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Marquette Wire

The student news site of Marquette University

Marquette Wire

The student news site of Marquette University

Marquette Wire

Andre’ Lee Ellis tells it like it is

These eight members of Andre' Lee Ellis & Company are participating in its 18th season. Photo courtesy of Andre' Lee Ellis.

Andre’ Lee Ellis & Company will open its 18th season this Thursday with the choreopoem, “Tellin’ It Like It Tis,” at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Center.

The center is only a few blocks from campus, yet many students will never discover this part of Milwaukee’s art scene.

Andre’ Lee Ellis, the founder of the company, began 30 years ago in other various theater companies around the country, including the Herbert Berghof Studio in New York City and Jomandi Productions in Atlanta, Ga., as well as The Hansberry-Sands Theatre Company right here in Milwaukee.

In 1994 Ellis became the artistic director for Hansberry-Sands, but found himself wanting to do something more.

Ellis knew theater companies usually don’t hire actors who lack experience, making it difficult for those without the resources to be discovered. This concern prompted Ellis to create Andre’ Lee Ellis & Company.

“I wanted to have a vehicle, a haven, a pit stop for actors so they could hone their craft,” he said.

Now, 18 years later, Ellis continues to bring the arts to neighborhoods otherwise unable to access them.

“Tellin’ It Like It Tis” centers around 10 African-American males, a group often underrepresented in the theater world and unspoken for in many other aspects of the arts, especially in Milwaukee. With individual spoken word pieces written by Ellis, each actor shares stories of life, history and everyday challenges black males face in a society that sets them up to battle constant struggles and stereotypes.

“I wrote this play because African-American men get a bad rep in society,” said Ellis. “Everybody is talking about the black man, but nobody is letting the black man tell his own story and take it for that. You look at the media, and you would think that we’re bad.”

“Tellin’ It Like It Tis” isn’t a piece written out of hatred or scorn or to place blame. Ellis wrote his spoken word pieces as an opportunity to teach the world how to understand black men and to speak directly to the men in their community.

Shawn Muhammad, one of the 10 actors in “Tellin’ It Like It Tis,” has known Ellis for years and appreciates his efforts.

“I relate to all the pieces. A piece of me is in every last monologue,” he said. “It only takes one piece to excite the community and gain support.”

Muhammad, whose stage name is Gatturner, was a hip-hop and spoken word artist before meeting Ellis. While performing on his own, Muhammad realized how difficult it was to find opportunities in Milwaukee.

“Milwaukee is a tough place when it comes to the arts,” he said. “If you don’t create a platform for yourself, the city is limited for the most part.”

To Muhammad, “Tellin’ It Like It Tis” is a step in the right direction for an art scene that’s basically nonexistent.

Andre’ Lee Ellis & Company is one of few African-American-based art companies in the city, making it crucial to gain support.

“A lot of my people in my community don’t have the funds to go to Broadway and make it to New York,” Ellis said. “Art plays a major role in the community. We have to take theater to the streets.”

Romico Gray, another actor in the production, had no theater background before joining Andre’ Lee Ellis & Company but now has three years of experience under his belt.  The message of “Tellin’ It Like It Tis” is a strong one for him as well.

Ellis sees bright things for not only his company but also for the performance and the message behind it. In order to provoke change, it has to start from the inside.

“When you’re missing in the picture, you think you don’t belong,” Ellis said. “At all cost I need to continue to do this and do it well.”

“Tellin’ It Like It Tis” runs Sept. 22-25, 29 to Oct. 2. Thursday through Saturday shows start at 8 p.m. Sunday shows start at 6 p.m. All shows except opening night are $10. Opening night admission is $20 and includes a reception. All shows are performed at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Center, 1531 W. Vliet St. For more information, call 414-344-5600.

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