City Theatre honors late Black arts leader with name change | Pittsburgh City Paper

City Theatre honors late Black arts leader with name change

click to enlarge City Theatre honors late Black arts leader with name change
Photo: Courtesy of City Theatre
Dr. Vernell Audrey Watson Lillie Theatre
City Theatre is changing the name of its Lester Hamburg Studio, dedicating it to a longtime local Black theater leader.

The South Side venue announced that the 102-seat studio would be renamed Dr. Vernell Audrey Watson Lillie Theatre after a woman recognized locally and nationally for her contributions to the theater industry.

From 1972 to 2006, Lillie served as an associate professor in the Department of African Studies at the University of Pittsburgh. While teaching, she put on dozens of productions at the City Theatre, founded Kuntu Repertory Theatre, and co-founded the Black Theatre Network for Black artists to find employment, network with other artists, and be a part of an artistic community.

Lillie passed away on May 11, 2020.

Marc Masterson, City Theatre's co-artistic director, worked with Dr. Lillie for over 20 years.

“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,” says Masterson in a press release.

City Theatre's founder, Marjorie Walker, consulted with Dr. Lillie on the company’s formation in the mid-1970s. A steering committee was formed shortly after Lillie's passing to "explore ways to formally honor and celebrate her." The name change received unanimous support from the theater's board of directors.

Originally from Texas, Lillie graduated from Dillard University with a B.A. degree in speech and drama. After graduating in 1952, Dr. Lillie returned to her home state to marry her childhood friend, jazz musician Richard Willie Jr.

For the next 19 years, Dr. Lillie put on productions at Worthington and Wheatly High Schools in Houston, Texas. In 1969, Lillie and her husband moved to Pittsburgh so that she could pursue her Doctorate. She graduated from Carnegie Mellon University with an M.A. in Arts and Doctorate in English.

Monteze Freeland, co-artistic director at City Theatre, calls Lillie "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,” says Freeland, who first worked with Lillie in Kuntu Repertory Theatre's 2010 production of August Wilson’s Radio Golf. “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.”

Lillie's daughter, Charisse R. Lillie, spoke on behalf of her sister, Dr. Marsha (Hisani) Lillie-Blanton, and their families, saying, “Our mother was the ultimate mentor, mother-figure, consultant, confidante, and even a source of financial support for her students, and sometimes their families."

Charisse adds, “She loved her students, the Black Theatre Network, and the Kuntu Repertory Theatre — which we used to joke was her third child and for which she decided her heart and soul.”