Category Archives: African American

L.A. premiere of ‘An Octoroon’ by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins will launch outdoor stage at Fountain Theatre

Playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins

The Los Angeles premiere of An Octoroon by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins will inaugurate the new outdoor stage at the Fountain Theatre later this spring. Judith Moreland will direct.

Winner of the Obie Award for Best American Play, Jacobs-Jenkins’ landmark play has earned ecstatic reviews nationwide. The New York Times hailed it as “this decade’s most eloquent theatrical statement on race in America today.” The Guardian declared it “brilliant” and “extraordinary.”

An Octoroon is a radical, incendiary and subversively funny riff on Dion Boucicault’s once-popular 1859 mustache-twirling melodrama set on a Louisiana plantation. A spectacular collision of the antebellum South and 21st-century cultural politics, An Octoroon twists a funhouse world of larger-than-life stereotypes into blistering social commentary to create a gasp-inducing satire.

“I’m proud the Fountain will introduce this bold play to Los Angeles audiences on our new outdoor stage,” states Fountain artistic director Stephen Sachs. “It could not be timelier. The moment has come for our nation to confront its own racist history. Branden uses satire to get to the dark core of American slavery and the racial stereotypes that continue to plague this country today.” 

Earlier this year, the Fountain received approval from the City of Los Angeles to install the outdoor stage for the purpose of safely presenting live performances and other events during the pandemic. Construction is set to begin this month, with the opening of An Octoroon slated for June.

Before that can happen, a number of tasks remain on the Fountain’s to-do list to inaugurate the outdoor venue. The first step is to repave the parking lot, where the stage will be installed. Lighting, sound, and video equipment will be loaded in. New chairs will be positioned according to COVID guidelines to accommodate 84 viewers. The entire site will meet all safety requirements for artists and audience members.

“Everything now depends on the COVID numbers,” says Sachs. “Once they drop to a level where the County Department of Public Health allows a gathering outdoors of one hundred people, with safety guidelines in place, we’re good to go.”

The new outdoor performance area is made possible, in part, by the generous support of Karen Kondazian, the Vladimir and Araxia Buckhantz FoundationRabbi Anne BrenerCarrie Chassin and Jochen HaberMiles and Joni Benickes, and the Phillips-Gerla Family.

For more information about the Fountain Theatre, go to www.fountaintheatre.com

Conversations with Black Artists, Part III

by Terri Roberts

In this final segment of our Conversations with Black Artists series, we talk with director Shirley Jo Finney, and actors Gilbert Glenn Brown and Theo Perkins. We are grateful to all of the wonderful performers and creatives who have been so generous with their time and shared their thoughts about issues around race and their relationships with the Fountain Theatre. We hope you have enjoyed getting to know them a little better, as well.

Shirley Jo Finney

Director: From the Mississippi Delta, Central Avenue, Yellowman, The Ballad of Emmett Till, Heart Song, In the Red and Brown Water, The Brothers Size, Citizen: An American Lyric

1. When/how did you first come to the Fountain Theatre?

My first directing job at the Fountain was in1997, with From the Mississippi Delta by Endesha Ida Mae Holland.

2. How has your experience been working here?

I find the Fountain Theater supports their artists.

3. What Fountain shows that you’ve worked on hold particular meaning for you, and why?

All of them. Each of the shows are socially relevant and have impacted my artistic awareness as well as my expansion as a human being. It is the creative journey with the actors that hold the most meaning for me and not a particular show.

4. Last summer’s civil unrest brought an increased focus on racism, both in general and within the theatre world. We also saw the emergence of the BIPOC movement. How have these issues impacted you and your work in the theatre? 

Not so much.

For me, the emergence of BIPOC is a continuation of the Civil Rights Movement of the 60’s and 70’s. That movement changed laws and stopped a war. The cultural and black arts movement of that time laid the foundation for the raised fist we are experiencing now. I am a child of that time and my foundation as a creative was shaped by that time. It is the work I am called to do. Each generation is defined by their time. 

5. Why is Black History Month important

It brings a microscopic lens of awareness to a culture that historically has been erased. There would not be a need for a month if it were an intricate part our education system.

6. What’s next for you? Any upcoming projects?

I hope many more active and healthy years!

I have adapted creatively during “the time of Covid.” It has opened up a whole new world of Zoom lectures discussing my journey and body of work as a director. I also am relishing the world of Zoom productions using the “mashing” of stage and digital to create story.

Gilbert Glenn Brown

Actor: Direct From Death Row: The Scottsboro Boys, In the Red and Brown Water, The Brothers Size, The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek

1. When/how did you first come to the Fountain Theatre?

My very first audition and show with Fountain Theatre was early on when I first arrived to Los Angeles from NY and that was Scottsboro Boys.

2. How has your experience been working here?

My experience at the Fountain in one word… community. Truly the closest experience I’ve had in LA to a NY theatre experience. I feel that a sense of community in theatre is necessary. I enjoy being part of it, and the Fountain is able to foster that to an incredible degree,

The commitment to presenting productions that not only entertain, but transform, educate, and energize is so key. It breaks down walls, opens eyes and allows dialogue. The Fountain does that extremely well. I consider the Fountain my LA theatre home.

3. What Fountain shows that you’ve worked on hold particular meaning for you, and why?

I have to say that every single show I’ve had the honor of being a part of at the Fountain has been transformational for me. Every opportunity I’ve had to step onto that stage and look out into that small, yet giant, space, has changed me and allowed me to grow as an artist and as a human being. As an artist, that’s what you want – because if it moves you in that way, it will no doubt move the audience as well.

I have had the opportunity, at the Fountain, to be directed by some of the best: the incredible Shirley Jo Finney, the wonderful Simon Levy and the late, legendary Ben Bradley.

4. Last summer’s civil unrest brought an increased focus on racism, both in general and within the theatre world. We also saw the emergence of the BIPOC movement. How have these issues impacted you and your work in the theatre? 

Honestly, it has reinforced my conviction to continue doing exceptional, meaningful work as an artist. The projects I gravitate toward speak to the conditions of the world and ask the important questions, then set the stage for dialogue to occur.

There is a space for entertainment, for laughter, for fun – all that and more are a part of life and living. They exist even in classic tragedies, as they do in everyday issues and everyday life – but the responsibility of looking at all sides, of presenting the pleasure and the pain, falls on the artist. The unrest has always been there. The causes for that unrest have always been there. It’s just that now, due to social media/technology, that unrest is being broadcast and streamed 24/7 in real time and in living color. That doesn’t make it any easier, but it does make it more apparent.

Look at George Floyd, or the Capitol riots! Watching those events happen, live, presents the opportunity to either step up and be an active participant, or just sit back and watch. And that is something the Fountain stands on: Yes, of course, sit back. Please watch what’s happening. Go ahead and be uncomfortable by what you see on stage. Let it sink in, and let it transform you in some way. Let that experience provoke discussion, challenge your way of thinking or the way you see the world. That is the amazing opportunity that theatre presents.

