By Ameera Steward
The Birmingham Times
The COVID-19 pandemic has been more than a health crisis for many across the Birmingham metro area. Creatives and artists have been suffering, as well, and Marc Raby, director of the Encore Theatre and Gallery in East Birmingham, has spent the past month helping the best way he knows how.
“That’s the biggest crisis for me: … knowing that artists are really taking a blow financially right now because of this whole COVID thing,” he said. “There [are] a lot of theaters, productions, and shows that are not surviving, so this has really forced me to try to figure out ways to be creative and innovative to keep the Encore alive.”
Throughout the month of May, Raby produced “Monologue Mondays,” a virtual production on Facebook Live featuring different actors reciting various monologues of their choice. Actors performed works from August Wilson to Shakespeare, from Lynn Nottage to Lorraine Hansberry. Monologues included “The Rookie Cop” by Adam Wahlberg, “Treat Me Nice” by Joseph Arnone, and “Crowns” by Regina Taylor.
“For a creative, not being able to do what we do is really like a fish being out of water, so we decided that the way we would weather this time would be to figure out some way to work on our craft and entertain people at the same time,” Raby said.
Each Monday during the month of May, viewers logged on to the Encore Theatre and Gallery Facebook page to watch monologues recited by its performers and artists from cities around the U.S., such as Atlanta, Georgia, and St. Louis, Missouri.
The performances also included commentary and encouragement from performers to help others amid the quarantine. In addition, every week Raby and his team saluted an “Alabama Jewel,” explaining who the person was, showing the person’s photo, and speaking about their great work. Octavia Spencer, an Academy Award–winning actress, author, and producer from Montgomery, Alabama, was the program’s first “Jewel” in week one.
“Some of the performers on Monologue Mondays hadn’t been on a stage in years, [but the current situation] reminded me of just how important it is to continue to create,” he said, adding that he heard from a few recognizable fans of his work, including a video from television sitcom performer Marla Gibbs, who played Florence Johnston on “The Jeffersons” and Mary Jenkins on “227.”
“It was a beautiful surprise to receive,” Raby said. “It’s humbling to have a five-time Emmy-nominated television legend see the work we’re doing and take time to send love to the performers in such a cool way.”
“That, for Me, Was Magic”
Raby, 35, who writes directs, produces, and acts, grew up between Ensley and West End. Though his family moved around a lot and he changed elementary schools frequently, one thing remained steady—his love for theater. One of his aunts would take him to the theater, where he would see people on stage who looked like him, he recalled.
“It wasn’t because she was trying to get me to go into theater,” he said. “She would take me because she thought it was important for us to be well rounded and culturally versed.”
Raby was enthralled by everything from the production to the audience, by the way the audience would go from laughing to crying. One minute they were applauding, the next they were talking to or yelling at the people on the stage.
“That, for me, was magic,” he said. “Even as a kid, it was … an experience to see how a show was able to shake a person’s being. I was intrigued by that. I said, ‘I’m going to be one of them,’ and that’s what I’ve been doing—being one of them, evoking change, provoking thought, and evolving ideas in people that otherwise I wouldn’t have a platform to do. … It sparked a passion for theater that’s never left me.”
Until the first semester of his junior year, Raby attended Woodlawn High School. For the remainder of his high school career, he had to be home-schooled because he was performing and Birmingham City Schools couldn’t accommodate his performance schedule.
After high school, Raby entered seminary to study theology, and he decided to go into ministry because he comes from a family of preachers. “None actually pastored a church,” he said, explaining that his mother was an evangelist, his grandmother was an elder, and his uncle is an outreach pastor.
“I was surrounded by church, [but] I knew after getting the degree that biblical studies weren’t what I wanted to do. … I have an opportunity to be a little more reaching [through theater]. … I reach a wider audience than I think I could from behind a pulpit.”
Raby believes the universal tenets of anyone’s faith are always the same: do right by others, treat people well, do unto others as you would have them do unto you—it’s all the same, no matter what someone’s religion is.
“I gravitate toward shows that entice people to be better, to just treat people better,” he said. “The typical church setting uses scripture; I use scripts. … Quite often those scripts are inspired by scripture, even when it’s not a faith-based or religious play, which, truthfully, I very seldom have the opportunity to do. … [Still], the shows we present speak to the audience in a way that makes them want to leave as better people.”
