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A Great Run: Interview with Jack Reuler

Arts, No Chaser

By DWIGHT HOBBES

Mixed Blood Theatre ushered in authentic multicultural fare 45 years ago and remains at the fore. Owing to the vision of neophyte upstart, founding artistic director Jack Reuler who recently resigned, leaving Twin Cities considerably stronger than he found it. Reuler spoke about  his career and the historic venue established “In the spirit of Dr. King”™s dream”.

Jack Reuler, by Rich Ryan

Did you have any idea what you were doing when you started Mixed Blood?

In 1976, at 22, I wanted to espouse a particular world view and didn”™t know anything about theatre. I had a job with a social service agency, the Center for Community Action, to [identify] community needs.  Shortly before, Ernie Hudson was at Theatre In The Round Players in The Great White Hope. One of the few opportunities for actors of color. It was the bi-centennial, America celebrating its ideals, but not living those ideals. So, Mixed Blood Theatre began as a summer project, [to] rid America of all its isms. Between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Blind enthusiasm of youth. I hoped to attend veterinary school in the fall, but we did six shows, three of which were world premieres, and it went well. Forty-five years later, it”™s a summer program run amok.

Eventually you”™d be discriminated against as a white artistic director. 

Theater Communications Group, organizing theaters of color to discuss concerns about unifying, [felt our] programming and staff weren”™t part of that. I”™ve come to appreciate their decision over time.

You”™ve staged black plays, Asian, LGBT, Native, Disabled long before most Twin Cities venues.

While we”™re categorically a black theater, we”™ve done shows by, for and about a wide mixed community,  including shows in Spanish with bi-lingual casts. Looking back on the body of work, we didn”™t do it for some finite time or because a grant allowed it. We grew our wings and added so anybody could feel welcome and affirmed. 

Was Penumbra an offshoot of Mixed Blood?

No. Lou Bellamy directed our first show, Dutchman. And for several years was part of the directing and acting talent pool. I”™ve learned a great deal from him. In the first year of Mixed Blood, the Hallie Q. Brown Center went to Lou and said, “We have this beautiful, thrust stage. Would you run our theater?”

Mixed Blood”™s outreach series has always been a strong feature. Bringing authentic multiculturalism to communities with short shows that work well in schools. 

We”™ve toured for 35 years. Fourteen productions, averaging 5 a year.  Dr. King”™s Dream was our first one. One of the people I admired was Paul Robeson. Phillip Hayes Dean wrote a play on Broadway with James Earl Jones as Robeson. We added that to the repertoire. Then, we commissioned a show on Jackie Robinson. Some years later we commissioned the astronaut Ron McNair. One year we did August Wilson”™s Malcolm X, which had been staged at Penumbra. Terry Bellamy performed in it.

Some strong, national acting talent came up through your shop. Don Cheadle, Carl Lumbly.

They were kind enough to share their talents at a young age.  At 22 or so, Don Cheadle already knew he was going to be a Don Cheadle. Carl Lumbly went to Macalester College [and] South High School. In the course of his years there, he wrote a musical, Badd High, based on South High being torn down. 

Speaking of Cheadle, that was interesting color-blind casting with him as Tom Joad for Grapes of Wrath.

When we did that in 1991, there was a notion at the heart of it that the Depression was a time when white people learned how to live the way other people had been forced to live.  So, we did The Grapes of Wrath as sort of an embodiment of America.  But, that term is not something that should be associated with Mixed Blood.

You had a singular experience with playwright Ed Bullins, Minister of Culture for the Black Panthers.

Our first year, I got a script from him, JoAnne, based on JoAnne Little a North Carolina prisoner who murders the guard who raped her. I picked him up at the airport and told him all these great things we had done to his play. He had to decide whether he was to go along with it or go back to New York. Happily, he liked what we did. And took me under his wing. Then, for about 3 years, I scouted Minneapolis plays for Joe Papp at the Public Theatre [in New York].

Well, congrats on a great run.

Thanks.

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