Stanley E. Williams and Quentin Easter started with $1,500 in the bank, presenting a diverse selection of established and cutting-edge work by African American playwrights in a succession of small performance spaces. In a climate of severe arts funding cutbacks, which hit ethnically identified organizations particularly hard, the new company quickly made a name for itself with a hard-hitting staging of Charles Fuller's "Zooman and the Sign," Adrienne Kennedy's seminal "Funny house of a Negro" and new works by Ntozake Shange, Alice Walker, Jamal, Robert Alexander and others.
"We honestly didn't know if we had a chance to survive," Williams told The Chronicle's Steven Winn in a 1985 interview. "The game plan was to get on the board and see where we stood.
By then, they had established the Hansberry as the leading African American theatre in San Francisco. In 1988, with funding from the city and donors, Williams and Easter had their own 300-seat venue in the former YWCA building on Sutter Street.
Quentin Easter (left) and Stanley E. Williams (right); Co-Founders of the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre.
They were a formidable pair. Williams was a forceful advocate, both for his own company and for black artists in general. His style was mercurial. He could be charming and witty or angrily confrontational, hectoring media representatives for more coverage and banning at least one critic from his theatre.
Easter, who was no less persistent, never seemed to lose his temper. He worked quietly, tirelessly, marshaling arguments for the company and building links with other arts and advocacy organizations. Between them, by the end of the past century, the Hansberry had become the premier black theatre in the state.
Williams had been determined to make his mark since childhood. Born in 1950 in North Carolina, and raised in New Haven, Conn., the oldest of six children, he'd helped raise his sisters from the age of 10, when his father died. At 11, he wrote to President John Kennedy to express his admiration and determination to become President himself. No sooner had Williams been exposed to theatre in high school than he revised his goals. He told his mother, who survives him, that he was going to found his own theatre company. Though he shelved those plans while majoring in business at the University of Connecticut, he headed for the Bay Area to pursue them soon thereafter.
It wasn't until Williams met Easter that everything fell into place. With Easter's support, Williams single-mindedly pursued his vision of seeing that black theatre had its own place in the downtown theatre district. He proclaimed that African American culture is American culture, and he devoted his life to demonstrating that fact.
Williams presented a broad range of material, from revivals of classics by James Baldwin and the theatre's namesake to musicals celebrating the likes of Duke Ellington, Eubie Blake, and Bessie Smith, to new artists such as Rhodessa Jones and Roger Guenveur Smith.
An early, passionate champion of playwright August Wilson, whose output he compared to Shakespeare's, Williams had a hand in producing Wilson's entire 10-play cycle, either at the Hansberry or in cooperation with the American Conservatory Theatre and other companies.
Both men died too young, Williams at 60 and Easter at 57. Their lives and achievements continue to be celebrated by the theatre they established.
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