laughs).

Theresa: Are you from Houston, originally?
Argentina James: No, I’m from Chicago. I came to Houston to attend College at Texas Southern University, I majored in undergraduate in Journalism and I received a Masters in Speech Communication, both from Texas Southern University. I fell in love and stayed here with my husband and the city. I’ve lived here since 1984.

Theresa: How did you get involved with Ensemble Theatre and theatre in general?
Argentina James: Actually, my role with the theatre is more in a fund development, as a Board. How I became involved with Ensemble Theatre is when I attended a play as a college student and supported it from a patron. And as I grew to know the theatre better, I then began to subscribe. I got involved with the Ensemble Theatre from a board perspective and from a volunteer perspective with the Gala five years ago when we brought Lou Gossett Jr. here and he did a performance as a fund raiser for the theatre. And I’ve been involved with the Board from that point on. And it’s been about seven years.

Actor and Director Louis Gossett, Jr. (center), with Robert Townsend (L) and Andre Braugher (R)

Theresa: Were you involved in the renovation of the new theatre? What was the old theatre like?
Argentina James: There’s a picture of what the Ensemble Theatre looked like 24 years ago on Taum Street. And that was the size of it, it was an old computer facility. George Hawkins, who is the founder (that’s a picture of him), he had the vision for the theatre. He wanted to provide a place for African American Artists to display their talent and have a place for their work, because there was not a venue prior to the Ensemble Theatre for that to happen. And we were there and we outgrew that facility. George Hawkins moved here and this used to be an old car dealership and he had a vision that this could be a wonderful theatre.

Entrance to the GEORGE HAWKINS THEATRE at The Ensemble Theatre

He died in 1990 and we won the Audelco Award five years later to have a theatre to survive the founder, a major accomplishment. Then, to be able to build and renovate the theatre to a $4.5 million dollar state-of-the-art facility is another major accomplishment. And that Capital Campaign was led under the previous President of the Board, which is Audrey Lawson. She is the President Emeritus. She led the fund raising for the Capital Campaign. She and many other people who were involved in other Corporations, etc. And we raised the money over a two year period and we renovated this theatre. We essentially gutted it out and started all over again. Now we have a main stage, George Hawkins. We have an Audrey Lawson Arena. And a performance center in the back. With a total capacity of seating of about a thousand, if you add all three spaces together. And then we have the facility. One of the things that we wanted to do with this facility was to have many purposes and uses for it. In the front, having receptions, having a theatre, having an important theatre with the Audrey Lawson Arena and having larger performances in the back. We had a fund raiser in August, 2000 with Kurt Whalem as the featured entertainer and we raised $270,000 for the theatre.

Theresa: Is this your full time occupation?
Argentina James: This is volunteer work, I do not get paid. Besides being a mom of 2 and a wife, I have a 15-month old son and a 4-year old daughter (my namesake Argentina), I have a full time job. I’m Vice President of Corporate Affairs for Sterling Bank, which is a bank here in Houston.

Theresa: Wow, a banker. So, you started in the old Ensemble Theatre.....
Argentina James: Actually, I came on to the theatre when we were in this facility. I was not part of the theatre in terms of the Board, when we were in Taum. I became a part of the Theatre when we were here right before we began our Capital Campaign. And I’ve been on that Board since that time.

(L-R) Melissa Cross, Ensemble Theatre Marketing Developer Mr. Wilbert O. Taylor, Jr., and Full Season Gold Subscriber

Theresa: What are the biggest challenges in making George Hawkins’ vision happen?
Argentina James: This Theatre has a budget of $1.2 million dollars every year. We went from Taum Street of $50,000 a year to $1.2 million dollars a year over a 25 year period. The challenges with all Art venues is to get Corporations to donate to support the Arts. As you know, the National Endowments and the Foundations have not received federal funding as they have and those dollars have shrank. The challenge is getting the Corporate donations, providing a season that will enable you to attract the patrons, the subscribers. And that’s what this Subscription Drive and Opening Night Celebration is all about. And we’re pleased to have about 150 people on a Thursday rainy night (laughs).

Theresa: (laughs) That’s right. But we have complimentary valet parking.
Argentina: So the challenge that I see is 1) The Ensemble Theatre is the only venue that has 6 full productions a year by national and local playwrights that are primarily for African Americans. They can go to the Alley, maybe there might be one or two productions on stage. You know, there’s just not enough work for them. So we’re providing a venue. 2) We have a Young Performer’s Program to cultivate young actors to get the interest in the support of the Arts. We also have a touring program, which we take the Art outside of the four walls of the Ensemble Theatre and that is a way to market the theatre, bring the kids, bring the group that we go on tour with, back into the theatre.

Theresa: Different High Schools in the Houston area?
Argentina: They go wherever there’s a venue that they are asked to come, where they can do a presentation.

Theresa: Congratulations, this is such a huge success story.
Argentina: Yeah, we’re proud of it. We have 43 Board Members, we have everyone from the city attorney to a retired educator. So we have a good balance of the Board which represents all facets of industry. They’re all volunteers. In fact the Director Level Board Members are required to raise $10,000 and the Trustee levels are required to raise $2,500 and we only have a 2% attrition rate of our board members. So that meant that everybody met their commitments.

Theresa: Is your family involved in the theatre as well?
Argentina: They’re so involved (laughs), they’re very much involved. They support me to be involved. They enable me to be involved. My husband has seen every production (laughs), everything. He lives in the Ensemble Theatre, as I do. The Young Performers Program is year-round where we have Fall, Summer and Spring productions. Where the kids come in, and they actually learn from professional artists. How to mount a production, how to act, stage discipline, etc., all of that culminate into a Finale production.

(L-R) Scenic Design Consultant James Thomas, Marketing Developer Wilbert O. Taylor Jr., and Production Manager Meredith McCrory

Theresa: I think it’s great, and the kids can feel comfortable and share the African American experience in their own environment.......
Argentina: The wonderful thing about it is, the Ensemble Theatre was George Hawkins’ vision, to create a place so that we can tell our story. Our story relates to all cultures. We are sharing with the audience our experience, but I think, applies to all ethnicities. You can identify with what’s going on. We’re just telling it our way, through our experience.

Theresa: What would you like to say to the Houston Theatre going public?
Argentina: I would just like to share with the Theatre world and with Houston, in general that the Ensemble Theatre is a crowning jewel for the city. We are in the midst of mid-town, a part of Downtown, which is about to become great, within the next 5 years. We are on the cutting edge, we have a whole lot to offer. We want to share it with this world.