5. Why is Black History Month important?

Black History? Well, I’ve been educated and enlightened to see that it’s not just “Black” History or just a month. It’s really World History. It’s really American History. The truth is that much that exists now wouldn’t exist at all without Black input, and, for that matter, without the input of many other cultures, races, religions, etc. America is an amalgamation of all that’s been added to the mix. There really shouldn’t be a limit to the reality of the impact that any culture has had on life in America. If we were to really embrace that truth, that inclusivity, what would, or could, America be?

6. What’s next for you? Any upcoming projects?

Right now I’m working on the CW/DC show Stargirl. I will be seen as Martin Luther King Jr. opposite Jennifer Hudson in the Aretha Franklin biopic Respect, due out this August. And I’m always creating, writing and being part of projects that address what I see is missing from the world.

Theo Perkins

Actor: In the Red and Brown Water, The Brothers Size, Raise Your Voice – Vote!

1. When/how did you first come to the Fountain Theatre?

Shortly after graduating from UCLA, I received an audition for In the Red and Brown Water. This was my first introduction to the Fountain Theatre.

2. How has your experience been working here?

Transformative. The intimacy of the space really expanded my approach to performance in amazing ways. I’m proud to say the Fountain Theatre is my theater home.

3. What Fountain shows that you’ve worked on hold particular meaning for you, and why?

This is tough one. Each production is close to me to this day. I’d say, In the Red and Brown Water. Not only did it introduce me to Tarell McCraney’s work, but I also gained a tribe of amazing humans, all of whom I still talk to today.

4. Last summer’s civil unrest brought an increased focus on racism, both in general and within the theatre world. We also saw the emergence of the BIPOC movement. How have these issues impacted you and your work in the theatre?  

Well, I believe it served as a reminder of how important it is to have diverse voices in our theaters. Not only in terms of playwrights, but in all departments. The events of this summer shined a light on the years of inequity within our community. And it has pushed us all to do and to be better.

5. Why is Black History Month important?

It’s an intentional acknowledgment of the undeniable contributions African-Americans have made in this country. It’s a reminder that our history should be honored. And studied. And used to inspire younger generations.

6. What’s next for you? Any upcoming projects?

During the quarantine, I wrote and produced a film project that will come out this Spring. Look out for it! Also excited to re-launch Elizabeth Youth Theatre Ensemble’s social justice program, Walking the Beat, both in New Jersey and in Los Angeles at the Fountain Theatre. Both productions will actually be virtual.

Conversations with Black Artists, Part II

By Terri Roberts

Here, in the second part of our series of conversations with Black artists who have frequently worked with the Fountain Theatre, we talk with actor and director’s assistant Erinn Anova, as well as actors Karen Malina White and Victoria Platt. More conversations to come. Stay tuned!

Erinn Anova

Actor: Central Avenue, Direct From Death Row: The Scottsboro Boys, Cyrano. Assistant to the Director: The Ballad of Emmett Till, In the Red and Brown Water

1. When/how did you first come to the Fountain Theatre?

I first came to the Fountain as the understudy for “Angel” in Central Avenue. Shirley Jo Finney had just directed me in Blues for an Alabama Sky in Northern California, and I’d recently moved to LA. She knew I was a huge jazz fan, and suggested I audition for the new play she was directing: Central Avenue. That play was so good! It went on for six months, so even as an understudy I had plenty of shows.

2. How has your experience been working here?

Great! I gained amazing friendships, and I’ve learned so much! I’ve had the opportunity to work with world-class playwrights, actors and designers. When I moved to New York, the Fountain was one of the few LA theatres that people have actually heard of. Overall, the Fountain feels like home – the quirks, the magic, the consistency. I just love it.

3. What Fountain shows that you’ve worked on hold particular meaning for you, and why? 

They have all been great, but I’m going to have to go with two, for very different reasons.

First, Cyrano. It was such a gift for me, as a hearing person, to be immersed in the deaf community. In this whole new world, I learned about deafness and its power, about language and somatics, and about life. It changed me.

As far as acting goes the whole cast was amazing, but sharing scenes with Troy Kotsur (Cyrano) was something-other-else. It’s what I imagine working with another genius, Charlie Chaplin, would be like, and I’m not exaggerating. I also have to shout out Stephen Sachs for casting me – a dark brown, short-haired black woman (someone not always so “visible” in Hollywood) as the love interest, Roxy. The fact that there was never even a conversation about it was even sweeter. 

Finally – very few people know this, but now’s as good a time as ever to share – a few years after Cyrano closed, and after some mysterious symptoms appeared, I was diagnosed with both hearing loss and an auditory processing disorder. It made so much of my life make sense, and now I wear hearing aids in both ears. That was a very scary time, and folks have no idea how badly regulated the hearing aid business is (that’s another story.) But because of Cyrano, I had people to reach out to. Maleni Chaitoo, one of the deaf actors, helped me tremendously with her knowledge and resources to navigate that journey, and I will always be grateful for her warm welcome into the hard of hearing/deaf community. Cyrano was a blessing.

Next, In the Red and Brown Water. For that show there was no “official” casting person – it was me! I was assisting Shirley Jo, and I believe James Bennett or Stephen gave me a general rundown of how to work the casting websites, and I was off and running. Of course, Shirley Jo gave me parameters of what to look for, but I am very proud of the amazing actors that I personally picked to come in for auditions. There were a few I even fought for: Diarra Kilpatrick, Maya Lynne Robinson, Stephen Marshall, Gilbert Glenn Brown, Justin Chu Cary and Simone Missick. Along with Iona Morris, Theo Perkins, Peggy Blow, and Dorian Baucum, this was one of the most phenomenal casts I’ve ever seen. They, along with Shirley Jo’s brilliant and elevating direction, made Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play fly. And they all turned out to be wonderful people, too! It’s been a joy to see everyone continue to shine bright in theatre, television, and film, and it’s even more of a blessing to be a part of the IRBW “family.”

One more: Direct From Death Row: Scottsboro Boys. This show has special meaning for me because Ben Bradley cast me in it. Rest in peace, Ben. Also, Mark Stein, who wrote it, and my brother, Harley White, Jr., who wrote the music, were nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.  They lost out to some musical called Hamilton.

4. Last summer’s civil unrest brought an increased focus on racism, both in general and within the theatre world. We also saw the emergence of the BIPOC movement. How have these issues impacted you and your work in the theatre?  

My work has been impacted by the fact that that these conversations about racism are just now happening in the theatre world. At some point I stopped investing time and interest in pursuing work in “mainstream” theatres. As my grandmother would say, “Go where you’re wanted, honey.” I started in theatre very young (age 12) and in my naivete, I think I mistook the magic and camaraderie of theatre as a place where kindness and respect for humanity were built in. Often they are not. Some of my worst racial experiences have happened at theatres.  No place is perfect, but I appreciate that the Fountain has always been interested in producing plays, supporting playwrights, and hiring actors from various cultures, with different abilities, and with numerous points of view — including BIPOC. It’s unique.

5. Why is Black History Month important?

It’s American history.

