Marshall Jones III, the artistic director at Crossroads Theatre and Ricardo Khan, right. An instructor at Mason Gross School of the Arts


Left, Marshall Jones III, the artistic director at Crossroads Theatre Company, manages the theater that was cofounded by Ricardo Khan, right. An instructor at Mason Gross School of the Arts as well, Jones has some of his theater students help stage productions at the theater.

Nick Romanenko

It’s been a long time since the days when Crossroads Theatre Company regularly premiered productions that were snatched up by theatrical producers in New York City. But this fall, in a sign of the changing fortunes at the New Brunswick theater, Lift, a drama by novelist Walter Mosley, debuts off Broadway. In the spring, it was staged and honed at Crossroads under the guidance of producing artistic director Marshall Jones III, pictured left above. Jones RC’85 has played a leading role in reinvigorating the original mission of Crossroads, which was cofounded in 1978 by Ricardo Khan RC’73, MGSA’77, pictured right above, and L. Kenneth Richardson RC’72, MGSA’77 after the two men graduated from the Mason Gross School of the Arts. It became the preeminent regional theater for dramatizing the African-American experience, winning the 1999 Tony Award for Outstanding Regional Theatre in the United States.

Among the many plays that originated at Crossroads were: The Colored Museum (later produced for WNET’s Great Per­formances) and Spunk, both written by George C. Wolfe; Black Eagles, a chronicle of the Tuskegee Airmen of World War II; and Sheila’s Day, a cultural collaboration of South African and African-American women that toured the United States, England, and South Africa.

“Crossroads has a long history of presenting the work of the theater world’s leading black playwrights and actors,” says Jones. “Lift continues that legacy that Crossroads has always been known for.” In Lift, two people are trapped in an elevator inside a burning skyscraper and, with seemingly nothing to lose, reveal personal secrets to each other. Lift is Mosley’s first play even though he’s a familiar name in literature circles, best known for his Easy Rawlins crime-fiction series.

Several Rutgers alumni and current students at Mason Gross lent a hand as members of the cast and crew in helping Jones and Mosley prepare the play for off Broadway. Crossroads’ associate producer is Amie S. Bajalieh MGSA’12. The lead actress is MaameYaa Boafo MGSA’09, and Shavonna Banks MGSA’14 has a small, but pivotal, role in the production. The training that alumni and students receive at Mason Gross is instrumental, Jones says, because everyone shares an understanding of, and seriousness about, theater—and Crossroads’ role in it.

In forging a relationship with Mosley, Jones was continuing a Crossroads tradition of allying the theater with some of the biggest names in the arts world. “I wasn’t interested in working with him because he’s a famous novelist,” says Jones. “And I wasn’t scared about working with him because he had never done theater. I was interested because he was interested in relationships in his work. Even though he’s not a playwright, he’s a storyteller. He understands how to unfold drama, whether it’s a novel or short story or a play.”

No one is happier to see Crossroads continuing its legacy of developing relationships than Khan, who today serves as a creative adviser and who remembers the years of watching Crossroads struggle amid financial turmoil, which traces back to at least 1991 when the theater company moved to its current location on Livingston Avenue. Increased expenses incurred in the new building were exacerbated by an economic recession that led to severe cuts in state funding. By fall 2000, the theater was $2 million in the red and ended up canceling two seasons. Today, the Crossroads that Jones leads is a streamlined, and financially solvent, version of the theater in its heyday.

“Certainly the early mission is not that much different from today’s mission,” says Khan, who was inducted into the Rutgers Hall of Distinguished Alumni in 1992. “Our goal was to create a theater that would be able to do the types of works that reflected the stories of the African-American experience but in a way that could be appreciated by people of all backgrounds. And we wanted to reach for artistic excellence in all that we did. It’s been a long climb since then, but the mission hasn’t changed. We just have to figure out how to get to do it in a different way. We’re talking about a 36-year-old institution, and it’s going to have to learn how to move and reimagine itself at times.”

Khan and others praise Jones not only for sustaining the original mission of Crossroads, but also for sticking with the theater when some might have been tempted to leave for greener pastures. Jones was reluctant to join the Crossroads staff because of the theater’s financial woes, having turned the theater down twice before joining the staff in 2007. “Perfect timing,” says Jones, dryly: “The economy started to go south.” Despite the rough patches, Jones is a determined optimist.

“I’m a director and a producer,” he says. “I know how to put on shows. Having to do this with very meager resources, in the worst of the worst economic environment, has been very hard. But I have a lot of sweat equity put in. And each season I say, ‘It’s going to be better; it’s going to be better.’ Now, in my eighth season, I can see it. It’s coming. Finally.”

In the midst of Crossroads’ ups and downs, Jones has also been teaching at Mason Gross, where he’s been on the faculty since 2002. Like his stint at Crossroads, Jones never expected to be teaching at Mason Gross. Indeed, Jones still remembers his own incredulous reaction as a young student when an administrative assistant at Mason Gross predicted that he would someday run Crossroads. “I was, like, ‘Get out of here. Really? No,’” Jones recalls, laughing quietly. “I just wanted to go to New York.”

Jones had his New York moments. After receiving a master’s degree in theater from New York University, he spent close to 20 years managing New York institutions such as the Apollo Theater, Madison Square Garden’s entertainment division, and Broadway’s production of The Lion King. Jones returned to Rutgers after running into his former professor, Eric Krebs RC’66, GSNB’73 (see related story). The school needed someone to assume Krebs’s classes because he was leaving.

Today, the juggling act can be “pretty intense,” but Jones enjoys both facets of his artistic world. “Having been at Rutgers for 12 years, it’s gratifying to see students go out into the world and to see former students return to share their experiences. Crossroads is a different kind of satisfaction that comes from seeing a project fully realized. It’s like you’re a sculptor of clay and you get to see an audience appreciate that work.” •