Pearl Bailey and Cab Calloway helped alter the trajectory of Black theatre in America—not from the bandstand but from the Broadway stage in the winter of 1967, when a young high school boy from Camden, N.J., observed in amazement Black people populating the stage in a groundbreaking production of an all-Black Hello, Dolly!
“The Jack & Jill organization took us to this show, and what always stuck with me is, after the show, the actors came on the bus and thanked us,” says Ricardo Khan, once that awestruck teen, now a storied director and theatre founder. “That was an early definition of service. My mother always says: each one, reach one.”
It’s an ethos that Khan would carry with him through his long and illustrious stage career. But as impressed as he was by that production, he wasn’t sure from the start that theatre would be his career. He initially applied to colleges to study architecture, he told me recently in a wide-ranging conversation—though he did have an alternative in mind.
“The plan was to go to Syracuse University because they had both: architecture and theatre,” Khan recalled. Ultimately, though, he went to Rutgers University, located in his home state of New Jersey, because it was “closer and cheaper.” Also close by: New York City.
“I could travel to the city in a short train ride,” Khan recalled with a glow. “I always loved that city. I even had a subscription to The New Yorker. At RU, I auditioned for The Hostage by Brendan Behan. I was so happy that I got cast, and I really embraced that feeling of community.”
The topsy-turvy social climate of his early college years can be summed up in a series of images: “We went to the moon. The Mets won the World Series—the Mets! Kent State and the bombing of Cambodia. The loss of Dr. King. Pan-Africanism. Many things were happening, so we felt we could do anything. And my thinking became more political.”
Meanwhile, Rutgers was creating a special school specifically for the arts. The founding dean, Jack Bettenbender, suggested that Khan stay to continue his theatre studies and get a Masters degree. “The Vietnam War was still going on, so I needed to stay in school,” he recalled. After a summer of painting houses, he was supposed to go to Howard to study law, but he ended up at Rutgers for grad school. It was there that he formed one of the most important bonds of his career, working with fellow student Lee Kenneth Richardson; they did several shows together, including Romeo and Juliet (as Benvolio and Tybalt, respectively), as well as Ceremonies of Dark Old Men and Athol Fugard’s Sizwe Banzi Is Dead.
Khan has fond memories of touring Sizwe around Middlesex County in central Jersey with Lee during their final year of grad school. “The set was in the trunk of my car,” Khan said with a chuckle. Little did either man realize at the time that that tour was merely the “dress rehearsal” for the still-to-be-born Crossroads Theatre Company.
Another spur for the founding of the company: the kinds of roles on offer.
“One of my first gigs out of grad school was this movie, Squeeze Play,” Khan recalled. “The director asked me to do some outrageous, coon-like behavior. I knew right then and there I needed to control my artistic destiny.”
130 Memorial Parkway
Lee and Rick wrote the plans for a new Black theatre company on the back of a napkin in a downtown New Brunswick restaurant. They next reached out to all the major stakeholders in the area: Mayor John Lynch, George St. Playhouse producer Eric Krebs, respected director Harold (Hal) Scott, and an old classmate from Rutgers who had also been a star on the basketball team, Gene Armstead. Armstead operated the Middlesex County CETA program (Comprehensive Employment Training Act), signed into law under the Nixon Administration. CETA provided a substantial government subsidy to get Crossroads off the ground. (Indeed, nearly every major Black theatre organization was initiated by significant government and/or foundation grants.)
This self-described “ethnic theatre project” provided actors, directors, designers, production personnel, etc., a yearly salary. “We were receiving government money, so we couldn’t discriminate in our name,” Khan said, meaning that the theatre couldn’t have “Black” in its name. Then one day Khan’s classmate and future resident stage manager, Ken Johnson, noticed that the theatre was “between two major roads—everyone meets at the crossing of those roads,” Route 27 and Memorial Parkway. Hence Crossroads.
Initially shows were presented to the public for free. “We filled a critical need at that time,” Khan said. “There were no opportunities for Black theatre in central Jersey. The audience was there, though, just waiting for us.” It wasn’t just a local shortfall, either, he said. “Outside of the Negro Ensemble Company and Joe Papp at the Public, no regional theatres were doing works by Black artists in our early days. So we had the market all to ourselves. We were inspired by Douglas Turner Ward at the NEC—we wanted to strive for excellence.”