6. What’s next for you? Any upcoming projects?

I’m currently producing a documentary based on a study done by the University of California. It’s about racial disparities in marijuana arrests and the cannabis industry, and it’s called When The Smoke Clears. I’ve ot two national commercials that should start airing this spring. And I found a fantastic illustrator, so my children’s book, Pretty Bun, will finally be published this summer!   

Karen Malina White

Actor: The Ballad of Emmett Till, Citizen: An American Lyric, Runaway Home

1. When/how did you first come to the Fountain Theatre?

I had auditioned for The Ballad of Emmet Till when it was being produced by The Goodman Theatre in Chicago. I was beat out by the one and only Deidrie Henry (Yellowman, Coming Home at the Fountain.) But a friend called me out of the blue to invite me to a reading of it at the Fountain. I was so excited! I hadn’t heard of the Fountain at that time but rushed and hoped I could get inside to hear the reading. I so loved the play and felt an enormous attachment to it. When I got there I saw both the playwright, Ifa Bayeza, and Oz Scott, who directed the Goodman production. I loved the new configuration with five actors playing all the parts, which was not the case in the Chicago production. Oz introduced me to Ben Bradley. Time moved on and that same friend, John McDonald. reached out to say that Ben Bradley was scrambling to find me to audition. So grateful and honored to have been a part of that life changing and bonding production.

2. How has your experience been working here?

Working at the Fountain is wonderful. It’s home now, and Stephen, Simon and Debra, the designers , (technical director) Scott Tuomey, and you, Terri, make every experience a joy!

3. What Fountain shows that you’ve worked on hold particular meaning for you, and why?

The Ballad of Emmett Till, because it was my first and because of the tragic circumstances surrounding it as well as the eternal friendships that came out of that experience. Finally working with Shirley Jo Finney, too.

4. Last summer’s civil unrest brought an increased focus on racism, both in general and within the theatre world. We also saw the emergence of the BIPOC movement. How have these issues impacted you and your work in the theatre?  

I’m a company member of Antaeus, and we have been having some amazing conversations and taking major actions to be inclusive and reflect the most accurate picture of the best of America. It’s now a conscious decision to have our productions reflect inclusiveness and racial equity. We are looking forward to the work.

5. Why is Black History Month important?

Because it’s American History. African American History. So much of us know about the history of the dominant culture but not enough of other cultures. We have to remedy that.

6. What’s next for you? Any upcoming projects?

I have been fortunate enough to be working on The Proud Family reboot with Disney Plus Channel. Coming soon to the streaming service.

Victoria Platt           

Actor: Cyrano, Building the Wall, Natural Shocks (staged reading)

1. When/how did you first come to the Fountain Theatre?

I can’t recall the very first production I saw. It was waaay back. But it was late ‘90s that I started coming to see productions there. Victory, In the Red and Brown Water, Emmet Till, The Brothers Size to name a few. The first production I was in was Cyrano.

2. How has your experience been working here?

It’s always wonderful. Simon Levy and Stephen Sachs hold this work with great care and respect. Every production I see at the Fountain is inspiring, thought provoking, and well produced. Hard to find all those elements simultaneously.

3. What Fountain shows that you’ve worked on hold particular meaning for you, and why?

Everything I’ve done at the Fountain has been important. That’s what they do there – important, meaningful work. Natural Shocks brought gun violence and violence against women to the stage. I love that Stephen chose to give the play four voices instead of the one it was written as. Cyrano was an incredible experience because I was reunited with Troy Kotsur (we performed together in Pippin at the Mark Taper Forum) and it was a co-production with Deaf West (as was Pippin.) I learned ASL for Pippin and kept it up, so the opportunity to use ASL on the stage again, to bring theatre to hearing and deaf audience members, and to work again with Troy was a trifecta of awesomeness for me. Building the Wall though was probably the most poignant for me because of the content. Seeing how it all played out in the real world was a testament to the prophetic words of Robert Schenkkan. It was an honor to tell that story at that time. After each show I spoke with audience members who were not just impacted by the work but were compelled to action. That is one of the blessings of all the productions at the Fountain. They not only educate, and enlighten but inspire. Good theatre is supposed to do that.

4. Last summer’s civil unrest brought an increased focus on racism, both in general and within the theatre world. We also saw the emergence of the BIPOC movement. How have these issues impacted you and your work in the theatre?  

The issues that have emerged for some recently, have always been present within the BIBOC (Black Indigenous Bodies of Culture) community. I’m grateful to George Floyd and the countless others who shed their blood to shine a light on the injustices BIBOC have been experiencing for centuries. I’ve encountered more people willing to have real conversations about race, socio-economics and frankly all the ‘isms. And finally, the hard conversations are being had. I was accepted into Communal Consultations – a program created and run by My Grandmother’s Hands author Resmaa Menakem, which will deal with healing ancestral and racialized trauma. This training will allow me more insight into how I can use my work as an artist to bring more awareness and healing to people of all bodies.

5. Why is Black History Month important?

Unfortunately, Black History month is important because there is still grave inequality and oppression. People in Black bodies are still being murdered for no reason except being Black, and with no consequences. Black History Month is one of the necessary actions that highlight how people in Black bodies have contributed to the fabric of this nation; not just the fringe of it. In too many arenas, Black History Month is used as a performative practice, but sometimes even performative practices make their way past the ego and into the soul.

6. What’s next for you? Any upcoming projects?

For the past year I’ve been blessed to have recurring guest star work on NCIS, Good Trouble and Days of Our Lives. I’ve also been working as a motion capture (mocap) performer on a video game by 2K productions, which has yet to be named but due for release later this year. I can also be seen in A Cold Hard Truth, a film by Charles Murray (Luke Cage, Sons of Anarchy), now streaming on multiple platforms, and A Hard Problem, a film I also co-starred in, will release this March.

Terri Roberts is a freelance writer and the Coordinator of Fountain Friends, the Fountain Theatre’s volunteer program. She also manages the Fountain Theatre Café.

Conversations with Black Artists, Part I

By Terri Roberts

Over the past three decades, the Fountain Theatre has worked with a vast array of wildly talented Black actors, directors, designers and more. Many of them have worked with us on multiple productions over the years.

We reached out to several of these wonderful artists and asked them a variety questions on a wide range of topics.

Today we feature costume designer Naila Aladdin Sanders, and actors Matthew Hancock and Bernard K. Addison. More conversations to come. Stay tuned!

Naila Aladdin Sanders

Costume Designer: Direct From Death Row: The Scottsboro Boys, The Ballad of Emmett Till, A House Not Meant to Stand, Cyrano, The Blue Iris, In the Red and Brown Water, On the Spectrum, The Normal Heart, The Brothers Size, Reborning, Citizen: An American Lyric, The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek, Runaway Home

1. When/how did you first come to the Fountain Theatre?

I had been working at Los Angeles City College for some years and doing freelance design jobs around town. I knew about the Fountain because I heard that Stephen Sachs was an alumni, and my husband, Henry, was a good friend of the original owner of the Fountain’s building, Jerry Holland. When the Fountain asked me to do the costume design for Direct From Death Row: The Scottsboro Boys (2002) I felt at home there and knew it was a safe creative space for me.

