Category Archives: race

Groundbreaking livestream ‘The Ballad of Emmett Till’ is artistic and financial success for Fountain Theatre

By Terri Roberts

Friday, August 28th, marked the 65th anniversary of the vicious murder of an innocent 14-year-old black youth named Emmett Till. His cold-blooded, colder-hearted killing, and the events surrounding and following his funeral, became the kick-starter events of the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement in 1955. The Fountain Theatre recognized that landmark anniversary in two ways: with the reunion of the original director and cast of our award-winning 2010 production of The Ballad of Emmett Till, by poetic playwright Ifa Bayeza, and by navigating this new COVID-19 world of virtual theatre by presenting the show in a unique, forward-thinking beyond-the-Zoom-Room format.

Three hundred and forty-eight people bought $20 tickets for the livestream premiere of this re-imagined digital model of theatre. The five actors – Bernard K. Addison, Rico Anderson, Lorenz Arnell, Adenrele Ojo, and Karen Malina White – performed from their own individual, safely distanced locations, and coordinated with director Shirley Jo Finney and each other via Zoom on their computer screens. But gone was the normally pedestrian cyberscape of living room stages with bookcase backdrops. This fresh digital production of Emmett Till was dramatically enhanced with the use of props, costumes, music, sound, visual effects and cinematic techniques. The resulting hybrid of stage and digital filmmaking made for an exciting and invigorating step forward into the new frontier of virtual theatre.

If you were not able to catch the premiere, you needn’t worry. The livestream premiere was video recorded. The Ballad of Emmett Till is available for a pay-per-view rental of $20 at www.fountaintheatre.com until December 1st.

“What a stunning presentation!” wrote playwright Bayeza after Friday’s premiere. “The commitment and creative investment so enlivened the digital performance, introducing whole new dimensions and possibilities.Shirley Jo, the way you angled the car scenes, Emmett’s dancing in the water, the integration of sound and environments–all were exquisite surprises. The ensemble was marvelous again. Karen’s magical shifts of character are so seamless, you don’t even notice it’s the same actor! All in all, simply superb!”

Other viewers agreed:

“Shirley Jo Finney exceeded the medium and brought new meaning to each of the characters. Bravo! Bravo!” – Steven Williams

“Thank you for such an AMAZING virtual presentation! It was PHENOMENAL!!!! BRAVO!!!” – Cynthia Kitt

“Wonderful work in this crazy world!” – Taylor Bryce.

“Powerful production!” – Shawn Kennedy

“I was initially a bit cautious about watching on my computer but the direction drew me right in. I loved the use of photos and other visuals to create a sense of place. And the acting was superb. Very moving.” – Lois Fishman

“It was very powerful and beautifully done. The cast was amazing. Please convey my appreciation to all of them as well as to Shirley Jo Finney for the beautiful direction.” – Diana Buckhantz

“I’m so proud of what we created,” said Fountain Theatre artistic director Stephen Sachs. “I’m thrilled that the Fountain is leading the way in developing new ways to tell stories and keep the connection with our community alive.” The pay-per-view event is a budgetary victory as well. Online ticket sales and generous contributions from longtime Fountain donors Susan Stockel and Barbara Herman ensured that Emmett Till was fully funded by its first airing.  

The success of Emmett Till hashttps://www.fountaintheatre.com/fountain-digital/the-ballad-of-emmett-till-2020 demonstrated that this form of digital theatre is both viable and profitable, and can help the Fountain keep its doors metaphorically open while we are still in pandemic mode. And while we will certainly continue to present free digital content via the bi-monthly installments of Saturday Matinees and Theatre Talk, as well as other programming and readings as they present themselves, you can also expect to see more livestream/digital pay-per-view productions to come.

Is there something special you would like to see in this new format? A past Fountain production with a small cast you think should be rebooted? We’d love to know what you’d love to see. Email me at terri@fountaintheatre.com and share your thoughts.

Until then, The Ballad of Emmett Till is waiting for you.

The tragic life of Emmett Till demonstrates need for national change, 65 years after his death

by Terri Roberts

On August 28, 1955, 14-year-old Emmett Till was abducted from the home of his great uncle, Mose “Preacher” Wright, in the still-dark hours of a Mississippi morning. The two abductors were white; one of them carried a flashlight and a gun. Together, they forced the black teenager into the back of a pick-up truck and drove off. Three days later, Emmett’s naked, bloated body was recovered from the Tallahatchie River. He had been savagely beaten, shot in the head, and his face mutilated beyond recognition. A heavy, metal cotton gin fan had also been tied around his neck – with barbed wire.  

