The Ensemble Theatre: A Midtown Houston Marvel

Photo credit: The Ensemble Theatre

American theater companies are not known for their longevity, but Midtown Houston boasts one that has bucked the trend and risen to national prominence.

Born out of the recognition that a lack of roles existed for African American actors, George Hawkins founded The Ensemble Theatre as a touring company in 1976. The theater focused on themes of life and culture, rehearsing in a church basement in the early days. True to the spirit of the name, it was truly an ensemble of people coming together with a unified purpose.

What began as a small, storefront theater on the corner of Tuam Street and Fannin Street eventually moved to 3535 Main Street. After this move in 1985 to the heart of Midtown Houston, the theater grew steadily each year. Today, it is the largest and oldest professional African American theater in the southwest. Moreover, the theater owns and operates its own facility and produces shows in-house, distinguishing it from others.

What makes the story of The Ensemble Theatre all the more remarkable is that the vision launched by Hawkins, the nonprofit’s sole founder and director, was carried on after his passing in 1990. Most nonprofits do not survive their founders but thanks to the passion and persistence of one woman, Eileen Morris, this cultural institution continues to flourish. Morris started out as Hawkins’ right-hand woman and in 2006 became the Ensemble’s second artistic director.

Today, the theater offers a Performing Arts Education program featuring artists-in-residence, educational workshops, and, of course, live performances. The Young Performers Program welcomes youths from six to 17 for intensive summer training in theater arts. There have been massive upgrades in the last 35 years; the facility has expanded to host three stages. The arena stage seats 125, the main stage auditorium seats 200, and a grand performance hall can seat an audience of 500.

Each year, the theater puts on six main stage productions that are attended by diverse audiences from around the world. It is fair to say that The Ensemble Theatre, a cultural institution in Midtown Houston, is here to stay–and that the neighborhood is fortunate to have them.