2. How has your experience been working here?

Every time I am asked to design a play at the Fountain I know that it will bring to light some new aspect of the human condition, and I continue to be excited about the collaboration used to bring those worlds to life.

3. What Fountain shows that you’ve worked on hold particular meaning for you, and why?

The Ballad of Emmett Till will always be the play that stands out for me, for many reasons. Ben Bradley was one of the most gracious directors that I have ever worked with. When I designed with him, we always had a lot of private conversations about what he wanted to see or what I was trying to do. He was always so appreciative of the contributions that designers made, and was careful that our vision was melding with his.

The play began, as all do, at a table read with the cast and production crew. Our first rehearsal date was January 3rd. As we gathered on that day, we learned that Ben had been killed in his home on New Year’s Day.

Enter Shirley Jo Finney, the healing presence who would call on the ancestors to put our broken cast back together, with prayers and affirmations and Auntie love. I don’t know of another person that could have made that happen the way she did. I developed a connection with that cast that I never had with any other. The play ran for several months, and many times as I would drive past the theatre on my way home from another long rehearsal on another show, and I would see the light on in the café. I knew my cast was up there. I would go upstairs and see them all together, as if it were opening weekend.

4. Last summer’s civil unrest brought an increased focus on racism, both in general and within the theatre world. We also saw the emergence of the BIPOC movement. How have these issues impacted you and your work in the theatre? 

Last summer’s civil unrest was a culmination of the Black voices that have been crying out for decades, asking for justice, for inclusion, to at least be seen as human. George Floyd was killed by a police officer, and for eight minutes the rest of the world was shown just how little Black lives matter to some people, including those that are charged with protecting that life. Growing up in Los Angeles in the 50’s and 60’s was difficult for me as one of four children in a divorced household. I can bear witness to many of the consequences of the marginalization of black people. I hope that the protests do not let up until we are on a concrete path to real change.

5. Why is Black History Month important?

An awareness of the contributions of Black people in our country is important to us every day, not just in February. Unfortunately, since those contributions have been removed from most textbooks and not included in most school curriculums as another way to denigrate the importance of Black people in our country, the only way we will know our history is to teach it to each other.

6. What’s next for you? Any upcoming projects?

There are no theatre design projects in the works right now. I am working on several art projects and have been in talks with galleries for inclusion in their virtual shows. And I have been working on my quarantine garden.

Matthew Hancock

Actor: The Brothers Size, I and You, Hype Man, Between Riverside and Crazy

1. When/how did you first come to the Fountain Theatre?

I first came to the Fountain Theatre in 2014 to play the part of Oshoosi Size in the West Coast Premiere of The Brothers Size. Although, I did receive some sage advice from actor Jason George in 2013, who said, “Do a show at the Fountain.”

2. How has your experience been working here?

My experience working at the Fountain has always been extremely pleasant yet familiar.  I’ve always remarked that the Fountain has always felt like home. One of the beauties of working in intimate theatre is the strong bonds that are formed with the people. I have always felt supported and nurtured there.

3. What Fountain shows that you’ve worked on hold particular meaning for you, and why?

I have had the pleasure of being in four very different shows at the Fountain. All of them are jewels that I cherish for different reasons. Each of the characters that I’ve played on the Fountain stage have taught me something about myself, influenced a new thinking, or expanded my view. 

4. Last summer’s civil unrest brought an increased focus on racism, both in general and within the theatre world. We also saw the emergence of the BIPOC movement. How have these issues impacted you and your work in the theatre? 

Being an artist who is at the intersection of race and queer issues, much of what I try to do in my work is put my thumb on the pulse of these matters. In both The Brothers Size and Hype Man, the issue of civil rights is so much in the body of those plays. The work goes in hand-in-hand with what is going on outside the theatre doors. Holding up the mirror so that we can see ourselves and make some changes. From the micro to the macro. 

5. Why is Black History Month important?

Black History is important because it is American History. It’s world history. What this pandemic has reinforced is that we live interdependent of one another. We all require the same things. The contributions of Black Americans have been vast. The world enjoys the fruits of these labors. So the world should pay homage. 

6. What’s next for you? Any upcoming projects?

You can catch me in the final season of Kidding on Showtime, and the revenge thriller Always and Forever on Amazon. Coming up next is the film Distancing Socially.

Bernard K. Addison

Actor: Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, The Ballad of Emmett Till, Citizen: An American Lyric

1. When/how did you first come to the Fountain Theatre?

I was told about the Fountain Theatre somewhere around graduate school. As we were talking about where to go – New York or LA or Chicago – I remember my teacher saying, “Well, if you go to LA, there are a handful of theatres you should get involved with: one is Antaeus and the other is the Fountain Theatre.” So that stayed in my mind until I finally made the move to LA. My first audition at the Fountain was for Central Avenue. I booked it, but I had to drop out because I didn’t know if I could actually commit to the time frame. But then I got an audition for Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, and that really started my relationship with the Fountain.

2. How has your experience been working here?

When I finally started working with the late Ben Bradley on Joe Turner…, it was a needed time in my life. I needed to find a place where my aesthetic for acting and theatre could be really, truly appreciated, nurtured and encouraged. And that’s what I found when I did Joe Turner…. I prepared, I worked my butt off, I came in with an agenda every time for each rehearsal, and Ben recognized that. He was very personal with me, like “How do you think about this scene? What do you think needs to happen here?” He was actually treating me as a co-collaborator, and I really appreciated that. It was great to be not just a person who goes from A to B, but a collaborator. And each piece I have done since, I have had that sense. From Ben to Shirley Jo Finney, I don’t feel like I am just an actor, but I actually have a way of collaborating. The flow of ideas in the rehearsal room has always gone both ways. And that’s been very encouraging.

3. What Fountain shows that you’ve worked on hold particular meaning for you, and why?

Well, Joe Turner…, of course, was by one of the great playwrights, August Wilson, and was one of his great plays. I was playing one of the most dynamic characters in the canon, and doing that with a crackerjack team of actors, in a beautifully realized rendition of the play directed by Ben Bradley, and making it jump off the stage in that small space was beautiful. That particular production, with those actors, I hold dear to my heart.

Then there’s The Ballad of Emmett Till. We were lauded in so many ways with end-of-the-year award recognition, and lots of people came to see it. Lots of people still tell me that they saw it and remember and think about it. And that was forged from the untimely tragedy of the loss of Ben to the superhuman superhero strength of Shirley Jo to come in and take this cast and turn it around and really make the show live and sing. I actually spoke to all the cast members today. That’s how close we are. We are a lifelong family.

And then, of course, there is Citizen, which speaks to our time now, and has stirred up a lot of conversation. That show really became a precursor to what we are living now, and what the American theatre is living now, as are all the other systemic places where racist doctrine is within the structure of these institutions. And so to have a play like that begin that conversation of what micro-aggression looks like, and the many different permeations of it, to have it start on the Fountain Theatre stage and then be part of the Center Theatre Group Block Party stage, and then actually doing it outside in the Music Center’s Grand Park…oh, my three plays have been such a joy!

