PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — In 1988, after an early career spent working with a veritable “Who’s Who” list of Black artists in New York, Karen Allen Baxter took her unparalleled theater knowledge and expansive Rolodex to Brown University — where, for 32 years, she has served as senior managing director of Rites and Reason Theatre within the Department of Africana Studies.
Then, as now, Rites and Reason was dedicated primarily to telling stories by and about Black people and the African diaspora. Born out of a growing national Black Arts Movement and rising demand for increased Black student and faculty representation at Brown, the theater was founded in 1970 by the scholar, director and playwright George Houston Bass.
Today, Rites and Reason remains one of the longest-running continuously producing Black theaters in the United States. It has gained national recognition for its unique Research to Performance Method, which brings artists and scholars together to develop thoroughly researched and artistically unique plays that are as academically rich as they are entertaining.
Colleagues have described Baxter as the beating heart of Rites and Reason and the engine that’s kept the theater running for decades. In addition to overseeing more than 250 productions, Baxter has managed the theater’s budget; applied for and won multiple prestigious grant awards; curated the Black Lavender Experience, an annual week of theater and conversation sparked by queer artists of color; and read and evaluated scripts alongside the theater’s artistic director, Elmo Terry-Morgan.
At a virtual event on Tuesday, Dec. 15 at 6 p.m., Rites and Reason will have two occasions to mark: its own 50th anniversary and Baxter’s retirement. The event will mark Baxter’s final production with the theater — but this time, she’ll be front and center rather than behind the scenes.
Ahead of the celebration, Baxter answered questions about her background, her time at Brown and her favorite moments with Rites and Reason.
Q: What drew you toward a career in the arts?
I grew up in New York City, and my father was an actor with the American Negro Theater. He did two plays on Broadway, then he began working in television stage management. He was the stage manager for “The Ed Sullivan Show” for many years and associate director of “The Garry Moore Show.” He was the first Black member of the Directors Guild of America. So I was surrounded by people in theater and TV — actors and directors would come over to our house; we always went to the theater to see plays.
In high school, I tried to act for about 30 seconds and didn’t enjoy it at all. I couldn’t remember the lines. I said, “I don’t ever want to be caught on stage again.” I knew there were backstage jobs, but I didn’t want to get dirty. I just wanted to be in theater; I liked the atmosphere. When I started working at the New Lafayette Theatre in Harlem, there were two women who basically ran the company and would sometimes get help from female actors in the company. But as soon as the actors had rehearsal or a costume fitting, they were gone. That’s where I came in — I picked up where they left off. That’s how I began to learn everything that needed to be done: how grants were handled, how to order supplies, how to pay your artists and your crew.
Q: Where did you go from there?
Well, one of the actors in the company at the New Lafayette Theatre was Whitman Mayo, who starred in “Sanford and Son.” He and I took the theatre’s literary agency downtown and made it into its own business. We were mostly representing Black playwrights; we had clients like Roscoe Orman, who played Gordon on “Sesame Street” and who is also a director, and playwrights Ed Bullins and Richard Wesley. It wasn’t lucrative work, but it was important. After that, I worked with Bob Marley and the Wailers, Jimmy Cliff and other reggae artists and traveled internationally. And I worked with AUDELCO, an organization that promotes Black theater audience development. I became a producer of the annual AUDELCO Awards, which recognize Black theater excellence.
In the 1980s I also resurrected, with Pat White, the Frank Silvera Writers’ Workshop in Harlem, which every Monday night produced a reading of a new play. Because we were in New York, the workshop drew some amazing A-list actors. The founder, Garland Lee Thompson, one day said he was giving up the workshop. I said, “You can’t let this die,” and he handed me the keys.