It was Richardson who discovered the location, on the second floor of an old sewing factory, quickly expanded in capacity from 60 to 120. The surrounding neighborhood was a bit dodgy, as urban life in New Brunswick in the late 1970s could be treacherous. That didn’t stop audiences from flocking to the upstart Black company.
“We were advised against moving there because there were development plans for that area, but we felt artistic freedom there,” Khan said. “It was our choice, which means we were beholden to no one. Heck, the landlord lived in the building, so it was safe.”
When Richardson and Khan saw James Earl Jones perform on Broadway in Phillip Hayes Dean’s Paul Robeson, they knew Crossroads had to produce the show—and they instantly knew who to hire to direct and star. Given Robeson’s status as perhaps the most well-known alumnus of Rutgers University, casting their old classmate Avery Brooks in the title role under the steady hand of Hal Scott was a no-brainer. (Indeed, both men were teaching at Rutgers at the time—I was their student.)
I vividly recall climbing the steps to the second floor theatre and sitting in the packed house, in awe as Brooks delivered one of the most profound performances I’ve ever seen. He summoned the regal power and authority of Paul Robeson, yet captured his vulnerability as well. I recall Hal saying this production was one of his proudest achievements.
It also put Crossroads on the map. “NYC theatre people…started coming down to see our work,” Khan said, “which felt good.” After five years and nearly 40 productions, Crossroads had worked their way through most of the canon of major works by Black authors. They knew their future lay in original works. “CBS offered us a grant to find the best American play. Lee read The Colored Museum and said, ‘This is it!’ I agreed, although we both knew it would be controversial.”
And it was. I remember a respected Black theatre professional from an older generation who was livid at George C. Wolfe’s show, particularly the biting opening monologue lampooning clichés about the Middle Passage, and “The Last Mama-on-the-Couch Play,” which parodies plays like A Raisin in the Sun.
“It’s too bad that they didn’t understand that the play is satire,” Khan said of the play’s critics. “Using humor has always been a part of our storytelling nature, whether you’re talking about African trickster folktales or Day of Absence by Douglas Turner Ward. What they didn’t realize is how well-crafted George’s play was. We’re not surprised it’s now considered a classic work. I’d say it has held up pretty well.”
At the time it established Crossroads as a major player in new-play development, and put a then-unknown writer/director on the map. It led to Wolfe engaging Joseph Papp, and before long succeeding him at the Public Theater (Wolfe was artistic director there from 1993 to 2004).
The Global Majority
In the mid-’80s, Khan was getting more interested in international theatre, particularly that of South Africa. Nelson Mandela was still imprisoned, and Khan was interested in linking the plights of Black South Africans and Black Americans. That led to one of the theatre’s signature coups: During the height of the oppressive apartheid regime, Crossroads somehow secured artistic visas for six South African actresses, as well as playwright Duma Ndlovu and director Mbongeni Ngema, to work on a new play in New Jersey with six American actors.
“Their technique was similar to A Chorus Line, with the actors talking into a tape recorder to develop storylines,” said Khan. The result was Sheila’s Day, a powerful story fusing traditional African storytelling with the Southern blues and gospel. The 12 women in the cast bonded over the similarities between domestic workers in the American South and South Africa.
To this day, I believe Sheila’s Day had the potential to be as powerful as Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls…, but at that time it never played outside New Brunswick, in part due to immigration and union issues. Khan said that Joe Papp showed interest in moving the play to New York, but “Equity said we were taking jobs away from Black Americans. But just because your skin is dark doesn’t mean you have the same cultural outlook as an African. Their language, food, music—it’s all different. We wanted authentic South Africans. And this was before Disney got an exception like with Lion King.”
In 1988, Richardson, Khan’s founding partner, left Crossroads to pursue other opportunities. So Khan decided to challenge his staff to create a five-prong organization—what Khan describes as his Palm Theory.
“There were five core staff, so each one represented a distinct aspect of our development process, which we’d solidified by then,” Khan recalled. “Sydne Mahone handled our literary department, Bingo Johnson handled marketing, Louise Gorham handled education. Kenny Johnson was responsible for touring shows with InRoads. I was the fifth spot—probably the thumb.”
