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Keepers of the Culture Fund
In search of a safe haven for his family, Birel sought to find some place to continue their mission of planting seeds of knowledge to their people. Mr Vaughn dropped anchor in the small college town of Berkeley, California known for its liberalism, free-speech.
Sending for his family would not be any easy and Birel took on more than one job to accomplish the task at hand. After a brief time Birel worked in the local shipyards and took up trade in masonry. He found time between jobs to lay foundation for Downs Methodist Church and build a house for his family to reunite in and call home.
The family arrived to find Birel in the midst of the mission. Downs would become the bedrock foundation for the burgeoning theatrical collective and Nora and the family jumped right in.
Our illustrious alumni have changed the world and filled the entertainment industry with trained workers of the craft. The BRG has elevated and produced over 150 playwrights, social activist, Politicians, Poets, Musical Composers, Film and Stage Producers, Comedians, Writers, Playwrights, Actors, Thespians, and Hollywood Icons and many more artists have used the BRG Stage to hone their skills.
Along the way it is the stories spoken and written by our writers, that chronicle our history, to embody your experiences and share with us who we are. The BRG continues to be the nucleus of a world network, connecting the community with the arts that will in turn reflect itself!
After a four holiday seasons passed, Nora gingerly reminded Birel that “(she) I have a degree from Alcorn State in Black Theater and I can only stage the rise and fall of Christ in so many ways. It is time we make good on the promise we made before God to further keeping the culture through the works of Black playwrights.”
Beloved members began to call themselves 'The Group'; formed and bred in the belly of the Downs Methodist Church. However as children often do, they had to leave home and go out into the world; to continue to learn and grow.
In 1967, The Group stepped out on faith, they decided to pursue the desire to perform all the works of our playwrights. In line with the original mission, The Group performed regularly throughout Berkeley and the Bay Area. The Group was everywhere, they regularly performed at senior and recreation centers in the area. A popular location to catch a show was, the Kilimanjaro House. If, there was no building available, the whole world was a stage, The Group performed outdoors.
1970 - 1973 Unbeknownst to Nora, Birel had been working on a surprise for her, he had found time to secretly acquire a small building for the acting group to call home.
It was here at The South Berkeley Playhouse, located at 1719 Alcatraz that The Group changed its formal name to the Black Repertory Group. This location was an old storefront, which members of the group and community volunteers converted into a small theater.
The Black Repertory Group Theater was equipped with a small stage, a lighting booth, a concessions area and an audience size of ninety-nine people. Proudly, The Black Repertory Group Theater opened their first season with the production of Ossie Davis' Purlie Victorious'.
Now equipped with the proper utensils, The Black Repertory Group Theater changed the world ninety-nine seats at a time producing the works of over 50 different playwrights from Langston Hughes to Charles Fuller.
1957 – Vicksburg, Mississippi
As high school teachers, Birel L. and Nora B. Vaughn had a purpose and a mission to educate the people with knowledge about culture and history through the arts.
This was an unheard notion in the southern town of Vicksburg, Mississippi riddled with Jim Crow. Word spread around town, like hot lava flowing from a volcano. Thus, began the pursuit of the Ku Klux Klan.
Twice the KKK harassed the Vaughn Family with warnings and strong advisement to “...cease sharing Black Theater and stop teaching Black people awareness and Black Pride or be dealt with harshly!” Walking in faith, Birel and Nora kept pushing forward, their heads held high with strength that never wavered. Disobeying the orders of the Klan carried a heavy penalty, yet the mission continued in stride.
"The power brokers at that time gave Mom so much resistance to building her new theater in the early 1980s that,
after three dates that were not met and promises not kept; Mom picketed City Hall;
right outside the Mayor's office! We display her picket-sign that stated:
HERE I SIT, TILL BLACK REP STANDS!
Needless to say, Mom recieved the approval for construction the very next day. " Dr. Mona Vaughn-Scott
The BRG members were able to evaluate community needs and begin to provide services that were relevant to the community. It was during this time the BRG expanded its purpose to include the youth development component and an educational component in response to the obvious social problems evident in the community where they were located. The BRG expanded its program developments to include: a New Arts Program to present the works of emerging playwrights and artists; a Youth Program was made possible with a grant from the Junior League and a Theatrical Health Education Program would also be developed.
The world was in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement and a tense racially charged nation was in pursuit of their rightful place in history. The landscape of America was filled with protest of the social injustice our society had forced upon the people. Blacks sought to understand themselves more in order to progress forward as a whole. The mission of the BRG is kin to all of the Black Cultural Movements and struggles. It provided a premier platform on the West Coast to showcase the struggle to the people.
The culture embraced the concept; soon the nation became populated with Black Repertory Groups. Those still in operation include: the Detroit Black Repertory Theater (1957), the St. Louis Black Repertory Theater (1976) and the North Carolina Black Repertory Theater (1979). A new era began on fertile ground for the fledgling theater to grow. Patrons of all races were curious and sought to understand the culture; combined with the cultural movements of the day gave way to an unexpected large theater patronage.
The condition of the building was not up to standard and in 1978 the BRG was forced to close the doors of the South Berkeley Playhouse due to a fire code violation. Leaving the BRG without a home and in need of a safe place to continue the mission.
They set out to locate new how for the BRG. Nora found the perfect location a vacant lot filled with weeds sitting on a main corridor through the City of Berkeley.
The campaign began, Nora sat out from the gate of the vacant lot with a sign that read “The future home of the Black Repertory Group Theater” for 9 years! Regardless of the weather, there she sat, determined to continue with the mission and fight for what she knew was to become their home.
The world was rapidly changing before her eyes, and so much was staying the same! Now more than ever was the time for the BRG to reach out into the community and help the youth. The crime and drug abuse rates were astronomical and tearing the community apart.
The Civil Rights and Black Arts Movement were over; the Black Panther Party Movement was shut down and we were on the dawn of a new Afrocentristic Movement within a community looking for hope.
Cultural Arts Center
Birel L. Vaughn Theater
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The Klan departed as swiftly as they had arrived. Only this time with an eerie echo of howling mad men; with a promise, to return to finish the job. The Vaughn's were forced to migrate from Vicksburg, Mississippi by the ongoing pursuit of the KKK. With fear of the grave danger that the bounty Birel now had on his head; he had no choice but to leave town that night. A nightmare now turned into a vicious reality.
Birel decided that the family would move North, even though Nora wanted to stay and fight. With carefully analysis of the situation Nora finally conceded with compromised condition for Birel to go and make a way in the North and wherever they settled up north, they would return to their mission.
The Vaughn's did not know what the future would hold for their family and no idea that the mission they had dedicated their lives to would bring about an unparalled legacy that has rewarded us all.
On October 11, 1987 the BRG erected the Cultural Arts Center that houses the Birel L. Vaughn Theater at 3201 Adeline Street in Berkeley; a few blocks from the original theater on Alcatraz Avenue. The Center boasts a charming 250 seat theater house, state of the art technical equipment, community room and dance studio.
With continuing support the community pulled together: the Founders, Board Members, Berkeley City Officials, Foundations, Corporations, Actors, Musicians, Churches, Social Service Agencies, our most valued Patrons and Volunteers; propelled the BRG into the future and provided the cornerstone of the BRG Legacy.
“In the beginning we were really nomadic, we didn't even have a home.
All we had was loyalty to the commitment of our mission,
but that was all we needed." Mr. Wilbur Lamar