Who would have bet that the country would have elected a black president before any of Washington’s biggest theater troupes had an artistic or executive director of color?
“It’s not necessarily from any ill will, but more from ignorance,” says Jennifer L. Nelson, who led the now-defunct African Continuum Theatre Company until 2006 and is a resident director with the rapidly evolving Mosaic Theater Company. “And a lack of inclination to change.”
“Diversity” has been a Washington theater watchword going back at least to the 1980s, when African American director Tazewell Thompson was Zelda Fichandler’s influential deputy at Arena Stage, and Michael Kahn made integrated casts commonplace at Shakespeare Theatre Company.
Yet change is inevitably slow when artistic directors typically cling to their jobs for decades. That’s true not only here, where the only artistic directors of color are Hugo Medrano of GALA Hispanic Theatre (since 1976) and Michael J. Bobbitt of the young audiences troupe Adventure Theatre MTC (since 2007). It’s also the case nationally, where only six of the 74 League of Regional Theatres had artistic directors of color, and none had executive directors, as of the 2013-2014 season.
Against this background, Mosaic Theater seems to be especially bent on diversifying now. In only its second season, the troupe is on a run of four straight shows depicting American black lives, starting with the recent “Satchmo at the Waldorf” and continuing through the current “Charm” (about a black transgender woman who is in her 60s and giving Emily Post etiquette lessons to homeless LGBTQ youth). Next week, Mosaic adds “Hooded: Or Being Black for Dummies.” Behind the scenes, too, the organization is stepping up efforts to improve its artistic connections and leadership pipeline.
Such an aggressive approach might be possible largely because in 2014, Artistic Director Ari Roth was abruptly fired from Theater J.
Within weeks, Roth — whose Theater J programming on Middle East issues was too controversial for his parent organization, the D.C. Jewish Community Center — announced plans for Mosaic, based in the Atlas Performing Arts Center on the fast-changing H Street NE corridor. His new team included Nelson, whose first D.C. job was with Arena Stage’s outreach arm Living Stage in 1972, and Serge Seiden, who joined Mosaic as managing director and producer after 25 years with Studio Theatre.
“We’re midcareer theater builders who got a chance to start over with this critique of our field at play,” Roth says. “You can’t ignore the national trend. Here on H Street, at the Atlas, we had to be part of a correction.”
Mosaic’s current suite of plays illustrates the troupe’s effort to broaden its reflection of the city and infuse the organization with a wider range of talent and perspectives than Roth could rally under the Theater J flag. The new bedrock is Mosaic’s 26-person board, which Roth says is 55 percent Caucasian, 35 percent African American and 9 percent Middle Eastern.
“We have the opportunity, being a start-up, to fashion ourselves more representatively,” Roth says. “We really drank the Kool-Aid.” Plainly, it’s still tricky for artists of color — young or established — to get the gigs with any real path to the top: “It’s a problem, and it needs to change. There’s a correction afoot. We can’t be having this conversation in two years.”
That mind-set is attracting support, as long-espoused ideals of diversity are increasingly backed by new initiatives and hard cash to put principles into practice. The Arlington-based Weissberg Foundation has launched a $1 million Diversity in Theater pilot fund for 2016-2019 to aid six small to midsize troupes — Mosaic, GALA, Adventure, dog & pony dc, Forum Theatre and Woolly Mammoth — to help with everything from staffing to strategic thinking. The goal is to help crack the same glass ceiling quantified among LORT theaters in the recent study from the Wellesley Centers for Women that found such stark figures in the country’s top companies.
“Intentional” is the word Mosaic staff members use to describe efforts to recruit from Howard University, the University of Maryland, Gallaudet University and Bowie State. Actors of color have been easy to find, with Howard in particular generating talent, although in many cases, “They’re outta here,” Nelson says of actors, musicians and dancers as they graduate and bolt for New York and Los Angeles.
Grooming senior leadership is the next challenge, Roth says. By chance, an informal list of potential candidates was created in June, when the national service organization Theatre Communications Group named 10 Washinton-area early-career artists and administrators for its Rising Leaders of Color program. The group included Amelia Powell, artistic and casting associate at Arena; Annalisa Dias and Ronee Penoi of the playwriting collective the Welders; Paige Hernandez, a performer who directed and choreographed last year’s “brownsville song (b-side for tray)” at Theater Alliance; Bryan Joseph Lee, director of marketing and communications at Round House Theatre; Shayla Roland, special programming manager at Ford’s Theatre (recently departed to take an associate producer job with Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul); Sadiqua Iman, artistic director of Earth Pearl Collective; Woolly Mammoth’s grants manager Ouida Madel and connectivity director Kristen Jackson; and Stephanie Rolland, artistic administrator at Baltimore’s Center Stage.
Theatre Communications Group has been driving the national conversation the past few seasons with its Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Institute. Last year’s Women’s Voices Theater Festival across Washington also responded to the poor rate of producing new plays by women (about one for every five written by men). The day before the presidential inauguration, Mosaic and Arena Stage were among several Washington-area troupes — and hundreds nationally — participating in the Ghostlight Project, a national movement promoting inclusivity in theaters.
Although Ghostlight is a specific reaction to worries about potential policies from the incoming Trump administration, overall the increased volume is a response to a continuing obstacle that Adventure’s Michael Bobbitt puts this way: “In major theaters, it’s hard to get seen. D.C. may need to do some collective thinking. We may need to think about emerging leader programs.”
“A lot of younger theater artists are pushing harder, refusing to wait be hired by somebody else,” Nelson says. She cites Paige Hernandez, a Citizen Artist Fellow with the Kennedy Center whose original hip-hop works include “Paige in Full,” a dance-theater piece that Hernandez labels “a visual mix tape.” Roth calls Hernandez “a star in the making,” while Nelson says, “She’s not just filling a niche. She’s making a niche.”
That’s a path endorsed and embodied by Arena’s new deputy artistic director, Seema Sueko. (A search for the most powerful leaders of color in D.C.’s big theaters ends at Arena, with Sueko and associate executive director Khady Kamara.)
“If they don’t let you in, you create your own,” Sueko says of breaking in with institutional companies. “Make your own art — so instead of you needing them, they need you.”
Speed bumps to diversifying include authenticity, something Mosaic scraped against with “Charm.” African American actor KenYatta Rogers, 42, was cast to play the transgender female lead, but pushback in the transgender community led to a rethink; as rehearsals began, Rogers stepped down and 64-year-old transgender performer B’Ellana Marie Duquesne took over. Director Natsu Onoda Power, an Asian American artist well versed in the politics of representation, wrangled with the ethics of casting — and with the logistics of finding experienced transgender performers.
Authenticity can be an issue for directors, too, which is still the likeliest route to top staff jobs. Signature Theatre’s associate artistic director Matthew Gardiner has broadened his musical theater troupe’s palette by championing “Dreamgirls” and “Jelly’s Last Jam,” yet as a young white director, he needed early reassurance from Tony-winning actor Cleavant Derricks, playing the tart Chimney Man in Signature’s production, that he genuinely could be in charge of “Jelly,” about black jazz pianist Jelly Roll Morton.
Like Bobbitt, Gardiner balks at the idea that he should direct only shows rooted in his experience. Yet he also says Signature needs to hire directors of color, not just for race-specific works, but to be creative forces in his organization, and in a city that has been talking the talk for a generation.
“We should be the leader,” Gardiner says of Washington. “All I can say: if I were in position to select a new artistic director, on a board, that would be a major point of discussion and importance. That’s who we should be hiring.”