The boy’s body was so disfigured that Mose Wright could only identify him by the distinctive ring he was wearing. It was silver, square-shaped, and had belonged to Emmett’s deceased father. It was engraved with the initials L.T.: Louis Till.

This Friday, August 28, marks the 65th anniversary of the murder of Emmett Till. His death, and its aftermath, are largely credited with sparking the Civil Rights Movement. Rosa Parks had Emmett Till on her mind when she refused to surrender her seat to a white passenger. She thought about going to the back of the bus. But then she thought about Emmett Till and couldn’t do it.  

To honor him, and in recognition of all the challenges for racial equality that have followed from then till now, the original cast and director of the Fountain Theatre’s widely acclaimed, multiple award-winning 2010 production of The Ballad of Emmett Till by Ifa Bayeza will reunite for a live-streamed reading of the play. This highly produced presentation, which includes music, sound, and visual imagery, will take place at 4 p.m. PT / 7 p.m. ET and be available this year for on-demand viewing at www.fountaintheatre.com/fountain-digital/the-ballad-of-emmett-till-2020. Pay-per-view tickets are $20.00. Shirley Jo Finney again directs Bernard K. AddisonRico EAndersonLorenz ArnellAdenrele Ojo and Karen Malina White, all reprising their original roles in Bayeza’s powerfully theatrical intermingling of history, mystery and legend, punctuated with music and poetry.

And on Thursday, August 27, Fountain Theatre artistic director Stephen Sachs will chat with playwright Bayeza during his bi-monthly installment of Theatre Talk at 4 p.m. PT / 7 p.m. ET. That conversation will air live on Zoom, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and the Fountain website at http://www.fountaintheatre.com.

Emmett’s mother, Mamie, had warned her son before he left their Chicago home that the Mississippi Delta was a whole different world than he was used to when it came to race relations. Segregation was a stricter practice down in the Delta. She worried that her fun-loving son, who was known for telling jokes and pulling pranks, and who used whistling to help control a stutter, could easily find himself in trouble in the unforgiving Jim Crowe south without realizing it.

She was right.

When Mamie was told of the terrible news, she insisted that the body of her only child – who she fondly called Bobo – be returned to Chicago. According to a January 11, 2003 article in The Washington Post following her death on January 6th, Mamie collapsed at the train station when she saw what was left of her son and cried out, “Lord, take my soul.”

Mamie became determined that her son would be seen, exactly as death left him. He would not disappear, like driftwood floating down the Tallahatchie River, to be remembered only by friends and family and then, finally, to be forgotten altogether. No, she wanted his killers, and indeed the whole world, to see what racial hatred, ignorance and bigotry was doing everyday, without regret, to black people everywhere, and what it had done to one particularly cherished life. A young black life that mattered.

“Let the people see what they did to my boy,” Mamie Till famously said. And they have, for 65 years. Today, a simple Google search easily pulls up a plethora of photos, articles, and books about the life and death of Emmett Till, including historian Elliot J. Gorn’s 2018 book, Let the People See, and Timothy B. Tyson’s 2017 book, The Blood of Emmett Till.

Till’s brutal death was already making headlines, and Mamie invited even more media to cover the funeral and the viewings, including the well-known black publication, Jet magazine (which created The Emmett Till Project to commemorate the 60-year anniversary of his death and the trail that followed.) She insisted on an open casket – albeit, one with a glass top because the stench from the decaying body in the Illinois summer sun was overwhelming. She invited the public to attend. And they did, by the thousands. The viewing of Emmett Till’s body went on for four days.

The photo of Mamie Till Mobley mourning over her son’s open coffin was a catalyst for the civil rights movement.

From the same TWP article: “Thousands lined the streets outside the Chicago funeral home. Thousands more walked past the open casket. They wept. They wailed. They seethed.

Photographers snapped close-ups of a boy’s body so disfigured that the human eye instinctively turns away. Those hideous pictures galvanized a nation.

All but two of Bobo’s teeth were missing. His ear was gone, an eye detached, his face and body horribly swollen after 72 hours in the Tallahatchie River.

