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An allegation and a cancellation: How Arena Stage’s big show fell apart

Lead actress in theater’s fall 2021 run of ‘Toni Stone’ says she felt unsafe onstage and didn’t receive support

Santoya Fields played the lead character in Arena Stage’s production of “Toni Stone.” The show was canceled two weeks after opening. (Jeff Ludovicus)

Arena Stage had big ambitions for its fall 2021 run of “Toni Stone,” a fact-based play about the first woman to play full-time professional baseball in the Negro Leagues. Directed by Tony winner Pam MacKinnon, the production marked Arena’s return to indoor, in-person theater 18 months into the pandemic. And there were even plans to simulcast a live performance to thousands of fans at Nationals Park on Sept. 26.

So actress Santoya Fields was surprised when an email hit her inbox on Sept. 24, telling the “Toni Stone” company that the theater had canceled the final 13 performances because of a “non-covid-related health issue.” Not only was Fields playing the titular role in that production, but her status also was the “issue” to which the email referred. In her first interview about the play since its cancellation, Fields said it wasn’t an illness that led to her being unable to take the stage; it was the impact of what she described as an unsafe workplace and a lack of organizational support.

“I never said I couldn’t perform another show,” Fields told The Washington Post. “They just canceled the show and said it was due to an illness, as opposed to actually handling the issues that ultimately led to me being unable to perform.”

The cancellation of the rest of “Toni Stone’s” run through Oct. 3 came after three straight performances, from Sept. 21-23, had been called off hours before curtain. Fields told The Post that those initial cancellations occurred after co-star Jarrod Mims Smith made what she characterized as unrehearsed contact in a scene that had been shaped with an intimacy director. The incident, which Fields said left her feeling unsafe onstage, led her to take multiple sick days and submit a complaint that week to Arena Stage human resources. She also contacted the Actors’ Equity labor union, which filed a grievance against the theater a week later.

Fields, a California-based actress who has worked regularly onstage since 2018, contacted The Post after seeing news in November that playwright Dominique Morisseau said she was pulling her play “Paradise Blue” from Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles because Black female artists in the production were being “verbally abused and diminished.” As attitudes toward reporting mistreatment allegations in the theater community gradually shift — prompting productions such as the Broadway musical “Jagged Little Pill,” which faced accusations of harming trans actors, to reexamine their culture — Fields said she decided to speak out in hopes of playing a small part in that sea change.

“I felt like I would have been putting myself at risk to step back onstage,” said Fields, who was the only woman in a cast of nine. “It was so closely mirroring the story of Toni Stone, this woman who experienced all these things. As a theater company, we’re telling her story because it’s important, but we’re also not going to do anything for this Black woman who is fighting to stand her ground in this male-dominated space? It was too surreal for me.”

In an interview, Arena Stage Executive Producer Edgar Dobie said the theater cut short “Toni Stone’s” run — refunding about $250,000 in ticket sales and replacing the Nationals Park simulcast with a recorded performance — because its leadership “didn’t feel that reconciliation was possible.” Explaining the decision to cite a “non-covid-related health issue” for the cancellation, he said Arena looked at Fields’s situation “not as a physical injury but nonetheless as an injury.” Addressing “Toni Stone’s” challenging subject matter, he noted that director MacKinnon, who is White, had the theater hire an emotional support consultant to help the all-Black cast process the racial trauma of the play.

“I’m just so sorry that this was Santoya’s experience,” said Arena Stage Artistic Director Molly Smith. “We put several measures in place to keep Santoya and the whole company safe from the beginning of the rehearsal. … When [concerns] were brought up in real time, we responded to them in a truthful and respectful way. Canceling the show was not a decision we made lightly, but it was one that I think was in the best interest of the entire company.”

The onstage incident occurred in the second act of “Toni Stone,” when the script calls for Toni’s teammate Woody (played by Jarrod Smith) to grab her arm and intimidate her with a sexually charged threat. Although Smith had appeared as Woody in a March 2020 staging of the play — directed by MacKinnon at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater and co-produced by Arena Stage — Fields was a newcomer to the cast. As the actors worked with MacKinnon and intimacy director Jenny Male to fine-tune the scene, Fields, in an email to stage management that was reviewed by The Post, expressed concern that Smith was grabbing her arm too tightly and also reported what she called his “unpredictable unscripted behavior.”

“She was holding nerves about this scene,” MacKinnon said in an interview. “So we very much — step by step, the way a good intimacy director does — unpacked it. … In [technical rehearsal], Santoya came to me and said that she wanted all physical contact to be removed from the scene, and I complied. I said, ‘Sure, let’s make this work.’ ”

MacKinnon, whose active role in the production ended with opening night on Sept. 9, said she directed the scene to have no contact. But during the matinee on Saturday, Sept. 18, Smith pressed his body against Fields and blew a kiss toward her face, according to Fields, who said she was so clearly pulled out of the play that a company member reported the incident while Fields was still onstage. In an email to stage management soon after the matinee, Fields wrote: “I have documented prior instances when [Smith] has done unscripted things onstage. I no longer feel safe performing with him.”

“I believe that any person with these types of claims should be heard uninterrupted and be given a chance to communicate how they feel,” Jarrod Smith said via email when presented with a summary of Fields’s claims, which he did not directly address in a brief statement. “I’m super appreciative of Arena Stage’s and Actors’ Equity’s (AEA) response to this matter.”

Molly Smith said she and the theater’s general manager discussed the incident with Fields and Jarrod Smith before Saturday night’s performance. After that show went forward without incident, Molly Smith and Dobie said they met with both actors separately the following day and got Jarrod Smith’s agreement to perform the scene as directed. From that point, Fields said, the theater didn’t attempt to run through the scene or arrange a meeting between her and her co-star until Wednesday, despite a prompt request from the actress. (The production’s fight captain, in text messages reviewed by The Post, asked stage management about running through the scene after the Saturday matinee.)

