How many times have you heard someone say: If I only had another chance, I would do things differently. Ricardo Khan, the once and future artistic director of the Crossroads Theater Company, is getting that rare and enviable second chance after a rise and fall that would rival the drama of some worthy plays.
Crossroads opens its 25th anniversary season in its Crossroads home this Wednesday, November 5, with "Color Me Dark," a new play that was recently directed by Khan at the Kennedy Center in Washington.
Kahn co-founded Crossroads in New Brunswick in 1978 in a modest, walk-up theater (and former sewing machine factory) on Memorial Parkway and oversaw its growth into a made-to-order, 264-seat home on Livingston Avenue. By 1990 the theater was gaining notoriety as a spawning ground for Broadway-bound plays — that year Crossroads’ hit play "It Ain’t Nothing But the Blues" went to Broadway.
Then in 1999 Crossroads hit its peak, winning a Tony award for outstanding regional theater.
But behind the scenes Crossroads was in trouble, beginning — ironically — with the company’s 1991 move to that sleek new theater, built for it by the New Brunswick Cultural Center (NBCC).
"The year that we moved to the new theater, we lost, as did all the other theaters in the state, half of the grant money expected from the state Council on the Arts," says Kahn. "That was to be `artistic focus money’ to commission, develop, and produce new plays. Without that research and development money, we were forced to rely on revivals." In the past, the grant supported a program called "New Roads" that took plays developed here on to other theaters.
Despite such goodwill gestures as the appearance of Bill Cosby at a fundraiser, the financial situation continued to worsen.
Khan’s concerns, meanwhile, were more theatrical than practical. After contending with a succession of four managing directors between 1992 and 1999, and with the theater accumulating debts spiraling to almost $1.7 million, Khan announced that he needed time for rest and renewal and made what appeared at the time to be an ill-timed departure for Trinidad, where his father was born and where he wanted to cultivate other theatrical and educational interests. Khan explains his departure as the first step he was taking for his "retirement from Crossroads," a decision he shared with his board right after the theater was awarded the Tony.
Although it could not have come as a shock to hear how dire things were getting and that the theater was on the verge of halting all productions, he says his initial reaction was, "It’s all right to take a pause to re-group and re-think the situation when you’ve been running constantly for 22 years." But he feels that, because the Crossroads board did not have "a plan" either for new artistic leadership or for stabilizing the organization, it made sense to take a pause. Khan says he was confident with his recommendation of Harold Scott as interim artistic director and the continuing support of executive producer Andre Robinson Jr. "I wanted the theater to become the board’s company — not mine," says Khan.
Khan says that he now realizes that leaving when he did created a decided void in leadership. This, plus Crossroads’ inability to meet its debts or pay its vendors, led to a tough decision by the New Brunswick Cultural Center (NBCC) to not renew Crossroads’ lease on the theater. Crossroads closed its doors and canceled the entire 2000-’01 season one year after Khan’s departure.
After two dark years, the theater opened on a limited basis in October 2002. As if starting over from scratch, this season’s budget is a modest $500,000 compared to a high of $2.8 million for the 1990 season.
Khan admits he was a little surprised but pleased when asked by the company’s board of directors and current executive director Roberta Coleman to help bring the company back on track artistically. Despite the fact that she had no previous experience in theater, Coleman, a former AT&T executive, had proven herself a taskmaster at institutional planning and is already getting the company back on its feet.
Khan says his plans include making the company more global, and cross-cultural than it has been in the past. Some of Khan’s new mission was sparked by his stay in Trinidad, where, under aegis of the Ministry of Culture, he aided in the developing infrastructure there that supports local artists. It was in Trinidad, which is a multi-ethnic society with no single majority, that Khan found a new way and a new language to express the work he had always done.
"The language of race in the United States, and the way it was portrayed on stage, became stale to me," says Khan. The question he is asking himself: Is there another way into the theater in more global terms? All the plays selected for this season are designed to respond to this new perspective.
"Maybe it was good that we were forced to stop for a while so that we could reinvent ourselves." Conceding that he wished he had been more on the ball in the past regarding fundraising and resource development, he says that he always believed that "we could do it."