His crime? This young black boy from Chicago spending the summer with relatives didn’t really understand Jim Crow. To impress friends, it is alleged that he talked fresh or whistled at a married white woman in Money, Miss.

That’s all it took to end a life.

A couple of weeks later, a trial was held for 24-year old Roy Bryant and his half-brother, 36-year-old John William “J.W.” Milam, in a segregated courthouse in Sumner, Mississippi. Bryant was the husband of Carolyn Byrant, the woman who had accused Till of “ugly remarks” and vague improprieties. The Bryant’s also owned the small store that Till and his friends had stopped at to buy some bubble gum. (The site of Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market is now memorialized with a Mississippi Freedom Trail Marker.)

Mose Wright chose to appear at the trial. This short-statured black man stood tall that day in court when he pointed to his nephew’s accused white killers, Bryant and Milam, and positively identified them. Then, after less than an hour of deliberation, the all-white jury declared the men “not guilty.” The state, the jury claimed, had failed to prove the identity of the body. A separate kidnapping charge was also filed against the pair, but they never were indicted.

Both men eventually died of cancer: Milam in 1980 and Bryant in 1994. In 2017, Carolyn Bryant confessed to The Blood of Emmett Till author Timothy B. Tyson that the 14-year-old-boy from Chicago had never accosted her, or touched her, in any way. “Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him,” she said.

In the more than five decades that have passed since August 28, 1955, thousands of other black men, women and children have needlessly died as the result of racial violence and divisiveness. They breathe no more, but the Civil Rights Movement continues. We march for the fallen, and we say their names: Eric Garner. Michael Brown. Trayvon Martin. Tamir Rice. Philando Castile. Ahmaud Arbery. Breonna Taylor. George Floyd. And so many more.

They are remembered. As is Emmett Till.

Dennis A. Allen II to share powerful monologues on Fountain online series ‘Saturday Matinees’

by France-Luce Benson

I first met Dennis A. Allen II back in 2016 when we met to talk about our experiences as Playwrights in Residence at Djerassi’s Resident Artist program. Although I was familiar with his work long before then, particularly his contribution to HANDS UP, a collection of monologues by seven black playwrights in response to the police shootings of Mike Brown, John Crawford the III, among others. His work is raw, gorgeously poetic, and brutally honest. In the past five months, Dennis and I have participated in a weekly virtual gathering of other like minded Black theatre artists, and I have gotten to know the depth of his sensitivity, and the expanse of his enlightenment. He is a truly special artist and man, and I am so thrilled hell be joining us for the return of Saturday Matinees, this Saturday – Aug 22 5pm PST.

Earlier this week, I chatted with Dennis about the work he plans to share with us, his process, and how he’s been processing the events of the last few months:

FLB: What will you be presenting on Saturday?

D.A.A.: I’d like to present three monologues from three different plays of mine. Manhood, The Wretched Begin to Rise and When We Wake Up Dead. Manhood explores the perils or toxic masculinity, The Wretched Begin to Rise is a play set in 1834 Five Points New York and interrogates identity and race relations, and When We Wake Up Dead examines mental health and the effects of untreated trauma within an African American family.  

FLB: I believe you started as an actor, right? How did you find way to writing and directing?

D.A.A.: Writing was actually the first passion. My mother has shared that I wrote a short story about a leprechaun when I was four years old. I don’t remember writing it but I’m sure it was inspired by the Disney movie Darby O’Gill and the Little People, a VHS that was in heavy rotation on my television at the time. Anyway, I always loved writing, I used to perform poetry at open mic nights my undergrad days at Hampton University and for a while had dreams of being a hip hop artist. I won’t bore you with reading my journey to acting and theatre but once I did get into acting I knew that eventually I’d want to write plays. My thinking was I’d be better at creating characters for the stage if I was intimate with the actor’s process. I took a directing class in undergrad and really enjoyed it. My preference is writing, I think because it’s the craft I’ve dedicated the most hours to, so it’s the one I’m most confident executing. For me. acting, writing and directing are just three different styles of storytelling and I love being able to create a good story. 

FLB: How has the last 3 months changed your creative process? (or has it)

D.A.A.: The last three months has not changed my creative process but it has provided me time to ruminate on what stories I think are imperative for me to create.  Capitalism is a helluva drug and there have been times where I’ve focused more on the strategy of making money at the craft than the craft itself. And it’s been those times that I’ve had the least amount of joy ( if any) in my creative process. This “pause” has allowed me to tap back into why I do this; why I love this. 

