City Theatre is recognizing the legacy of award-winning educator, artist, advocate, and Kuntu Repertory Theatre founder and artistic director Dr. Vernell Audrey Watson Lillie (May 11, 1931 – May 11, 2020) by re-naming its 102-seat studio theatre in her honor.
Dr. Lillie was a leader in Black theater for nearly 40 years, both in Pittsburgh and nationally. She was a co-founder of the Black Theatre Network and served as a mentor, director, and inspiration to countless artists through Kuntu and as a long-time professor at the University of Pittsburgh.
City Theatre – whose founder, Marjorie Walker, consulted with Dr. Lillie on the company’s formation in the mid-1970s (and Dr. Lillie later assisted on over a dozen City Theatre productions during the 1980s and 1990s) – formed a steering committee shortly after her passing in 2020 to explore ways to formally honor and celebrate her. With unanimous support from its board of directors, City Theatre has re-named the former Lester Hamburg Studio the Dr. Vernell Audrey Watson Theatre.
“With the naming of the Dr. Vernell Audrey Watson Lillie Theatre at City Theatre, we honor her legacy of excellence and accomplishment, and recognize the critical and transformative impact she had on African American artists and lovers of theater nationwide,” said City Theatre Co-Artistic Director, Marc Masterson, who knew and worked with Dr. Lillie for over 20 years. “Dr. Lillie was an inspiration to me and so many others and she made the world and community a better place through her art and her influence. We are so honored to memorialize her legacy for generations to come.”
“Our mother was the ultimate mentor, mother-figure, consultant, confidante, and even a source of financial support for her students, and sometimes their families. She loved her students, the Black Theatre Network, and Kuntu Repertory Theatre – which we used to joke was her third child and for which she dedicated her heart and soul,” stated Charisse R. Lillie, speaking on behalf of her sister, Dr. Marsha (Hisani) Lillie-Blanton, and their families.
“She viewed Black theater as a tool for educating, elevating, and uplifting the African American community which would, in turn, educate, elevate, and uplift the nation and the world. We are very grateful to City Theatre for this wonderful gift they are giving our family.”
“Dr. Lillie was a pioneer. She created a path, she created opportunities – specifically for Black artists and Black people who didn’t realize that they were artists until they tapped into that strength inside of them,” said City Theatre Co-Artistic Director Monteze Freeland, who first worked with Dr. Lillie in a production of August Wilson’s Radio Golf in 2010. “Dr. Lillie was an encourager; she taught me – and told me – that I needed to love myself and she led by example: no one else was going to knock her down.”
A ceremony was originally scheduled for May 22 to unveil the new Lillie Theatre name and signage; unfortunately, this event had to be postponed due to rising Covid-19 concerns at the time. A re-scheduled event will occur this fall.
Prepared remarks for the postponed event from Dr. Lillie’s daughter, Charisse Lillie, and her long-time colleague and collaborator, Eileen J. Morris, are available on City Theatre’s website at CityTheatreCompany.org/LillieTheatre. The company welcomes additional remembrances of Dr. Lillie which will be shared online and on screens in the City Theatre lobby.
The Lille Campaign Steering Committee consists of: Carol R. Brown, Dianne Duursma, Mara Effinger, Tiffany Elli-Butts, Monteze Freeland, Clyde B. Jones, Charisse R. Lillie, Renee Berry Mack and Bernard Mack, Marc Masterson, James McNeel, Eileen J. Morris, Renee Sorrell, and Nancy D. Washington, Ph.D.
The Dr. Vernell Audrey Watson Lillie Theatre (formerly Lester Hamburg Studio) is housed on City Theatre’s cultural campus at 1300 Bingham Street on South Side. It was acquired by the organization in 1990 and converted into a black-box theater in 1991 as part of a capital campaign that moved City Theatre from the Oakland neighborhood.
It was originally named in honor of local businessman and philanthropist Lester Hamburg who, through his friendship with then-City Theatre campaign and board chair, Robert Frankel, had made a donation to support the organization’s renovation efforts.
Over the last 30 years, thousands of performances, readings, and workshops have occurred in this flexible 102-seat space. Built in the 1840s to be a church, the building that houses the Lillie Theatre has also served as a beer distributor and auto-repair business, amongst other uses. The venue was renovated in 2014 to include new seating, flooring, roofing, technical booth, backstage support, and sound and lighting equipment.
A campaign is underway to further improve the Lillie Theatre so that it can operate independently from the Main Stage and continue to be a resource not only for City Theatre original programming but also for community gatherings and performances for area arts organizations. Those interested in supporting these efforts or to honor Dr. Lillie, should email City Theatre’s Director of Development, Dianne Duursma, at email@example.com.
Visit CityTheatreCompany.org/LillieTheatre to learn more about this naming initiative, hear testimonials about Dr. Lillie’s legacy, and learn more about her impact on the theatre community.
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