Another aspect that completed artistic personnel was the Associate Artist program, which began in the theatre’s 1989 season. The roster of artists included George C. Wolfe, Anna Deveare Smith, Ntozake Shange, Ossie Davis & Ruby Dee, Avery Brooks, and Hal Scott. “That was one of my favorite seasons—every show was a world premiere,” Khan said. “We opened with Sheila’s Day, then Spunk, written and directed by George, And Further Mo’—the sequel to the long-running One Mo’ Time, and then Tod, the Boy Tod. Plus we started our new-play festival: Genesis, along with Sangoma, a women’s collective; our touring division InRoads was running on all cylinders.”
All the while the theatre was planning its next big move.
7 Livingston Avenue
If Khan had a recurring theme through our nearly four-hour conversation, it was the importance of the relationships he formed over the years. When the new facility for Crossroads was in its initial stages, some men in power wanted to relegate Crossroads to a back street, away from the town’s other theatres. But the founding dean of Rutgers’ Mason Gross School of the Arts, Jack Bettenbender—the same gentleman who once convinced Khan to forgo law school and come back to Rutgers—insisted, no demanded that Crossroads will be located on Livingston Ave., next to the State Theater and the George Street Playhouse.
“I will never forget how he stood up for us,” Khan said. “As Black people, others will try to marginalize you so often, so it’s great when those who have power have your back, like Jack did then.”
To prepare for the new theatre, he would hold monthly “Khancept” meetings in his home. From these emerged the New Horizons campaign, designed to retire the theatre’s debt and create a reserve fund. “We raised $1 million dollars with $400,000 in reserve, but we did not know how much the new theatre would cost. We found out, though—it cost a lot more than our old space.”
In September 1991, the marching parade from the old theatre to the new one was a happy day. “The weather was beautiful,” Khan said. George Street Playhouse had a sign reading “Welcome to the Neighborhood,” and subscriptions grew from 1,200 to almost 3,500. Also at that time, The Cosby Show was the most popular show in the country, and its star personally requested to be the first act to open Crossroads’ new space. He sold out performance after performance.
“Cosby joked about the paint still being wet in his dressing room,” said Khan. “No one knew this at the time, but we didn’t have our Certificate of Occupancy, so in the spirit of teamwork, the fire department parked their truck outside the theatre for our first few performances to make sure we were up to code.”
The Ground on Which They Stood
In 1980, Crossroads did not have the funds needed to send their leaders 26 miles south to McCarter Theater in Princeton, N.J., for the Theatre Communications Group conference. But on June 26, 1996, when playwright August Wilson delivered his famous keynote speech urging Black theatrical self-determination, “The Ground on Which I Stand,” Khan proudly stood on the stage alongside Wilson, representing TCG as the president of its board.
Reflecting on that historic speech, Khan marveled, “Listening to him onstage was fascinating, but watching the audience was stunning. The audience was enthusiastic and the applause was universal, but the next day was a different story. Several theatres raised issues with what August said about color-blind casting and other things. It started to divide people over the course of the next month. But it was an extraordinary night. August called them out on a national platform. The theatre community was divided about funding.”
Indeed, in one of the signature lines of his speech, Wilson proclaimed, “Black theatre in America is alive, it is vibrant, it is vital…it just isn’t funded.”
He also pointed out a stark reality: that “of the 66 LORT theatres, there is one that can be considered Black.” The one Black theatre he was talking about: Crossroads.
And while Wilson’s plays got plenty of productions at predominantly white theatres, as well as on Broadway, he refined his car-service play Jitney at Crossroads in 1997. “I have fond memories of August and Constanza (his wife) during that time,” Khan said.
More national attention came to theatre in 1999, when it won the regional Tony Award. Khan took the opportunity for a sabbatical on the island of Trinidad, the homeland of his father, Dr. Mustapha Khan, where he reflected on his past and pondered his future. “Walking across that stage to get that statue was exhilarating,” said Khan. “To think a boy from Camden could reach that point. So I felt it was a good time to move on.”
But while he lay on Trinidadian beaches planning his next endeavor, Crossroads unexpectedly closed the following 2000 season, overwhelmed by a nearly $2 million debt. The unexpected closure stunned and disappointed Khan, as well as the theatre industry. Still, he was looking forward to working as an independent director. “I would get jealous when I hired directors and they would come in, do their gig, and just leave,” Khan said. “They didn’t have to worry about boards or ticket sales. I wanted that too.”