4. Last summer’s civil unrest brought an increased focus on racism, both in general and within the theatre world. We also saw the emergence of the BIPOC movement. How have these issues impacted you and your work in the theatre? 

I have been part of conversations with other theatre companies and other theatre practitioners about what this means and what we need, as BIPOC artists, to be able to actually address long-standing, long-held systems in the American theatre that are just traditional. They are not necessarily part of the “Now,” and are not necessarily part of the cultural storytelling that needs to happen. Or that should happen. Especially since these old institutions – the regional theatre movement of the 60’s – are beginning to fade and lose their luster. They were born of an important movement of their time, and now this is a different time. And so being able to look at questions like, Where does theatre go? How does theatre serve all communities? How do we use art to actually begin to dismantle centuries-old pre-conceived ideas and traditions? has been very important for me.

I have also had to come to grips with my understanding of what me being involved in the theatre has done to me and my belief system. How much of it has been impacted by white supremacist thought? How do I unravel that for myself? That’s been a challenging journey for me. And I am so humbled and in awe of the new voices coming up, that I just want to make sure that I’m there to support them in where they want the theatre to go.

5. Why is Black History Month important?

I don’t know. I don’t believe in Black History Month. I think history is history is history. The joke is always that they gave Black History Month the shortest month of the year. Well, that’s your thinking. That’s not my thinking. I like to say that this is a more detailed look at American history, because you can’t have American history without Black people in it. And if we choose to use Black History Month to bring those Black people and those Black stories to the forefront, that’s great! But I don’t think American history can happen without Black people. I don’t think Black History Month can happen without Indigenous people. I think the myth of American exceptionalism has eliminated, or tamped down, these other stories. Now we have to move to a different paradigm. What is Black History Month? I don’t know. I know what American history is, and that it has all shades and all colors. And if we’re really going to begin to unravel these systemic racist institutions, we have to start thinking about the fact that this whole idea of Black History Month is also part of that system. So I think we have to go, Okay, let’s just blow that aside and let’s see where we need to fill in the gaps of our understanding of the importance of Black people in America.

6. What’s next for you? Any upcoming projects?

I’m teaching. I’m working with my students. I will be doing a big Spotlight Awards master class; I do that every now and then with the Music Center. I have a couple of kids who are in the finals of the August Wilson Monologue Competition here in LA, and that always brings me pleasure. So I guess my focus now is just these young voices coming up; I want to help them find it. Hopefully, my voice is not over yet on the stage, and I hope that once we are out of Pandemic Land that you may hear my voice again.

Terri Roberts is a freelance writer and the Coordinator of Fountain Friends, the Fountain Theatre’s volunteer program. She also manages the Fountain Theatre Café.

Playwright Larry Powell reflects on ‘The Gaze’, the Fountain, and the impact of 2020

Writer Larry Powell.

By Terri Roberts

It was just last month that the Fountain Theatre announced it had joined forces with playwright Larry Powell, his producing partner Angelica Robinson, and their Tell Me a Story Productions to bring Powell’s exciting 12-part tragicomedy, The Gaze…No Homo to Fountain audiences. Presented via the theatre’s new digital platform, Fountain Stream, this episodic version of Powell’s live stage play has been reinvented for the digital age.

A set of three short-form episodes has premiered each Friday for the past three weeks. Now, The Gaze…No Homo comes full circle as the final set of episodes have been released. All episodes remain available for viewing on the Fountain Stream page until Dec 31.

To recap: The Gaze…No Homo centers around a young actor, Jerome Price (Galen J. Williams), as he tries to navigate his way through the increasingly uncomfortable rehearsal process of No Homo, a new play by emerging Black queer playwright Shaun Korey (Devere Rogers.) Korey is championed by Miranda Cryer (Sharon Lawrence), the straight White interim artistic director of the esteemed Evergreen Theatre Festival (“where the brightest and boldest new American voices are watered with wisdom, fed with fodder and nurtured with nourishment.”) Cryer is also the director of the world premiere of Korey’s new play.

This year, the festival has been consigned to a digital Zoomscape instead of the traditional seats-and-stage live theatre experience thanks to the COVID pandemic. In addition to the neophyte Price, No Homo features far more seasoned actors Kendrell Thompson (Eugene Byrd) and Buddy DuPois (TC Carson), and is stage managed by the experienced team of no-nosense PSM Sherry Grosse (Yvette Cason) and gender-fluid ASM Tee (Jason Freckle Greene.) There is much at stake here for everyone, and complicating matters is the growing dissent between Price and Cryer. As their abrasive relationship grows ever-more heated, the fate of the entire production becomes jeopardized.

The Gaze…No Homo was selected as a finalist in the prestigious 2020/2021 Eugene O’Neill National Playwrights Conference. It is the first in Powell’s The Gaze cycle of plays that examines the process of building culturally specific and queer works of color in certain historically white spaces. The Gaze tackles difficult topics like racism and  microagressions, and wrestles with the question, “Why strain to be free under a gaze fixed on your imprisonment, when it’s you who is holding the key?”

As we wrap up our exclusive showing of The Gaze…No Homo on the Fountain’s digital stage this month, Powell reflected back on the journey his show has taken over this past tumultuous year, and ponders the future and what he hopes it will bring.

TR: What was it like working with the Fountain Theatre this past month to present this digital reinvention of your play?

LP: If this piece can bring awareness to theatres that have been serving communities across the globe for years and who have had to close their doors due to the pandemic, I am pleased. I feel like we’ve done that at The Fountain, and that makes me proud.

TR. Would you consider another collaboration with the Fountain in the future?

LP: Of course! I would love one of my plays to be on the Fountain stage!

TR: No Homo is the first play in The Gaze cycle of plays. What is your vision for the entire cycle? How many plays are included in The Gaze? Are any of them written yet and what themes do they explore?

LP: Right now, I know there are three plays. They chart Jerome, the protagonist, as he grows older and older. I am going to start working on a new version of the second play next year. This play will focus on how we hold on to new awareness of ourselves in our art and life once we make the initial reclamation of our time and imagination. What challenges do we face? What questions do we have in that space of new consciousness?

TR: Will No Homo be presented on stage again when we return to live performances? Or will it live now as a digital presentation? What about future installments in The Gaze cycle? What form will they take?

LP: Yes. It is important to me that I continue to diversify how an audience can experience my stories. So, in every way a play can be experienced, I will lean into. A stage play, Screenplay, Teleplay, #Digiplay, Audioplay, VR play, Animated Play…. to me, it all starts with “the play.” All different structures, skill sets, and audiences but definitely all sourced in telling a story around a fire in the village.

TR. Has the success of this digital adaptation of The Gaze…No Homo encouraged you to adapt any of your previous works for digital platforms? If so, what ones?

LP: Yes and All.

TC Carson in “The Gaze.”

TR. Was the choice of the cycle name The Gaze a conscious choice, to play on The Gays, or was it a happy coincidence?

LP: The best titles have double, triple meanings. The first play was always called “No Homo” because of the play within the play. Once I started to see the story as a cycle of works, I needed a title that spoke to a larger, more general container. The reason The Gaze sticks is because it still specifies the queer black experience as it pertains to its relationship to an oppressive gaze.

