by Renee P. Aldrich
For New Pittsburgh Courier
For more than 35 years, the University of Pittsburgh’s Kuntu Repertory Theater was an institution in Pittsburgh. And it was Dr. Vernell Audrey Lillie who gave it the reputation of having a bold, brave look into the face of Black America… through theater.
In 2013, its 39th year, the Kuntu held its final season. Shortly after, Dr. Lillie relocated to Washington, D.C., where she would be closer to her daughters, Dr. Marsha (Hisani) Lillie-Blanton and Charisse R. Lillie.
On her 89th birthday, May 11, Dr. Lillie, founder of the Kuntu Repertory Theater, passed away in her home in Sunrise Senior Living Facility, in D.C. She had suffered from dementia.
She undoubtedly left behind a legacy of love and passion for the arts, mentoring hundreds of individuals whose theatrical careers she helped launch, and garnering a reputation for demanding excellence driven by the motto: “No excuses” for getting it done.
Dr. Lillie received her B.A. in Speech and Drama from Dillard University in New Orleans. With credentials in hand, she returned to her hometown in Hempstead, Tex., married her childhood sweetheart, Richard L. “Dickie Boy” Lillie Jr., and began laying the groundwork for her distinguished 50-plus year career in theater by producing and directing local productions at Worthing and Wheatley high schools in Houston, Tex. Molding and creating outstanding performers started early in her career. According to her daughter, Hisani, “these productions featured outstanding student actors, whom she mentored with love and ferocity.”
The call for advancing her education beckoned her and she and her family came to Pittsburgh in 1969, where she enrolled at Carnegie Mellon University. She earned her Master of Arts in English in 1970 and her Doctorate in English in 1971.
By 1972 she was an associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh in the Department of Africana Studies.
She had been planting little seeds of the legacy she would ultimately leave along the way, but the creation of the Kuntu Repertory Theater in 1974 set things ablaze in terms of setting a standard for community the ater, impacting lives and providing opportunities for Black artists.
“The intent of the Kuntu Theater was to allow an examination of Black life from a sociopolitical-historical prospective,” her daughter, Hisani, told the New Pittsburgh Courier in an exclusive interview. “Though it was a University Theater, it was rooted in Pittsburgh’s Black community, and provided a supportive space for Black writers, including both Rob Penny and August Wilson, among countless other Pittsburgh artists.”
DR. VERNELL A. LILLIE founded the University of Pittsburgh’s Kuntu Repertory Theater in 1974, as a premier platform for writer and Pitt associate professor Rob Penny. The two are shown in the photo at right, from 1975. In the center photo, Dr. Lillie died on her 89th birthday, May 11. (Photos courtesy University of Pittsburgh)
From 1999 to 2006, Eileen J. Morris was the managing director of the Kuntu Theater, alongside Dr. Lillie. Morris, currently the artistic director of the Ensemble Theater in Houston, had a relationship with Dr. Lillie before she recruited her to Pittsburgh.
“I am both honored and blessed to have been able to sit at her feet and to share our joint theatrical journeys,” Morris said. “I learned from Dr. Lillie and was strengthened in my tenacity and my work ethic—but as my fellow artists say, I, too, felt appreciated, special and made to feel I could do anything. She had that way of helping you to push yourself even harder to make a difference in the art you are attempting to create. Forever I’ll have that memory of her and gratitude in my heart for the time I spent with her in Pittsburgh.”
Some notable productions out of the Kuntu Theater were Dr. Lillie’s own, “The Buffalo Soldiers Plus One,” Penny’s “Little Willie Armstrong Jones” and “Good Black Don’t Crack,” Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” “Homecoming” and “Radio Golf.” Notably, “Homecoming” was the first play by Wilson to be produced by a resident company.
The writer and director of some-150 plays, she was highly respected by her peers, and along with numerous other awards and accolades, Dr. Lillie received the University of Pittsburgh Chancellor’s Distinguished Teaching Award. She was also an inductee into the prestigious Distinguished Daughters of Pennsylvania by then-Governor Tom Ridge.
Mark Clayton Southers, an early protege of Dr. Lillie, is the founder and artistic director of the Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company, which is about to enter its 17th year in Pittsburgh.
“She was a pillar of our theatrical community, gave opportunities to multitudes of actors, designers and technicians who, in many cases, would never have been afforded the opportunity to advance in the field,” Southers told the Courier. “Her work through Kuntu has provided a communal space for long-lasting relationships to connect and flourish. My favorite quote of hers was, ‘I give because I have the capacity to.’ Doc has given so much over six decades as a producer and educator. She has left us a wonderful legacy through her Kuntu tradition.”
Dr. Lillie is shown with internationally-known actor Lamman Rucker, who was inspired by Dr. Lillie while Rucker was a student at Duquesne University.
Renee Sorrell was Kuntu’s production manager for many of the years Dr. Lillie led it. She shared with the Courier that she came to the Theater to pass out flyers with no knowledge or experience in the mechanics of theater. “I asked if I could help by passing out flyers; she gave me a script to read and told me I would do props. I was blindsided, but soon, she had taught me to be the production manager, scheduling productions, hiring technicians and sometimes teaching technicians. This is an example of how she would see more in people than they would see in themselves,” Sorrell said.
Dr. Lillie’s reach far exceeded Pittsburgh and was connected to a wide range of theater notables. According to the esteemed director, Woody King Jr., the founder and artistic director of New Federal Theater Company out of New York, “Dr. Lillie was extremely popular among individuals like Phylicia Rashad and Debbie Allen; she was connected in the literary world as well and had influence. She had called for me to come to Pittsburgh years ago to direct a play by Rob Penny, Nefetari Rising and while here she referred me to a magazine called ‘Shining Star’ to submit a short story I wrote, and encouraged the publisher to accept it. They did. When Dr. Lillie spoke, people listened.”
On the day of her death, local Rev. Deryck Tines and others put out a call to the theater community for all those interested to join on an online Zoom call at 9 p.m. to share what Dr. Lillie meant to them. In less than three hours, more than 70 people joined on the call, including the likes of Janet Sarbaugh, vice president, creativity at The Heinz Endowments, screen actors Lamman Rucker and Ben Cain, and Stephen McKinney, who played the role of Bono in “Fences,” recently filmed in Pittsburgh. The Zoom call went past midnight, the effort indeed a tangible demonstration of the high regard in which Dr. Lillie was held—in Pittsburgh, and beyond.
Rev. Tines, before the Zoom call ended, declared that as soon as it was doable, there should be an entire weekend dedicated to honoring the power, passion and accomplishments of Dr. Vernell Lillie.
DR. VERNELL A. LILLIE, second from right, founded the University of Pittsburgh’s Kuntu Repertory Theater in 1974. Dr. Vernell A. Lillie, shown in various photos courtesy of the University of Pittsburgh, where she founded the Kuntu Repertory Theater in 1974. I