While the NBCC and Khan have differing views of how the theater lost its space, the bottom line is that both parties appear to be working together now. Jean Holtz, manager of the recently reorganized New Brunswick Cultural Center, notes that "Crossroads were tenants in a four-story, 30,000 square foot building, and facility issues were taking time, money, and staff away from Crossroads’ artistic mission. It cost $80,000 to $90,000 a year just to keep the lights on." Holtz believes the current plan under which Crossroads rents the theater only for the dates it needs is more practical and affordable.
"In hindsight," Khan reflects, "I should have tried to keep the budget under $2 million instead of trying to get bigger and bigger."
As for the subscribers, Khan, who is noted for his warmly exuberant personality, says he regrets that they were not kept informed.
"The first thing I did when I got back was to start a letter writing campaign with a first letter that just said, `Thank you.’" Although the subscription base had dropped from a high of 3,000 before Khan left to a low last year of 400, the current number has climbed back to almost 1,000. "By the end of this year, we are expecting to get back another 500," says Khan with characteristic optimism.
With the board ready to say "yes" to his new vision, Khan was instrumental in getting the support of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, where he was already active as a director. Crossroads was invited to participate in a program geared to aiding minority arts groups to improve their management and to regain financial stability. With Coleman working closely with the Kennedy Center president Michael Kaiser as well as with Marguerite Mitchell-Ivey, president of the Crossroads board of trustees, Khan is free to focus strictly on the art and the changing direction of modern black theater.
"Up to now that movement has been the history of black people and the legacy of slavery. It’s hard to get away from a legacy that portrays us as victims. While it’s important to maintain our history in books and on stage, it gets stale artistically. My goal is to make the black experience more exciting on stage without being viewed as a victim."
As an example of his new vision, Khan shares his enthusiasm for the new season kicking off with "Color Me Dark." Dramatized by Jerome Hairston from the novel by Patricia C. McKissack, "Color Me Dark" is a play about hope and family as experienced through the eyes of a 14-year-old African-American girl who moves with her family, in 1919, from Tennessee to Chicago.
The one-woman musical "The Late Great Ladies of Blues and Jazz" is making a return visit to Crossroads beginning Wednesday, December 3, again starring Sandra Reaves-Phillips as Bessie Smith and other great vocalists.
Opening in February is "Walking with Ijapa," in which esteemed African-American actor Ossie Davis and Trinidad storyteller Paul Keens-Douglas dramatize folklore and fables from the West Indies, North America, and West Africa. The final show will be a concert version of a soon-to-be full-scale musical "Mandela!" by Duma Ndlovu and Steve Fisher that celebrates, former South African President Nelson Mandela’s life and the 10th anniversary of the New South Africa.
Khan has hopes of seeing Crossroads grow as a center of world theater. "I want Crossroads to explore beyond traditional black theater. I want to connect the dots between all people — European, Hispanic, and Asian peoples who identify with the African-American diaspora."
Khan received his MFA in theater from Rutgers’ Mason Gross School of the Arts in 1977. He is the oldest of five children. His father, a Trinidadian, came to the U.S. to study medicine at Howard University. Although born in Washington, D.C., Khan was raised with his brothers and sisters on a farm in Norristown, Pennsylvania. Ricardo’s youngest brother Mustapha Khan is a documentary filmmaker, and the pair hope to start a film company together.
Crossroads is not full time for Khan, who will continue to spend half his time at the Kennedy Center. This is possible as Crossroads can now rely more on the management skills of an executive director (Roberta Coleman), a finance director (Angela Piggee), and a production manager (Curtis Hodge).
Crossroads doesn’t represent the only second chance in Khan’s life. Although he was previously married (in his youth, he says), the 51-year-old Khan, while in Trinidad, met Naila Maharaj, a visual artist. The two were married this past August. I would bet that, like his new vision for Crossroads, he sees married life a little differently this time.
— Simon Saltzman
Color Me Dark, Crossroads Theater, 7 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-545-8100. $30 to $45. Performances begin Wednesday, November 5, and continue through Friday, November 14.