TR: You said in your Theatre Talk interview with Stephen Sachs that 2020 was a “profound year,” and you talked about “collective grief.” How have the events of 2020 shaped you as an artist? How do we, as theatre artists, as citizens, as a country, grieve our many losses this year and use them for a higher purpose?

LP: I have learned it’s important to give those loved ones, and the things we have lost, space. What I mean by that is silence and the stopping of this abusive obsession with “gotta keep going!!” Grief is a love language. We must take the time to learn it and to speak well and often. That means something different for each of us, and that’s important. We become more courageous in grief because it usually takes us to a place of surrender that opens us up to higher visions of our purpose in the world. It can, at least …if we let it. So, if you work to make firm boundaries around the space you carve out for grief … the gifts you find there are life-enhancing and heart-strengthening.

TR. What form do you prefer? Live stage or the digital small screen? Why?

LP: Well, I love the stage first. Always. That said, a story told is a story told. There are people who will run to the digital screen quicker than they would to the live stage. I want to meet both of these groups of people where they are — and I believe it is my calling to love as many forms of storytelling as possible.

TR: What’s next for you?

LP: More joy. More understanding. More peace. More love. More opportunity. More creation. More surrender. More gratitude. And always, more learning.

Terri Roberts is a freelance writer and the Coordinator of Fountain Friends, the Fountain Theatre’s new volunteer program. She also manages the Fountain Theatre Café.

In gratitude for the Fountain Theatre’s VOD presentation of ‘The Ballad of Emmett Till’

Stream Ends December 1st

by Terri Roberts

It’s Thanksgiving week, a time to reflect on that for which we are grateful. And even within the insanity of a year that brought us a global pandemic, extreme racial unrest, and a surreal presidential election, there were still rays of light. Here at the Fountain Theatre, one of our great joys came in the form of creating a stage/screen hybrid video adaptation of Ifa Bayeza’s stunning play, The Ballad of Emmett Till. If you have not seen it, there is still time. But the streaming of this acclaimed video-on-demand production ends on December 1st, so don’t delay. Tickets are just $20 and are available here.

The Ballad of Emmett Till is a lyrical retelling of the true events that kick-started the Civil Rights movement, and blends history, mystery and legend with accents of music and poetry. The Fountain’s widely heralded, multiple award-winning 2010 west coast premiere was helmed by Shirley Jo Finney, and starred the impeccable ensemble of Bernard K. Addison, Rico E. Anderson, Lorenz Arnell, Adenrele Ojo and Karen Malina White. Actors and director reunited over the summer to create this unique VOD version of our original stage production, which is enhanced by the use of music, sound, visual imagery and various film techniques. It debuted on August 28th, which marked the 65-year anniversary of Till’s brutal murder. His death had not only become a rallying cry for the times, but it has continued to resonate, and activate civic action, across the decades that followed.

Emmett Till was a charming, precocious 14-year-old boy who lived in Chicago with his mother, Mamie. In August 1955, he traveled down south to the Mississippi Delta to visit his uncle, Mose “Preacher” Wright, and other family members. One sunny day he and his cousins and a few friends went into town, and the young teenager stopped at a local market to buy some sweets. Accounts differ as to what actually happened to provoke the tragedy that followed, but it is widely believed that Till, who used whistling to help control a lifelong stutter, innocently whistled at the white, married, female store clerk.

As a result, Till was later kidnapped from his uncle’s house in the middle of the night by the woman’s husband and his half-brother. The men took the boy down to the Tallahatchie River and forced him to strip. Then they beat him, shot him in the head, and weighted his body down with a heavy metal cotton gin fan that they wrapped around his neck with barbed wire. Three days later, the boy’s naked, bloated body was discovered floating in the river.

Mamie insisted that her only child’s grotesquely disfigured body be returned to her in Chicago, untouched. “Let the people see what they did to my boy,” she famously said, and insisted on an open casket with a glass shield to contain the stench of her son’s decomposing corpse. The media had started carrying the news of the murder, and Mamie encouraged even more attention by publically displaying the body. Mourners gathered around the clock to pay their respects. The viewing went on for four days.

It might sound odd, during this week of focused gratitude, to suggest taking these final days of opportunity to view the Fountain’s VOD production of The Ballad of Emmett Till as part of our expressions of thankfulness. I feel it is not. The joyous way he lived his short life, contrasted with the ugliness of his premature death, led to a social rebellion that’s still being waged today. We entered the summer of 2020 with streets across America being crowded with marches born of unfettered rage against the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, and the long-shadow history of Sandra Bland, Freddy Gray, Walter Scott, the nine men and women of the Episcopal Church in Charleston, and the hundreds more that came before them. Including, of course, Emmett Till.

The Ballad of Emmett Till is available through December 1st. Tickets are $20 and can be purchased here. I’m willing to bet you’ll be grateful you watched it.

Terri Roberts is a freelance writer and the Coordinator of Fountain Friends, the Fountain Theatre’s new volunteer program. She also manages the Fountain Theatre Café.

‘Fountain Stream’ presents Larry Powell’s 12-part ‘The Gaze… No Homo,’ tackling systemic racism, homophobia head-on

In between BLM protests and existential quarantine queries, writer/creator Larry Powell adapted his play The Gaze…No Homo (2020/2021 Eugene O’Neill NPC finalist) into a new media series. The Fountain Theatre’s new digital platform, Fountain Stream, has partnered with Powell and Angelica Robinson of Tell Me a Story Productions to present this bold, funny episodic tragicomedy for our times, a 12-part, multi-platform online experience unlike anything audiences have seen before. The first three short-form episodes of The Gaze… No Homo will begin streaming on Friday, Nov. 20, with episodes four, five and six going online Friday, Nov. 27; episodes seven, eight and nine on Friday, Dec. 4; and the final three episodes becoming available on Friday, Dec. 11. Tickets are free at fountaintheatre.com/now-upcoming/the-gaze.

No Homo is the first in Powell’s The Gaze cycle of plays that examines the process of building culturally specific and queer works of color in certain historically white spaces. The story of an openly Black queer artist as he navigates the rehearsal process at a very white American theater festival, The Gaze tackles hard topics head on. It wrestles with the question, “Why strain to be free under a gaze fixed on your imprisonment, when it’s you who is holding the key?”

In episode one, we meet protagonist Jerome Price, played by Galen J. Williams (national touring and Broadway productions of Motown the Musical) as he arrives at the prestigious Evergreen Theatre Festival (“where the brightest and boldest new American voices are watered with wisdom, fed with fodder and nurtured with nourishment”). Evergreen interim artistic director Miranda Cryer (Sharon Lawrence of NYPD Blue, Dynasty, Shameless, The Ranch and much more) has always been an outspoken champion of diverse voices — including that of emerging, Black queer playwright Shaun Korey, played by Devere Rogers (My Spy and IFC’s Sherman’s Showcase). Relegated to Zoom by the pandemic, Cryer is directing the world premiere of Korey’s newest work, No Homo, but “artistic differences” between her and festival newbie Price threaten to blow up the process. Eugene Byrd (Dr. Clark Edison in Bones) and TC Carson (Living Single) star as Price’s fellow actors Kendrell Thompson and Buddy DuPois, each of whom has learned to navigate the hidden dangers and microaggressions of the entertainment business in his own way — as has long-time stage manager Sherry Grosse (Yvette Cason, original Broadway cast and feature film version of Dreamgirls) and gender-fluid ASM Tee (internet personality, actor and model Jason Freckle Greene).

