HAATz Off to Pioneer Teachers of MPS Column:
By Vicki Singh
Willie Abney was born in Atmore, Alabama, some 60 plus years ago. His parents (Susie and Willie Sr.) had high hopes for all their children. “Miss Susie” as she is known by the Black artistic family, has attended nearly all of his productions. Abney was the only one of her children to become an actor in the theatre.
As a young boy in Atmore, he recognized his maternal grandfather was much better off than those in his small town. His grandfather owned many acres of land which was sharecropped by both Blacks and Whites. Abney watched his mother become one of the most successful businesswomen in Atmore, as a beautician. Not one for wasting money, she poured her profi ts into her business and invested in land. She purchased land in and around Atmore which she owns to this day. One can see where Willie gets his “single minded thinking” from, his mom.
In the 30’s and 40’s, Atmore was no different than other southern communities. It was segregated and a “colored” man could not expect “anyone to give him anything”. Abney attended a private Lutheran school from fi rst grade to eighth grade. With a chance to move North and with other children in tow, Susie moved the family to Wisconsin. She felt that she could repeat her success in Milwaukee. The loss of Willie Sr., in his late 30’s, meant Abney, who was the eldest, had to step up and put his family first.
Like many Black southerners, all relied on friends and family who had settled in Milwaukee. This made a difference in their success. People helped each other find homes to rent or buy. Many assisted in finding employment for their families who had migrated. Of course, Miss Susie was looking for an opportunity to continue her cosmetology skills and did so.
Abney graduated from Escambia County Training School in the mid 60’s and went directly into the United States Air Force. A “Vietnam Vet”, he became the director of a new group “Interested Veterans of the Central City (IVOCC) for seven years. Contributing veterans to this organization were as follows: the late Trolley Medcalf and Michael McGee, Sr. Abney attended UW-Milwaukee, for four years, studying theatre and communication. IVOCC was established before he attended college and it was the forerunner to the organizing of the National Association of Black Veterans (NABVETS).
There were many programs designed for returning veterans but the African American community wasn’t taking advantage of them. a decision to go “national” with a new organization, NABVET was formulated.
Abney establish a community football team, affiliated IVOCC for vets. It was later adopted by Roy Hill, Sr. and he encouraged the concepts of giving vets an opportunity to mentor teen boys. Abney welcomed Hill’s advice and began a coaching career with middle and high school boys in football. A league was established. The “Athletes for Youth Program“, headed by Hill was born. Abney coached football for 22 years under the supervision of Roy Hill – Lincoln Park, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Center (Clifford Pitts) and Silver Spring Neighborhood House (Bobbie Ricardo).
Abney, like many of Gerald Wallace’s actors at People’s Theatre, came from the University community. In fact, People’s Theatre began with funding from the University via VISTA and CETA grants. In 1968 to 1974, Gerald acquired a building and it attracted many, who just came to watch. Abney was in the “watching” stages. Gerald had a series of actors around him like Constance Clark, Carol Oldham, Sherre’ Love, Sandra Renfro Scott, Debra Winston and Adolphus Ward, just to name a few.
Abney took chance after chance with Gerald‘s plays and performed under his direction. He starred in the play ‘Home’, which was highly acclaimed in the local press. This gave him the confidence, which has never eluded him, to this day. Abney was on his way. He performed in many other productions and became known as a “character” actor. Playwrights such as Langston Hughes, Lorraine Hansberry and August Wilson were just a few names, these actors were introduced to. Abney did ensemble pieces and one act productions. He has been writing a play for years called ‘Sins of My Father’ which one day, may come to a stage near you!
Today, Abney is the sole artistic director of Hansberry- Sands Theatre Company founded some 30 years ago. Willie has had the luxury of having his own company “Uptown Centre Stage” in the 1990‘s.
Atmore, Alabama is rich with many themes, which make for good theatre. One who cares to partake in the rich, spicy traditions of the Black South, can find a wealth of things to write about. Whether plays or novels, no one can deny, the South can stir up ones imagination.
Abney, a son of the South and a son of theatre, has supported himself as general contractor. As a roofer and a unique carpenter, Abney has made a living as a sub-contractor, in the winter and summer, allowing for his passion of theatre, all year round.
Did you know Abney was an upholster for many years? Before doing college and theatre, Abney was considered one of the finest upholsters on the North side. The love of upholstering came in handy for People’s Theatre and other companies, because used furniture was all art groups could afford, in those days.
Abney, in a self effacing way, calls himself – “A jack of all trades and a master of none” is a fitting title for this shy and fearless competitor. Only ask his actors and his board members, about the “heart” of Willie Abney and they will all attest to his loyalty and dedication to the craft of “Theatre”.
Hansberry Sands Theatre Company can be reached at 414-616-7529 for upcoming productions. Watch for their production of “Mahalia”, about the life and times of the world’s greatest gospel singer, Mahalia Jackson, to be performed on April 22, 2011. All you “church going folks” will truly enjoy yourself.
Willie Abney, Constance Clark-Riemer, Ferne Y. Caulker- Bronson and Tejumola Ologboni will be honored on March 26, 2011 at Serb Hall from 11:00 to 2:00. They will be presented the Gerald Wallace Lifetime Achievement Award. A bronze 13” high relief statue of Gerald Wallace in repose, framed with his signature “walking sticks”. The (4) carved sticks, depicting (4) African animals, framing the repose portrait was an inspiration of Vicki Singh, the founder of HAAT.