“They were handling me,” Fields said, “as opposed to handling the situation.”

Asked why a rehearsal of the Toni-Woody scene wasn’t immediately scheduled, Molly Smith and Dobie said they didn’t recall Fields making that request over the weekend, and Molly Smith emphasized that the two performances following the onstage incident had played out as intended.

“I spoke to Jarrod and said to him that there could be no deviation from the blocking from the scene in question,” she said. “At that time, Jarrod acknowledged his understanding of this request, and that was borne out by the performance on [Sunday], during which he performed the scene as directed. He self-corrected.”

Fields later recalled being “under a fog” during the Sunday performance. That Monday, on the production’s day off, she filed her complaint with Arena Stage HR. On Tuesday, she said she didn’t feel ready to perform and used a sick day — resulting in a canceled performance that night for a production with no understudies. (Arena typically hires understudies only for musicals.)

Wednesday’s performance and Arena Stage’s attempts to run through the Toni-Woody scene that day were then scrapped while Fields, after her sick day, went through the theater’s coronavirus-related health and safety guidelines. As part of those protocols, Fields saw a doctor, who recommended in a note reviewed by The Post that she return to work only “as tolerated.” The actress then called in sick for Thursday night’s performance, later saying in an interview that she did so because she needed another day to recover.

On Friday morning, Arena Stage’s general manager emailed “Toni Stone” company members to inform them of the remaining performances’ cancellation, noting that they would receive full pay and benefits through the originally scheduled end of the run.

“We looked at, on an hour-to-hour, day-to-day basis, the effect of not knowing whether you’re going to have a show that night,” Dobie said. “And we looked at the fact that we didn’t have understudies. If we were to do this all over again, what would we do? We probably would have understudies.”

Earlier that week, Fields said, she also contacted Equity and joined a call that included Arena Stage leadership and union representatives. According to Fields, Molly Smith and Dobie said during that call that Jarrod Smith had slipped and touched her by accident; both Arena leaders disputed this, saying they didn’t recall discussing the incident in detail.

Equity spokesman David Levy said the union investigated Fields’s claims and filed a grievance accusing Arena Stage of failing to maintain a safe workplace. As of early April, the grievance was unresolved.

In a statement, Levy said: “Equity’s ability to be at the forefront of ending harassment and discrimination in our members’ workplaces is dependent on our members feeling safe and empowered to come forward when something isn’t right.”

Asked about the grievance, Jarrod Smith said he was unaware of it and had been assured by Arena Stage and Equity that “all issues pertaining to me and the initial complaint filed have been resolved.”

Fields described the onstage incident as the culmination of an unprofessional atmosphere that she said had pervaded the play’s rehearsal hall over several weeks. Although Fields emphasized that some of her castmates were supportive, she said others made misogynistic remarks and brought up her gender as a way of dismissing her artistic concerns.

Speaking on the condition of anonymity to talk candidly about the production, another person involved in “Toni Stone” said that “there was a trust that was established in the beginning that simply wasn’t honored, which resulted in several actors in the process not feeling as if they were safe in the space, that they weren’t allowed to communicate, that they weren’t allowed to express concern.” This person also corroborated Fields’s claims that Jarrod Smith made unscripted decisions in rehearsal and onstage, including during the Toni-Woody scene on Sept. 18.

“Was there conflict? Yes. Was there friction? Yes. I think that most artistic processes have some kind of tension in them,” Molly Smith said. “It’s really part of the creative process in putting work onstage. But I would just say that working in the dynamic of the rehearsal hall, it comes with individual responsibility as well for each company member to act as professionals.”

Fields and the other person involved in the production both said their workplace concerns largely stemmed from an Aug. 21 rehearsal that was stopped for hours when associate choreographer Jay Staten, who declined to comment for this story, openly advocated for Fields’s firing despite not having that authority. According to Fields, the conflict between her and Staten festered after she questioned choreography evoking a minstrel show, which was not explicitly mentioned in the script.

The next day, Shane’a Thomas — the social worker brought on as an emotional support consultant for the production — oversaw a mediation that included MacKinnon, Staten and the cast. Fields said this mediation caused her to lose faith in the production’s leadership because MacKinnon seemed unwilling to intervene when creative disputes got out of hand. In her HR complaint, Fields wrote that after the mediation, she felt “unable to state my preferences or my level of discomfort because of the dynamics that existed in the room.”

“It was a space led by [Thomas] to hopefully get us through an impasse,” said MacKinnon, who recalled the mediation in a more productive light. “It’s a conversational art form. The goal is to engage with the material, engage with different personalities. People obviously have different perceptions of: When is it healthy conflict? When is it not? I certainly asked the professional, Dr. Thomas, to come in because I recognized that there was some unhealthy conflict the day before. That felt like a good way to go.”

Fields sent an initial complaint to the theater Aug. 25 communicating concerns about Staten and the broader work environment, after which Arena Stage brought in a second associate choreographer. Fields also said that “Toni Stone” playwright Lydia R. Diamond urged her not to file the report until after the run ended and suggested that she take the tension and “use it onstage.” Diamond, through her assistant, declined to comment for this story.

Fields, who has not listed any stage credits since appearing in “Toni Stone,” said Arena Stage “had an opportunity to reduce some of the harm that I had experienced. They had an opportunity to really step in, but all of their remedies were pretty passive.”

“This is a recurring issue in theater,” she added, “but people just aren’t shining light on it.”