Powell states, “In order to properly experience my own exodus of the decentralization of the white gaze in my creative work and reclaim my black ass imagination I had to stare the poison in the face and, through the telling of Jerome’s story, turn it into the medicine decolonization so fiercely provides. That I was able to make this piece in the summer of 2020 and share this piece that same summer and beyond is a divine triumph. A blessing standing on sacred ground and under one gaze only: the ancestral one. Thankful to any and all who make it possible for others to catch the vision.”

The creative team behind The Gaze… No Homo  includes episode directors Joanna Strapp (episode 1), Larry Powell (episodes 2, 11 and 12), Zhailon Levingston (episode 3), Satya Bhabha (episode 4), Reginald L. Douglas (episode 5), Amber A Harris (episode 6), Jonathan McCrory (episode 7) and Bianca Laverne Jones (episodes 8 and 9); as well as editor Joey Scoma, composer Robert Revell, branding and graphic design artist Samia Zaidi, website designer Nick Ducassi, and co-producer Haley Rawson. The series is produced by producer/executive producers Angelica RobinsonSpencer Williams and Matt Lubetich, along with executive producers Larry PowellZhailon Levingston and Devere Rogers and executive producer/director of photography John Macdonald.

Larry Powell

Larry Powell is a writer, actor, director and producer born and raised in South Central L.A. As an actor, he’s originated and premiered roles in some of the most exciting new plays in America including The Christians by Lucas Hnath, The Legend of Georgia McBride by Matthew Lopez, Father Comes Home From The Wars by Suzan Lori Parks (opposite Sterling K. Brown), Brokeology by Nathan Louis Jackson, and he played the title role in While I Yet Live by Billy Porter. He is a two-time Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle award-winner, and has been nominated for numerous Ovation, NAACP and San Francisco Bay Area theater awards as well as for Audelco and Audie awards. Larry is also a published playwright and professional screenwriter, with three plays scheduled to receive world premieres over the next two years. He is a core playwright at the Lark Play Development Center. A graduate of Carnegie Mellon’s School of Drama, Larry is an adjunct lecturer at the University of Southern California’s School of Dramatic Arts MFA Acting program. He is the founder and creative director of the Powell Academy of the Performing Arts, an arts organization providing high-performance training and resources to historically marginalized artists on the rise in the mainstream entertainment industry.

CLICK HERE To watch The Gaze… No Homo beginning Friday, Nov. 20.

Lynne Street Childress brings theatre for young people at this week’s Saturday Matinee, 5pm PT

By France-Luce Benson

No trick or treating this year? The Fountain’s got you covered. Please be sure to bring your kids and grandkids to this week’s show, where our guest – Lynne Streeter Childress – will perform work from her show for young people.

I met Lynne Streeter Childress many moons ago in Miami, FL when I booked my first professional acting gig. We were part of a company that toured plays for young audiences about issues like domestic violence and homelessness. While the subjects are grim, the plays were full of hope and the creative process was full of light. The latter, largely due to Lynne’s exuberance and delightful sense of humor. Decades later, Lynne has her own company, producing plays for young audiences that address issues like tolerance and empathy. I spoke to Lynne about the origins of her company (Building Better People Productions), and what it’s like to balance her creative life with motherhood in the time of Covid.

What was the genesis of Building Better People Productions?
I had always wanted to do my own stuff, and I knew that it would be for young audiences, and I knew that it was going to be something about building people up. Over the years I would start, and then put things on a shelf because I was working for other people, which actually was great, because I was gaining not only a paycheck, but support, and the chance to grow. In 2015, lots of things started to come together, good and bad, that kinda pushed me forward. I lost my brother in law, which was the 4th in a series of family losses. I had also started writing a piece about empathy that I planned to produce on my own somehow, and when the opportunity to perform part of it for a festival didn’t work out, that seemed like an open door to just do the thing for real. I was in the place to just move forward.

How will future productions address the moment we are in as a Nation? How do you tackle such complicated conversations?
It’s made me want to continue to not run away from addressing hurt. Most of the shows that we have done have hard moments, where people are bullied, and lose family members, and have anxiety, and are treated bad because of differences. There is always a moment in rehearsal where I think “Is this too much?” And no, it’s not. Kids are smart. And I think that we insult them when we DON’T tackle things they are going through or that are going on around them. There has to be something between hitting them over the head and completely ignoring where we are with the isolation of COVID, and the sadness of where we are racially. I owe it to my kid, and all kids, to figure out how to do that respectfully. One more thing: we have always had a pretty diverse group of people that we work with, but I am committed to truly seeking out more people. I also want to do a show that is about a little black girl loving life. I needed to see more of that when I was a little kid, and now I want to do that. For little black girls and for everyone, to normalize that little black girls can just have joy.

You say that the adaptation of “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day” you performed in is your most favorite show you’ve ever done. Why? What made it so special?
It was my first Equity show (although I am not a part of the union now currently), and I participated in a development reading of it, I was part of the original cast of the show, and in the first tour. I am on the cover of the script as a koala! It is the show that made me feel like I was really doing this, and I got to be at the Kennedy Center every day, which is the most beautiful space. I got to see something come off of the page, see it worked in the room with the playwright and composer in rehearsals. And it took me around the country, getting paid to perform and travel. It helped make me. Also, I think that I may have named my son after that show. It was years later, and the name Alexander came to me as a front runner, and I didn’t know why. It just felt right. When my son was a baby I was at a party for a friend, who had directed that first production of “Alexander”, and Judith Viorst,the writer of the show, was there, and I had not seen her in a while. She asked what my son’s name was; when I said “Alexander”, everyone started laughing. And I said, “WAIT! Did I name him for the show?” And maybe I did. It was in there somewhere.

Build Better People Productions

You have a twin sister who also writes? Did you grow up writing together? Will you or have you ever collaborated?
My sister is amazing. AMAZING. She has been a journalist for 27 years, and has won awards, and wrote a memoir that came out earlier this year called “Black Widow: A Sad-Funny Journey Through Grief for People Who Normally Avoid Books with Words Like ‘Journey’ in the Title”, about losing her husband. We used to make up stories as little kids, and actually blogged together about our experiences in our 40s for a while. I produced and perform in a holiday play that she wrote, The Gift of the Mad Guy, about generosity, that Building Better People has performed yearly since 2016. I love saying her words, and I love sending her royalty checks.

Did becoming a Mom change you as an artist? If so, how?
Yep. It’s made me want to make a world that he sees as lovely and that sees him as lovely. The third part of “We Got It” was inspired by the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice, and I was pregnant when Trayvon was murdered, and I felt the weight of how some people did not value the lives of young black men, and did not see their deaths as tragedies. That wrecked me for their parents, and I was about to BE a parent of a young black man, and me yelling on Facebook, while cathartic, wasn’t going to be enough. What I knew how to do was create. So, I wrote. My son has also inspired shows that I have written or that we have performed, that are things I want him to hear, like about keeping his imagination, and knowing his worth.


