Category Archives: BIPOC

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.