Raby’s mother not only was an evangelist but also made him the kind person he is today. He believes his mom was the poster woman for integrity and being kind to people, as well as being giving to people.
“I had a blueprint in my mom that enabled me to know that if you’re going to get anywhere in life you have to know how to treat people right,” he said of his mother, who passed away in 2007 as a result of an aneurysm.
“When I walked her into the hospital, I had no idea that I wouldn’t be walking out with her,” he said. “Once she was gone, I had to figure out [work and life].”
To help himself get through the loss of his mother, Raby wrote “Even Me: Maintaining Faith in Uncertain Times,” a book published in 2011 and inspired by the traditional hymn “Even Me.”
Then in 2017, Raby lost his sister, who passed away after having a seizure.
“She was a huge, unashamed supporter of everything I would do, a huge cheerleader,” he said. “So, my job is to kind of continue to make her proud in the things I’m doing.”
One way Raby makes his sister proud is by raising her three daughters, now 9, 18, and 19 years old. Also, in an effort to provide for his new family and as an ode to his sister, he announced that the Encore Theatre and Gallery would open on his sister’s birthday, August 15, in 2018.
“[With] theater, I’m right at home where I’m supposed to be,” he said.
Creating a Space
Throughout elementary, middle, and high school, Raby participated in plays and productions “whenever the opportunities presented themselves,” he said.
“One of the reasons I became a part of the effort to create Encore is because growing up … there were [few] opportunities; there were little to none.”
Before Raby opened Encore in 2018, there weren’t many black shows presented in Birmingham. He went around the city telling people his plans with Encore and seeking advice, and he kept hearing the same thing: “It’s not going to work. There’s no way you can do a whole season with just black performers. There aren’t enough black theater goers to fund it, to support it.”
That did not deter Raby.
During Encore’s first season, five major shows were featured—and “we packed the house every single time,” he said, sharing that shows from that season included “For Colored Girls” by Ntozake Shange, “Happy Ending” by Douglas Turner Ward, and “Tiny Tim,” an original work by Raby.
“When we did that, everybody started integrating more African American productions into their season,” he said. “If that’s what it takes to promote consistent performing opportunities for our people, then I’m all for it. To be honest, I’m not going to stop performing, but I could [stop doing] Encore and be OK as long as the work continues for my people.”
In providing opportunities, several of Raby’s former classmates frequently participate in shows at Encore. Some of his past teachers attend many of his productions, too.
“It’s been really cool for me, a kid that’s a product of Birmingham City Schools, to … see my teachers still take the time now, … many years later, to support what I’m doing,” he said.
Though Raby admits it can be intimidating to look up and see his former teachers in the crowd, it lets him know that what he does matters, he said: “Yes, we do go to the theater. Yes, we do support the theater. … We support where we can relate.”
“It’s not about creating a black theater and a white theater; … it’s about ensuring that every creative voice is heard, every one of them,” Raby said. “If I understand that the whole season of the six other theaters in the city has been dedicated to performers who are non-ethnic, then it’s my job to fill the void.”
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Raby said the theater no longer has a steady source of income—no grants or federal funding—and it thrives off the support of ticket buyers.
Even though Monologue Mondays ended on May 25, Raby said there is a possibility that he may extend the programs, depending on when entertainment businesses can reopen. Recently, Jefferson County Health Officer Mark Wilson, MD, issued an order keeping entertainment venues (night clubs, theaters, auditoriums, performing arts centers, museums, indoor children’s play areas) closed until June 6.
Nonetheless, Raby continues to write, “so that when we come out of this thing, worrying about how to raise money to license shows, maybe we can defer some of that by just doing some more original stuff until we can get back on our feet.”
The pandemic has also helped Raby realize the importance of his work because most people are finding solace in the arts during this time. It takes creativity to survive calamity, devastation, and chaos, he said.
“I hope there are people who will all be able to share in the testament that somehow, someway my art, my writing, my words impacted them, pushed them, encouraged them,” Raby said.
“I want everything I do to be indelible, otherwise it isn’t worth doing.”
For more information, visit the Encore Theatre and Gallery at its website (encorebham.com), on Facebook (Encore Theatre and Gallery, or on Instagram page (@Encorebham).
Updated on 6/4/2020 at 5:19 pm to correct cutline.