How will you make Halloween special for an 8-year-old in the middle of a Pandemic?
Our plan is to have my sister and nephew and mom over (they are in our Covid circle), and we will wear costumes and eat candy. That’s a good plan. Family and sugar.

What’s been keeping you sane?
God, and the idea that if we are in this place, then there has to be a way to work in it. If we are still here, when other people aren’t, there is something to do in it, even if that’s just to be grateful for being here. I have also learned a lot of grace for others because we are all struggling.

What gives you hope?
That people are still creating and finding ways to be light for themselves, and then for other people. Seeing creative output gives me LIFE.

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Actress/Director Lisa Strum to share hilarious and poignant solo work on ‘Saturday Matinee’

by France-Luce Benson

Lisa Strum, a Philadelphia native living and working in the New York area is a director, an educator, actress, playwright, producer, casting director, singer and a certified wedding officiant! I’d add to that list truth teller, world traveler, and cherished friend. Her soulful voice and infectious laugh make her a powerful presence on stage and off, and her sharp wit, insightful observations, and wicked sense of humor are what makes her work so compelling. An award-winning actor, she’s starred in some of American theatre’s most celebrated plays, including Wilson’s Fences, Morriseau’s Pipleline, and Nottage’s Sweat. But lately, it is her work as a director that is getting everyone’s attention. I am lucky enough to have had her direct two of my own plays – Fall at the Ensemble Studio Theatre in New York, and Nanã for the All Hands on Deck Virtual play Festival. She also directed a Kennedy Center Award winning production of For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enough, and is currently directing Flyin West at Five Towns College. On this week’s installment of “Saturday Matinees”, Strum will perform from her original works She Gon Learn, An Actor Prepares, and Poetic Tirades. I sat down with her to discuss her journey from actor to director, and the beauty of acceptance.

F.L.B. What led you to directing?

L.S.   I dabbled in directing while I was in undergrad; directing one acts and short scenes. But it wasn’t until I was hired by Carl Johnson to act as the Theatre Specialist for the Abrons Arts Center Summer Program at Henry Street Settlement that my directing skills really began to take shape. I discovered that I had a strong visual eye to tell stories on the stage and to get great performances out of the actors I was working with – regardless of their experience or their age. There was always a mainstage show at the end of the 5 weeks of the summer program of an original devised theatre piece created by the students. The show also included dance, singing and a set, so there was constant collaboration between the voice, dance and visual arts instructors throughout the summer and year after year we generated some incredible work together. It was exciting being the conductor of all of this collaborative work. I became hooked. And I just liked telling people what to do! LOL!

F.L.B. – What has been keeping you sane?

Staying connected with friends and family. Preparing and cooking home cooked meals. Laughter. Lots of laughter! Movies from my teenage years. And simply accepting the reality of the situation we are living in right now. Adaption and going with the flow are key. Many people realized during the quarantine how much they needed a break from the constant hustle and rat race. I didn’t realize how much I needed to be still. With all the constraints we’ve been under because of COVID-19, I’ve found peace within the boundaries. It’s been an amazing way to stay focused and to stay in the moment.

FLB. – What gives you hope?

L.S. The will of the human spirit and the ability to adapt and find joy regardless of the circumstances.

France-Luce Benson is a playwright and the Community Engagement Coordinator for the Fountain Theatre.

Award-winning Philly playwright Josh Wilder is now finding brotherly love in L.A.

by France-Luce Benson

Josh Wilder might be the most down to earth wunderkind I’ve ever met. Barely in his 30s, he is the winner of numerous awards including the Jerome Many Voices Fellowship, the Lorraine Hansberry Award, and Holland New Voices – among others. But the Philly native truly represents “brotherly love” – spending his time guiding and nurturing young writers, and developing his green thumb. Wilder is currently based here in Los Angeles, and graciously agreed to appear on this week’s Saturday Matinee. In this interview I learned that although he is an Angeleno at the moment, his Philly roots are firmly intact.

FLB: Philadelphia is a recurring character in many of your plays. What about the city inspires you?

Everything! The murals; the culture; the accent; you can walk anywhere and find a story. Philly is a city of rowhomes with thin walls, so ear-hustling was the everyday. THE LOVE. We really are “The City of Brotherly Love”. Most importantly, it’s the attitude. Philly is an attitude, and everybody you know from Philly got one! PHILLY ALL DAY, BABY!

FLB: I understand you’re based in Los Angeles now. How long have you been here and what has the transition from east to west coast been like for you?

I’ve been here since April. The transition has been very smooth. I love that I can escape to the beach and just think. There’s something about the ocean…

FLB: What do you miss most about Philly?

The food. I want a mushroom cheesesteak with friend onions from Max’s so bad…. Water ice and soft pretzels; the Reading Terminal; block parties in the summertime. Sitting on the porch with my brother.

FLB: I read that you started as an actor? Does that inform your writing process? Do you have any desire to return to acting?

Yes, my favorite playwrights are actors. My writing process is actor focused—being in the room with actors is the ultimate experience. Better than the actual run of the show. There’s so much magic in the room that I never want to leave my side of the table. I don’t have a strong desire to return to acting— I really love being in my lane.

FLB: What was the very first play you ever wrote?

My very first play I wrote and produced was called Michael’s Testimony. I was in my senior year at the Creative and Performing Arts High School. I’ll never forget how the audience left the theater that night. 

FLB: In addition to the Pandemic, we (Black and Brown folx) are in the midst of an uprising while simultaneously continuing to see our people suffer at the hands of police brutality. How have you been processing all of this? Do you feel that it has fueled/informed/or radicalized your work in any way?

ALL I CAN SAY IS THAT I LOVE BEING BLACK. I WAS BORN BLACK, I’MA DIE BLACK, AND I’MA CONTINUE BEING BLACK NO MATTER HOW HARD THESE EVIL-ASS PEOPLE TRY AND THAT’S ON THAT. MY GOD AND MY ANCESTORS GOT ME. MY PRESIDENT WILL ALWAYS BE BARACK OBAMA.

FLB: Lol! Agreed!!

FLB: What’s been keeping you sane?

My teaching. As soon as COVID-19 shut the country down—everything changed for me. I was let go from a teaching position in Atlanta just as I was getting the hang of Zoom. Once that happened, I packed up my apartment, got in my car, drove to LA and I set up shop by starting a Playwrights Workshop in April. So far I’ve connected with over 40+ playwrights around the country and the world! I’ve never worked with so many Black and POC playwrights in my whole teaching career—90% women. These women keep me sane– they’re gonna be the ones to watch when the theater reopens. I also became a Plant Daddy J

FLB: What gives you hope? Knowing that the sun is shining, and the sky is blue.

France-Luce Benson is a playwright, the Community Engagement Coordinator at the Fountain Theatre, and host of the livestream program Saturday Matinees.