FLB: What has been keeping you sane?

D.A.A.: Exercise; I’ve been reading specifically Black female sci-fi and fantasy writers this summer (Octavia Butler, Justina Ireland, Tomi Adeyemi, Nnedi Okorafor); and every Friday night for the last five months I’ve participated in a Zoom meet up with friends I consider my creative family- which has provided us all with a catharsis- we laugh, cry, pontificate, talk shit, love on each other and laugh some more. 

FLB: What has been giving you hope?

D.A.A.: With everything going on I am hyper conscious of how privileged I am. My wife is loving and supportive, both of my parents are alive and currently healthy, I have a roof over my head and am blessed to have classes to teach as an adjunct professor; so it’s easy for me to have hope because of my privilege. As bad as it is out in these streets my immediate life ain’t too bad. That said, being able to teach and work with the younger generation has been a constant source of hope because these kids have an emotional intelligence, are politically informed and active, and have an unapologetic exploration around identity that is light years ahead of anything my generation had access to. 

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

Livestream reading of The Ballad of Emmett Till on August 28, Anniversary of Historic Murder

The original director and cast of the Fountain Theatre’s 2010, multiple award-winning production of The Ballad of Emmett Till by Ifa Bayeza will reunite for a live-streamed reading of the play on FridayAug. 28, which marks the 65th anniversary of Till’s murder. The reading will take place at 4.p.m. PT. / 7 p.m. ET and be available for viewing at www.fountaintheatre.com/fountain-digital/the-ballad-of-emmett-till-2020. Tickets are $20.00.

More than a typical Zoom reading, The Ballad of Emmett Till will be a highly produced presentation with music, sound and visual imagery.

In August, 1955, 14-year-old Emmett Till was visiting relatives in Money, Mississippi when he was accused of whistling at Carolyn Bryant, a white woman who was a cashier at a grocery store. Four days later, Bryant’s husband Roy and his half-brother J.W. Milam kidnapped Till, beat him and shot him in the head. The men were tried for murder, but an all-white, male jury acquitted them. Till’s murder and open casket funeral galvanized the emerging Civil Rights movement. Bryant recanted her story in 2017, admitting that the court testimony she gave more than six decades prior was false and stating “Nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him.”

“As America is now being challenged to face its racist history, I can think of no project more worthy,” says Fountain artistic director Stephen Sachs. “In addition to being the 65th anniversary of the murder, Aug. 28 also marks the 57th Anniversary of the historic March on Washington in 1963, and a 2020 march on Washington is being planned this year, on that date, as well.”

Part history, part mystery and part ghost story, Bayeza’s lyrical integration of past, present, fact and legend turns Emmett’s story into a soaring work of music, poetic language and riveting theatricality. The Fountain’s 2010 West Coast premiere was twice extended and won a combined total of 14 Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle, Ovation, Backstage and NAACP awards for production, direction, playwriting and ensemble.  Bernard K. AddisonRico EAndersonLorenz ArnellAdenrele Ojo and Karen Malina White will reprise their roles for the online reading, with Shirley Jo Finney again at the helm.

World premiere ‘Human Interest Story’ explores homelessness and truth in journalism

Andy Jane Doe blue

Rob Nagle and Tanya Alexander in “Human Interest Story.”

“The line between where you are now and sleeping in your car is much thinner than you think.” The Fountain Theatre presents the world premiere of a timely new play, written and directed by Stephen Sachs (Arrival & Departure, Citizen: An American Lyric, Bakersfield Mist), about homelessness, celebrity worship and the assault on American journalism. Human Interest Story opens at the Fountain on Feb. 15, where performances continue through April 5.

Set in the fast-moving world of new media, Human Interest Story chronicles the journey of newspaper columnist Andy Kramer, played by award-winning actor Rob Nagle (recent credits include Apple Season at Moving Arts and The Judas Kiss at Boston Court). Suddenly laid off when a corporate takeover downsizes his paper — a print publication struggling for readers in changing times — Andy fabricates a letter to his column in retaliation. The letter, from an imaginary homeless woman named “Jane Doe” who announces she will kill herself on the 4th of July because of the heartless state of the world, goes viral, and Andy is forced to hire a homeless woman (Tanya Alexander —  Mono/Poly at the Odyssey and Future Sex Inc. at the Lounge) to stand-in as the fictitious Jane. She becomes an overnight internet sensation and a national women’s movement is ignited.