He also wanted to follow his passion for working with playwrights on new work, and not just American playwrights, but writers from around the world. “I started the World Theater Lab, which was initially funded by two TCG travel grants,” he said. Khan connected with writers at London’s Royal Stratford East and at South Africa’s Market Theatre.
He continued the development of these international writers by partnering with such respected theatre institutions as the Lark and NJ Performing Arts Center, working with 40 writers on more than 150 pieces.
Over the years I’ve had the pleasure of observing Khan as he continually collaborated with institutions, much like a director collaborates with his creative team, expertly using the strength of one organization to complement another. He was on faculty as a visiting artist at the University of Missouri-Kansas City with the specific purpose of developing new work over a two-year arc so that students could play an integral part in the development of a world premiere.
He then used organizations from the World Theater Lab, Crossroads, Lincoln Center education, New Victory, and more to further develop these new works.
Returning to the theme of relationships, Khan fondly remembered Dr. Clement Price, a pioneering board member of Crossroads in the early days, who later proved valuable in connecting Khan with the Smithsonian’s National Museum for African American History and Culture. In 1997, Rutgers University awarded Khan an honorary doctorate, and at a celebratory dinner afterward in the university’s president’s home, Price told Khan about “a big thing about Black culture that’s going to be happening in D.C.”
Almost 10 years later, Khan got a call from Lonnie Bunch III, the director of the then-gestating African American Museum, who happened to be good friends with Price (those relationships!), asking him to work on the museum’s opening ceremony. It took another 13 years for it to occur, on Sept. 24, 2016. Khan remembers it fondly: “We had a full soulful symphony orchestra. My parents were college sweethearts at Howard, so to have their university choir was special.” George Wolfe and Savion Glover, Oprah Winfrey, Stevie Wonder, and Dave Chappelle were among the celebrated guests who were part of that “special night to celebrate our history and culture.”
Meanwhile back at Crossroads, the story wasn’t over. In 2000, Richard Nurse had just retired from his position as a senior administrator at Rutgers, and he said that driving past the darkness of the closed Crossroads Theatre brought tears to his eyes. So instead of retiring, Nurse rolled up his sleeves and nearly single-handedly reduced the debt hanging over the organization, with Khan back on board as an artistic consultant. Slowly but surely Nurse and Khan brought Crossroads back to life, staging the groundbreaking rap show History of the Word, as well as Yo Soy Latina, featuring a then-unknown Gina Rodriguez (Jane the Virgin).
In 2007, I entered the story, hired as a full-time producer at Crossroads, and Nurse was finally able to enjoy his retirement. Khan continued his writing and directing career, parlaying his various relationships to partner with several organizations and deliver several searing new shows to regional stages throughout the land.
These included a pair of shows about the Tuskegee Airmen, developed in partnership with Lincoln Center Education, and originally conceived to tour schools throughout New York City. Khan recalled first seeing a photo of the famed fighter pilots of World War II in the home of Dr. Price, staring in amazement at these regal Black military figures. He was flabbergasted that he had never been taught this chapter of U.S. military history, and became committed to sharing their courageous story with the world. In 1989, Crossroads produced Leslie Lee’s Black Eagles, which toured the country, including the historic Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., where the audience included a World War II veteran, President George H.W. Bush, as well as a Vietnam vet, Gen. Colin Powell.
Khan’s embrace of the brave Tuskegee Airmen continued with Fly, which he co-wrote with Trey Ellis. The inspirational show has had numerous productions over the years, including at Off-Broadway’s New Victory Theater and at Pasadena Playhouse, where it won the prestigious NAACP Theater Award for Best Production.
One of my fondest memories in the theatre was Fly’s opening night in October 2016 at D.C.’s Ford’s Theatre. I sat in the balcony, only a few feet from the location where President Lincoln was shot. I looked over the railing to witness dozens of distinguished Black men, Tuskegee Airmen to be exact, in their 80s and 90s, proudly wearing their signature red jackets.
Khan’s evolving artistic vision focused on elevating overlooked African American heroes in scripts that use a non-realistic, Brechtian style. Fly introduced the innovative concept of a Tap Griot—a hip-hop-style tap dancer who expressed the inner feelings of the pilots. In Satchel Paige & the Kansas City Swing, also co-written with Trey Ellis, there was the Bluesman, who musically captured the soulful experience of playing baseball in the Negro Leagues.
