Thomas Michael Gates, professor emeritus of theater arts and ethnic studies at California State University, Sacramento, will be remembered as a pioneer of black theater.
Mr. Gates died Dec. 13 in Sacramento after a brief battle with lung cancer. He was 68.
From 1972 to 1995, Mr. Gates was the artistic director of the renowned Sons/Ancestors theater company at CSUS, which under his direction won the American College Theatre Festival's award of excellence for its production of Phillip Hayes Dean's "Sty of the Blind Pig."
"What he wrought, in terms of lasting cultural impact on Sacramento/Northern California, cannot even be estimated, let alone stated," poet and former CSUS artist in residence Eugene Redmond wrote The Bee.
"We wanted to show Sacramento and the world that black theater was the real deal," veteran Sacramento theater instructor Mike Benjamin said of Mr. Gates, with whom he was a student at CSUS.
Born in St. Louis, Mr. Gates divided his youth between divorced parents, first in Virginia where his mother chaired the drama department at Hampton University and later with his father on the West Coast. There he played the lead role in Ibsen's "Peer Gynt" in a production at Fremont High School in Oakland.
Following high school, Mr. Gates enlisted in the Air Force and spent several years living outside the United States before entering Howard University in Washington, D.C., to study theater.
At Howard, he met the emerging writer and director Paul Carter Harrison, whom he followed to CSUS, where he earned a master's degree in theater and began his teaching and directing career as Harrison was leaving CSUS.
"Michael continued Harrison's role as a pioneer of both black theater (locally/globally) and Pan-African/Ethnic Studies," Redmond wrote.
Thomas-Whit Ellis was a CSUS track star trying to fill out his course schedule when Mr. Gates recruited him to take a theater class.
"I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing if I hadn't met Mike and taken his class," said Ellis, who has taught theater at CSU Fresno for more than 20 years. "It completely changed the course of my life."
Ellis described Mr. Gates as a sometimes temperamental and always demanding taskmaster.
"Once you got to know him as a person, you could put up with his autocratic methods," Ellis said. "You realized it's not personal."
Lisa Lacy, artistic director of Images Theater, said she built her company on the ideas she learned from Mr. Gates.
"For the disenfranchised and people of color, it (theater) needs to be used to educate and lift consciousness," she said.
"Mike's great gift," Lacy continued, "was the ability to create productions that were edgy, explored relationships beyond the text in the script, and made people think about the world they were living in and how to change it."
After retiring from CSUS, Mr. Gates devoted himself to his family in Northern California, assuming the position of family patriarch, said his sister Rahima Gates.
"To us he was Brother Mike and Uncle Mike," she said. "He really worked at being in our lives. He was so present with us."