According to Sachs, the play is about how contrary and opposing impulses can hide in the same human being. “A newspaper columnist, in the course of writing a human interest story on another individual, is forced to confront truths about himself,” he explains.

The cast also includes James Harper, previously seen at the Fountain in The Accomplices, as newspaper publisher Harold Cain. Playing multiple roles are Richard Azurdia (My Mañana Comes at the Fountain), Aleisha Force (Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra at Virginia Shakes, Maggie in Dancing at Lughnasa at Barnstormers Theatre), Matt Kirkwood (Our Class at Son of Semele, The Goat or, who is Sylvia? at the LGBT Center) and Tarina Pouncy (Vendetta Chrome at Coeurage Theatre; Les Blancs at Rogue Machine; and The Old Settler at International City Theatre, for which she garnered an NAACP award).

The creative team for Human Interest Story includes scenic and video designer Matthew G. Hill; lighting designer Jennifer Edwards; composer and sound designer Peter Bayne; costume designer Shon LeBlanc; video hair and makeup designer Diahann McCrary; and prop master Michael Allen Angel. The production stage manager is Emily Lehrer, and the assistant stage manager is Nura FerdowsiSimon LevyJames Bennett and Deborah Culver produce for the Fountain Theatre. Producing underwriters include David and Mary Jo VolkLaurel and Robert SiltonLois Tandy; and Toby and Daniel Bernstein. The executive producer is Karen Kondazian.

The story was initially inspired by the 1941 Frank Capra classic film Meet John Doe.

Stephen Sachs is the co-founder and co-artistic director of the Fountain Theatre and the author of 15 plays. Recent work includes his Deaf/Hearing love story, Arrival & Departure (“Critic’s Choice,” Los Angeles Times); his stage adaptation of William Goldman’s screenplay for All the President’s Men, starring Bradley Whitford and Joshua Malina at L.A. City Hall; and his stage adaptation of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric, which premiered at the Fountain Theatre and was remounted by Center Theatre Group at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. His play Bakersfield Mist is performed worldwide. Sachs’ screenplay Sweet Nothing in my Ear, based on his play, was made into a CBS TV movie starring Jeff Daniels and Marlee Matlin. As director, he is a two-time Ovation Award winner and was recently honored by the Los Angeles City Council for “his visionary contributions to the cultural life of Los Angeles.”

The Fountain Theatre is one of the most successful intimate theaters in Los Angeles, providing a creative home for multi-ethnic theater and dance artists. The Fountain has won hundreds of awards, and Fountain projects have been seen across the U.S. and internationally. Recent highlights include all-star readings of Ms. Smith Goes to Washington and All the President’s Men at Los Angeles City Hall. The Fountain’s 2018 productions of The Chosen and Arrival & Departure each enjoyed months-long sold out runs and was named a Los Angeles Times “Critic’s Choice.” The company’s recent West Coast premiere of Martyna Majok’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Cost of Living, was named to the Los Angeles Times’ “Best of 2018” list. This season, the Southern California premiere of Daniel’s Husband and the currently extended Los Angeles premiere of Between Riverside and Crazy were each named to multiple “Best of 2019” lists.

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Cast announced for world premiere of timely ‘Human Interest Story’ at Fountain Theatre

HUMAN INTEREST STORY prelim image 2Actors Rob Nagle and Tanya Alexander will head the cast as newspaper columnist Andy Kramer and laid-off Elementary school teacher Betty Frazier in the world premiere of Human Interest Story at the Fountain Theatre, written and directed by Stephen Sachs. The timely drama on homelessness, celebrity worship and the assault on American journalism opens February 15.

Rob Nagle is a film/TV/stage actor and longtime Los Angeles favorite admired by local theatre audiences. His acclaimed portrayal of Oscar Wilde in David Hare’s The Judas Kiss at Boston Court Pasadena was hailed by the Los Angeles Times as “A performance not to be missed.” Tanya Alexander has been seen in a variety of film and TV roles and recently co-starred in the world premiere of Brian Reynolds’ Mono/Poly at the Odyssey Theatre.

Joining Nagle and Alexander are veterans Richard Azurdia, Aleisha Force, James Harper, Matt Kirkwood, and Tarina Pouncy.

