December 21, 2008

James Hebert, Theater Critic at The San Diego Union Tribune, wrote an important article in today’s paper about diversity (or lack of it) on San Diego’s stages.  You can read it here:

Stages of change

For local theaters, achieving diversity is an ‘ongoing, everyday effort’ — progress has been made, but the goal has not been reached

12:02 a.m. December 21, 2008

Ken Prymus and Lillias White in the Rep’s “Princess and the Black Eyed Pea.” – Sean M. Haffey / Union-Tribune

Live theater has long been an intellectual free-fire zone, a place for dreams and ideas of all kinds to mingle and mix it up.

But in a time when it’s popular to talk of a “postracial” society – and when our nation’s first nonwhite president is preparing to take office – has theater also embraced a multitude of cultures and voices to match its bold range of ideas?

In San Diego, that question is still being answered. Overall, theater is more diverse here than it was 20 years ago, when San Diego Rep launched its first Latino outreach program. Diversity has increased even in the past five years, with the rise of such adventurous and inclusive companies as Moxie Theatre and Mo’olelo Performing Arts (both headed by women).

Still, a look at the current seasons of San Diego’s two powerhouse regional theaters, the Old Globe and La Jolla Playhouse, offers a mixed picture, depending on what prism you use.

In terms of key creative roles: For the Globe’s eight shows, six directors and six playwrights are white males. For the Playhouse’s six shows, the tally of white males is four playwrights and five directors.

Contrast that with San Diego Rep, a pioneer of diversity in San Diego: Of the Rep’s five 2008-09 season shows, three were written by Latino or black playwrights and two were helmed by nonwhite directors. (The lineup also takes in two female playwrights and one female director.)

Delicia Turner Sonnenberg guides a rehearsal for the women-centered Moxie Theatre. Charlie Neuman / Union-Tribune

Seema Sueko and Tom Andrew in Mo’olelo’s “Night Sky.”  - <em>Earnie Grafton / Union-Tribune </em>
Seema Sueko and Tom Andrew in Mo’olelo’s “Night Sky.” – Earnie Grafton / Union-Tribune

And yet there’s more to the story. The Globe, for example, opened a new technical center in racially diverse southeastern San Diego this year, the centerpiece of extensive outreach efforts that include an internship program for residents of the area. In February, the theater will produce “Kingdom,” a hard-edged, hip-hop-driven musical about gang life, to be staged partly at Lincoln High School in the southeast neighborhood of Lincoln Park.

Over the summer, the Playhouse mounted the musical “Memphis” with a mostly black cast, as well as a new solo show by the African-American artist Charlayne Woodard. It also staged the hip-hop show “Seven” in January (though that wasn’t part of the current season, the first programmed by artistic director Christopher Ashley).

And in April, the La Jolla theater chose Mo’olelo as its first resident theater company, giving the small but ambitious troupe access to Playhouse resources and performance space.

“Accomplishing diversity is an ongoing, everyday effort,” acknowledges Ashley, who succeeded Des McAnuff as artistic director in October 2007. “And you never arrive there, and you never do as well as you want to do, and you have to think about it all the time.

“Looking at our past 12 months, I’m actually really proud of our diversity onstage – between ‘The Seven’ and Charlayne Woodard and the cast of ‘Memphis,’and to some extent even the cast of (the current show) ‘Xanadu,’ which suggests ‘sisters’ can be multiracial, multigender.”

Ashley adds, though, that directors are “clearly an area we have to keep pushing at. I think if you call us on that, you are calling us on a thing we need to do better at.”

Making progress Louis G. Spisto, CEO/executive producer of the Old Globe Theatre, says that “if you look across the year, I’d say we have a pretty diverse group of stories,” pointing to the plays “Cornelia,” which deals with issues of race and class, and “Since Africa,” about a young Sudanese immigrant (a work both written and directed by females), among other productions.

“We don’t set out to choose a play or hire a director based on a quota system,” but diversity is a key part of the Globe’s larger mission, Spisto says. But choosing a diverse season can be complicated by the fact that “there aren’t as many female directors in our world as there are males, and there aren’t as many female playwrights,” he adds.

Those at smaller companies around town, the ones that often are most likely to take risks on little-known plays or work from other cultural traditions, say the local scene seems to have grown more open-minded about new and different voices.

“I feel in general that in this community, people are making an effort to think outside the box or the norm,” says Delicia Turner Sonnenberg, artistic director of the women-centered Moxie Theatre. “That’s one of the reasons I feel lucky to be part of it.

