The Homewood neighborhood of Pittsburgh was also the site of the National Negro Opera Company, which flourished from 1941 to 1962. So the stage was set for bigger things to come.
On an international level, Pulitzer-prize winning playwright August Wilson set each of his acclaimed dramas detailing the dreams and lives of Pittsburgh’s Hill District -- the Black neighborhood where he was raised. His works — Fences, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Two Trains Running, Piano Lessons and Jitney, have reached a millions worldwide and communicated Pittsburgh as their principal location.
Before he blew up, August Wilson had a playwright partner that was just as prolific, but better known regionally, Rob Penny. Penny and Wilson had already formed Black Horizons Theatre Company as a creative vehicle to deal with Pittsburgh community issues. Due to funding problems, their success was modest at best. Enter Associate Professor Dr. Vernell A. Lillie from Houston to found Kuntu Repertory Theatre in 1974 to direct the works of Rob Penny, and the works of other Black playwrights. Penny was Playwright-in-Residence at the University of Pittsburgh and a teaching peer to Dr. Lillie in the Africana Studies Department. Thus, Kuntu became the second oldest theatre company affiliated with the resources of a major university. Though August Wilson moved west and eventually hit it big on Broadway, he never lost a creative connection with Kuntu and Pittsburgh. Wilson’s plays are regularly produced by the Pittsburgh Public Theater and Kuntu Repertory Theater.
The aesthetic and philosophical base of Kuntu drama flows from the mores, rituals, and traditions of West Africa, Nubia and Ancient Egypt. With those educational and philosophical underpinnings, Kuntu examines Black life from a sociopolitical-historical perspective to educate, entertain, cause reflection and trigger social action by the audience. Dr Lillie developed Kuntu as a student/community organization with plenty of creative space for students to interact with professional performers and technicians. One of the most insightful aspects of each play is the talk-back session with the director, writer and actors after each performance.
Kuntu is nationally renown for its development of playwrights. Over the years, Kuntu has produced more than 139 main-stage plays, toured with over 2,520 collages and plays and conducted over 530 master classes and workshops. Kuntu Touring Company performs dramatic collages of literature, music, and dance and creates Psychodrama/Theatre Workshops that provide other ways to interact with the community. Kuntu Touring Company has performed at New York City, Ohio State University, New Orleans Jazz Heritage Festival, South Africa, and Toronto among many other venues. Notable plays performed by Kuntu include:
Slow Lives On a Humdrum by Rob Penny
Killin and Chillin by Rob Penny
Who Loves The Dancer by Rob Penny
Good Black Don’t Crack by Rob Penny
Homecomin by August Wilson
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom by August Wilson
In New England Winter by Ed Bullins, directed by August Wilson
Sing Black Hammer by William Mayfield
Wine In The Wilderness by Alice Childress
A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry
The River Niger by Joseph Walker
Blues for an Alabama Sky by Pearl Cleage
Flyin’ West by Pearl Cleage
The Strong Breed by Wole Soyinka
Tambourines to Glory by Langston Hughes
Amen Corner by James Baldwin
The Miracle Church by Sybill Berry
Zora: The Dark Town Strutter by Laurence Holder
Sacred Ground by Valerie Williams Lawrence
Lifting by Frank Hightower
Mahalia Jackson: Standing on Holy Ground by Dr. Vernell A. Lillie
Still I Rise by Dr. Vernell A. Lillie
The Brothers by Kathleen Collins
Whispers Want to Holler by Martha Effinger
Union Station by Martha Effinger
Papa’s Blues by Javon Johnson
In the Midnight Hour by Kathleen Collins
In competition, Kuntu has won two-first and two-second place prizes in the Lorraine Hansberry Playwriting Award of the American College Theatre Festival sponsored by the Kennedy Center in Washington. Kuntu lives on today in the capable hands of artistic Director Dr. Lillie.
Thomas Dorsey, Founder & CEO of SoulOfAmerica.com, was a Kuntu Repertory Theatre sound technician (1975-1978). He counts Kuntu as one of the three inspirational foundations to create SoulOfAmerica.com travel website. The late Rob Penny’s play, “Little Willie Armstrong Jones” is his favorite Kuntu play.