How August Wilson and Miles Davis Helped Jubilee Theatre’s Tre Garrett Find His Voice

When Tre Garrett was in high school, he wrote letters to the playwright August Wilson. He wrote letters to anyone who might know Wilson. Garrett found Wilson’s niece and wrote to her until she took pity on the drama kid from Houston and passed the letters on to her uncle. That’s how Garrett—the energetic, fast-talking, 31-year-old artistic director of Fort Worth’s Jubilee Theatre—became one-sided pen pals with arguably the most important playwright of the past 50 years.

Garrett discovered Wilson in 1997 or 1998, after struggling with a monologue from The Tempest. He wanted Miles Davis to ease his mind. Instead, he found an old LP cast recording of Wilson’s 1982 play, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, in the library of Houston’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. He went into a listening room, turned off the lights, and lay down on the floor.

As he talks about this moment, his voice changes from the rapid-fire enthusiasm of a born storyteller. He speaks slowly and softly. It’s a personal thing, Garrett says, when you hear someone singing your song.

“For the very first time, in theater, I heard black voices that sounded like the people in my family, and it wasn’t something to laugh at. It wasn’t something to be disrespected,” he says. “The voices felt real to me. They felt like real people, people that I knew.”

So he started writing. His letters went unanswered for three years until the day Wilson walked into the Pittsburgh theater where Garrett, then a college student at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, was assistant directing a production of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. “I said, ‘Mr. Wilson,’ with tears in my eyes. I said, ‘I’m Tre Garrett.’ And that’s all I could get out,” Garrett says. “And he opened his arms and said, ‘Tre!’ He was like, ‘I got your letters, and I have this book that I’ve been meaning to send you.’ ”

It’s an example of what Garrett calls the law of attraction in his life, something that would seem almost serendipitous except he has worked so hard to be in the right place at the right time. After studying under the director Gerald Freedman in college, Garrett became both the director in residence at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., and an Allen Lee Hughes fellow with D.C.’s Arena Stage. He has been broke. He rode Greyhound buses to interviews for the chance to work for free alongside artists he admired. He assisted Broadway director Daniel Sullivan on the 2005 revival of Julius Caesar, became a show director for Walt Disney Entertainment, and got a master’s degree. There were other flashes, like the time Sidney Poitier gave him advice backstage at Julius Caesar. When Garrett finally met the late director Lloyd Richards, whom he considered his biggest idol, Richards embraced him, too.

“It makes you feel like—like I’m doing something right,” Garrett says. “And I always want to do this. This is what I want my life to be. I want to be a director. And I always wanted to be an artistic director. You think that opportunity is going to come way down the line, when you’re in your 50s or 60s or something, so to be an artistic director now, it’s kind of shocking, surprising. But I always felt like I was supposed to do this.”

Garrett had heard very little of Jubilee Theatre before he was scouted for the artistic director job in 2010. The black theater company, known for its big comedic musicals, had deep community roots but little national profile. He started by staging Suzan-Lori Parks’ drama Topdog/Underdog, a piece the theater never would have considered. Next he put on Pretty Fire, a one-woman show, and used it as a way to expand his community outreach program and the theater’s idea of diversity. Jubilee’s audience is split, black and white. But the final performance of Pretty Fire offered something for the deaf and hard of hearing.

Jubilee has two more productions this season, a forward-thinking mix of new and original work that has included two world premiere musicals (Black Spurs and Trav’lin). First up is Charles Smith’s comedy Knock Me a Kiss, set in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. The season concludes with the musical Mirandy and Brother Wind. Garrett’s approach has already won him allies.

“When I first met Tre, when he first arrived, it was clear that this was an artist to watch,” says Kevin Moriarty, artistic director of the Dallas Theater Center, “that this was somebody who was going to have an immediate and lasting impact on our theater community here in North Texas.”

Moriarty says he was initially struck by Garrett’s leadership skills and vision for Jubilee as a strong artistic voice in Fort Worth, keeping pace with the national dialogue and bringing along even those most resistant to the organization’s change. Garrett reached out to Moriarty about serving as the assistant director for Next Fall, a play Moriarty helmed for the Dallas Theater Center last year. After that, Moriarty says, he looked for the opportunity to bring Garrett back.

It will happen in September, when Garrett directs the Dallas Theater Center’s season opener, a production of the Lorraine Hansberry classic A Raisin in the Sun. Garrett says it was the first play he tackled in high school. It was also the first by a black woman on Broadway and the first directed by a black man—his hero, Lloyd Richards. Now it’s in Garrett’s hands.

“I’ve had a wealth of experience that I’m very, very grateful for. And I’ve had the opportunity to have giants in my life, like August and Lloyd,” Garrett says. “But at the same time, with so much respect for what they’ve done and what their journey was, I’m nowhere near what they achieved and what they accomplished. Those are the people that made it. I’m climbing the ladder that they built. And grateful to be on the journey.”