Sonnenberg recalls that when the Rep hired her to stage “Intimate Apparel” in 2006, “I was the black female director who directed the black female playwright. But then they also called me to direct in the next season – the Christopher Durang play.

“That’s what I appreciate about this community. At Cygnet Theatre, Esther (Emery, a Moxie associate artist who is white) directed ‘Yellowman,’ which has a black cast and is about blackness.”

Still, she agrees with Ashley that diversity here is a work in progress.

“I don’t think people say, ‘You know what? I don’t think I’m going to produce any women (playwrights),’ ” Sonneberg says. “I don’t think people are being excluded (purposely). I just think more attention needs to be paid.”

Elsewhere in the nation, criticism about theater diversity have been voiced more sharply of late. In New York, a group of prominent female playwrights staged a town-hall meeting recently to protest how few women were seeing their work produced off-Broadway.

On Broadway, the nation’s de facto theater capital, only a few of the 30-plus shows playing in mid-December were by female writers. The only show with a strong multicultural presence was “In the Heights,” the 2008 Tony Award winner for best musical, which is set in a barrio of Manhattan’s Washington Heights.

For nonwhite theater artists, says Broadway producer Scott Sanders, a big issue is getting pigeonholed into “ethnic” productions.

“I still think that today, no matter the progress that’s been made, there are still a lot of people who get stuck,” says Sanders, whose hit “The Color Purple” came to San Diego in its touring version recently.

opened – a lot more people to let in. (It’s about) giving them a shot. And not just saying, if someone writes a musical called ‘In the Heights,’ that only Hispanic people will go to see it.”

If you build it … The Rep’s artistic director, Sam Woodhouse, agrees that reaching out to new audiences is as important as – and maybe inseparable from – providing a forum for minority and female artists.

“Back in the day, people would say, ‘How do you get audiences to come to a Latino play?,’ ” recalls Woodhouse, whose theater’s seminal Teatro Sin Fronteras (“Theater Without Borders”) initiative was launched in 1988.

“And I would say, ‘Well, first of all, do a Latino play.’ If you never do one, how would you expect a culturally focused audience to come out?”

When the Rep started its outreach, it was based on the simple reality of running a theater based in a border region.

“It was sophisticated as, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if our artists and our audiences were as diverse as the population you see in the 7-Eleven (every day),” Woodhouse says.

But pursuing that mission does not come without potential sacrifices, Woodhouse acknowledges. The risks include alienating less adventurous audience members.

“The world of culture, of art and entertainment, struggles with the tension between reconfirming the familiar and discovering the unfamiliar,” Woodhouse says.

But “people who are not curious and not interested in ‘the other’ usually don’t come to our theater. And some of them used to. But I’m not programming for their tastes and desires.”

For Seema Sueko, co-founder and artistic director of Mo’olelo, one of the biggest boosts to diversity has been the funding provided by the city’s Commission for Arts and Culture. Drawn from taxes on hotel and motel visitors, the money is awarded based partly on arts institutions commitment to audience inclusiveness and diversity.

“Unless it’s tied to power and money, when you’re in the dominant class it’s hard to see that you’re not diverse,” says Sueko, who will direct “Since Africa” at the Globe next year. “Because you’re comfortable, it’s hard to see the lack of opportunities. It’s hard to see how you’ve marginalized people when you’re comfortable.

“I believe there are theaters and other arts organizations that have made specific choices about diversity because of that (funding) initiative. Those are probably choices they wouldn’t have made otherwise.”

But there can be a paradox in pursuing diversity across the board. At Diversionary Theatre – which is dedicated to serving the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community – artistic director Dan Kirsch has mixed feelings about the suggestion (offered by one city funding-panel member) that the theater’s board include more non-gay people.

“There’s definitely a balance,” says Kirsch. “We don’t want to be mainstreamed. What the board supports, and my artistic vision, is we serve the (GLBT) cultural legacy.

“I hope we’re welcoming of everyone. Most of the actors and designers and directors are not gay, but probably only 20 to 30 percent of the audience is non-gay. We don’t want to be like every other theater company. Our mission is very specific – to tell our stories.”

Hearing those stories – the ones from artists and communities who’ve in the past been left out of the loop – is one of the ideals of those who champion diversity in theater. For upstart companies like Moxie, the progress toward that spirit of openness is encouraging, but the work isn’t finished.

“I always say, I hope one day our mission isn’t necessary,” as Sonnenberg puts it. “But right now it is.”


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