Khan also developed a pair of shows about the famed Freedom Riders, college students who bravely traveled in 1961 to the Deep South to challenge vicious segregation laws and integrate lunch counters. For Freedom Rider, Khan commissioned four authors to write the story from the personal characters’ perspective. These included Kathleen McGhee-Anderson, whose mother was a Freedom Rider; Murray Horowitz, who wrote the character of a Jewish activist; Nikkole Salter, who wrote a character from Los Angeles; and Nathan Louis Jackson. A production of this important new work is scheduled to launch the reopening of post-pandemic Crossroads.
Letters From Freedom Summer is a sort of sequel to Freedom Rider. Several of the original Freedom Rider characters appear, but the main focus of this play is a summer love affair, set in 1964 against the backdrop of the voting rights struggle in Mississippi. For this effort, Khan teamed up with a pair of writers: Sibusiso Mamba, a South African writer/actor who created the character Mandelenkosi Vitus Mkhize, and Denise Nicholas, from the ’70s TV series Room 222, who was once a roommate of Civil Rights icon Fannie Lou Hamer. A production of Letters From Freedom Summer at Crossroads is in the works.
Succession at Last
All roads come back to Crossroads: After a 13-year run at Crossroads, I resigned at the end of December 2019, not long after the theatre opened a new state-of-the-art building next to the State Theatre of New Jersey.
Then came the early months of 2020, which were transitional for all theatres, not just those with changes in leadership. All through the dead of winter, a silent and lethal virus was spreading, and would ultimately wreak havoc on the world and our industry. In a day that will live in infamy, March 12, 2020 was the day the lights went out on Broadway, and at most theatres in the U.S. as well.
“At first, it was a hard decision about whether to come back or not,” Khan admitted of his return to Crossroads. “COVID was happening, and we couldn’t produce shows. Nor did we know when we would be able to produce, so I wasn’t sure what I’d be coming back to. Then Cheryl died.”
He means Dr. Cheryl Wall, an eminent Rutgers professor and Zora Neale Hurston scholar, who had been Crossroads’ first board president, whose signature adorns the theatre’s incorporation papers. She first started teaching at Rutgers in 1972, and her smiling face and warm heart was a constant presence at Crossroads over the years. She died on April 4, 2020 at the age of 71. A month later, Walter Dallas, a Philadelphia director who had worked at Crossroads several times over the years, passed at 73.
And then, on May 24, 2020, Crossroads co-founder Lee Richardson died.
“Maybe they were trying to tell me something,” Khan mused. “Maybe their passing was urging me to not let anybody take away what we started. Or misinterpret what we started. I thought a lot about Cheryl. About Lee. So I came back here for legacy. Not mine. But ours. I want the center of our work to be what it always was: the artist. So that’s why I’m back—for Cheryl, for Lee.”
Khan has confided that his biggest regret was not being sufficiently prepared for succession in 1999 when he set off for his sabbatical in Trinidad.
“Look, the model is, let the board handle selecting the leader,” he said. “That’s what happened when I was president of TCG; we had the daunting task of replacing a founding executive. But now I realize some of those lessons that work as models aren’t necessarily right for my culture, Black culture. I did that when I first left Crossroads; the executive leader was supposed to stay out of it. So I distanced myself.
“That was a mistake. I would’ve preferred to name my successor. Listen, I never wanted to do it all by myself. I always had a partner, even after Lee left. I had my palm strategy, with the five of us. But the model that works for one organization or generation may not work for the other. I look back and I would’ve preferred to use every once of my capital toward finding the right AD who’s right for our mission.
“No matter the organization, replacing a founding leader is hard. But for Crossroads, institutional history is so important. Our culture. How we connect and communicate. You can’t teach someone to know this. You gotta feel the heartbeat of an organization like ours, and I don’t know if board members can truly understand that.”
So is Khan going to be involved in selecting his successor this time?
“Definitely. Without a doubt.”
Marshall Jones III (he/him) was producing artistic director of Crossroads from 2007 to 2019. Since 2002, he’s been professor of Theatre at his (and Khan’s) alma mater, the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University.
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