In a three-decade career, Robert John Connor has shared microphones with Gladys Knight and Michael Bublé, and appeared on The Cosby Show, A Different World, and in the Civil War big-screen drama Glory. But when the Morehouse graduate founded Dominion Entertainment Group, which showcases the work of black actors and playwrights, he opted to base the company in his hometown. “There’s so much going on in this city now with theater and TV and film projects,” he says. “It’s incredibly exciting to be here.”
Like DEG’s predecessors Jomandi Productions and Kenny Leon’s True Colors Theatre, the company’s mission is to bolster the arts in communities that don’t have many cultural enrichment and professional development opportunities. The group stages its shows at the Fulton County Southwest Arts Center in Cascade, helping to deliver on the 1979 promise by the county’s Board of Commissioners to “ensure equal access to the arts” for all residents, including traditionally underserved populations. “When I made the transition from acting and singing to directing and producing, it was important for me to create a company that filled the needs of our community,” says Connor. “We pride ourselves on productions that are both high quality and accessible.”
Why was it important for you to start Dominion Entertainment Group?
One of the main purposes was to provide another platform for the talent in our community to interact with the public through theater, music, film, and dance. I feel like I have my finger on the pulse of what audiences like. When I made the transition from acting and singing to directing and producing, it was important for me to create a company that filled the needs of our community that was high quality, accessible, and affordable.
Your resume is filled with work on productions in L.A. and New York, but you’re also a Morehouse man. Is that why you ultimately decided to return to Atlanta?
Atlanta is home. I don’t intend to leave ever again. There’s so much going on here in this city now with theater and TV and film projects; it’s incredibly exciting to be here. At Morehouse, they taught me how to be a good businessman. To be able to use that education here in this city and to pass all that on is a great gift.
Do you recall the first time you saw Black Nativity staged?
Years ago, I was cast as an actor in a Jomandi production here in Atlanta. It had such spirit and such meaning for me and such an impact on the audience that it has just stayed with me. It’s such a powerful holiday show. I wanted to share that experience with our audiences at Dominion.
How closely does your adaptation adhere to the original Langston Hughes 1961 script?
Traditionally, it’s been done as a two-act play, but this is actually closer to the original one-act Langston Hughes version. We take the essence of what Hughes did, which was to tell the story of the birth of Christ from the Book of Matthew in song and dance. When this hit the stage in 1961, it was an anomaly because there weren’t a lot of black musicals on Broadway. It became a holiday classic in the African American community. We’ve kept the costumes, the song stylings, and the African dance aesthetic. But we’ve contemporized the musical arrangements and selections. It’s not just for mom, dad, and grandma. We’ve broadened the scope for every family and every culture, walk of life, and age group.
Many longtime fans of Black Nativity had mixed feelings about the 2013 T.D. Jakes–produced film adaptation because it emphasized soap opera elements and veered away from the original work. What would you tell folks who have only seen the movie about why they need to come see this live?
We just focus on the simplicity of the storytelling. Nuts and bolts, Black Nativity is a song play about the birth of Christ told through singing, dancing, and acting. If you love those three things, you’re going to walk out impressed. There’s something about experiencing this live on stage in a theater and sitting together as a community that is very powerful.
On the calendar: Dominion Entertainment stages Langston Hughes’s classic Black Nativity at Southwest Arts Center from December 4-20.
This article originally appeared in our December 2015 issue under the headline “Stage Presence.”