Stephen Sachs is the co-founder and co-Artistic Director of the Fountain Theatre and the author of fifteen plays. Recent work includes his Deaf/Hearing love story, Arrival & Departure (Critic’s Choice, LA Times), his stage adaptation of William Goldman’s screenplay for All the President’s Men at LA City Hall starring Bradley Whitford and Joshua Malina, and his stage adaptation of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric (Fountain Theatre and Kirk Douglas Theatre). His play Bakersfield Mist is performed worldwide.

In Human Interest Story, newspaper columnist Andy Kramer is laid off when a corporate takeover downsizes the City Chronicle. In retaliation, Andy fabricates a letter to his column from an imaginary homeless woman named “Jane Doe” who announces she will kill herself on the 4th of July because of the heartless state of the world. When the letter goes viral, Andy is forced to hire a homeless woman to stand-in as the fictitious Jane Doe. She becomes an overnight internet sensation and a national women’s movement is ignited.

Human Interest Story runs February 15 to April 5 at the Fountain Theatre.

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Lin-Manuel Miranda: “All art is political.”

Lin-Manuel-Miranda-april-2019-chicago-billboard-1548

Lin-Manuel Miranda in Chicago, 2019.

by Lin-Manuel Miranda

All art is political. In tense, fractious times—like our current moment—all art is political. But even during those times when politics and the future of our country itself are not the source of constant worry and anxiety, art is still political. Art lives in the world, and we exist in the world, and we cannot create honest work about the world in which we live without reflecting it. If the work tells the truth, it will live on.

Public Enemy’s “911 Is a Joke,” George Orwell’s 1984, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s whole damn catalog—all are political works that tell the truth.

Yes, Rodgers and Hammerstein. Consider The Sound of Music. It isn’t just about climbing mountains and fording streams. Look beyond the adorable von Trapp children: It’s about the looming existential threat of Nazism. No longer relevant? A GIF of Captain von Trapp tearing up a Nazi flag is something we see 10 times a day on Twitter, because all sorts of Nazis are out there again in 2019. As last spring’s searing Broadway revival of Oklahoma! revealed, lying underneath Hammerstein’s elephant-eye-high corn and chirping birds is a lawless society becoming itself, bending its rules and procedures based on who is considered part of the community (Curly) and who is marginalized (poor Jud … seriously, poor Jud). Or consider your parents’ favorite, South Pacific. At its center, our hero, Nellie Forbush, must confront her own internalized racism when she learns that the new love of her life has biracial children from a previous marriage. Let your parents know if they forgot: Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals form the spine of Broadway’s “golden age,” and they also deeply engage with the politics of their era.

In the Heights

Lin-Manuel Miranda and the Broadway cast of In the Heights.

My first Broadway musical, In the Heights, is an example of how time can reveal the politics inherent within a piece of art. When I began writing this musical, as a college project at Wesleyan University, it was an 80-minute collegiate love story with a promising mix of Latin music and hip-hop, but it was pretty sophomoric (which is appropriate; I was a sophomore). After college, I started from scratch with the director Thomas Kail and the playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes, and we shifted the show’s focus from the love story to Washington Heights, a neighborhood in Upper Manhattan where everyone is from everywhere. In the 20th century, Washington Heights was often home to the latest wave of immigrants. It was an Irish neighborhood; it was a Russian Jewish neighborhood (Yeshiva University is up there). If you take the Dominican store sign down you’ll see a sign for an Irish pub underneath it, and if you take that down you’ll find Hebrew. Washington Heights was heavily Dominican when I was growing up, and it remains so, with a vibrant Mexican and Latin American immigrant community as well.

We received great reviews. If critics had a common criticism, it was that the show, its contemporary music aside, was somehow old-fashioned or “sentimental.” Gentrification, the businesses closing, the literal powerlessness as the characters face a blackout that affects only their neighborhood—these issues, always there in the material, didn’t register with most theater critics in 2008. In the Heights was considered a hit by Broadway standards. It didn’t leap off the Arts page and into the national conversation like Hamilton would, but we won some Tonys, recouped our investment, and had a wonderful three-year run at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, where Hamilton now lives. We posted our Broadway closing notice at the end of 2010.

What a difference 10 years makes.

Trump+Immigration+Policy

Right now, Jon M. Chu is editing his feature-film adaptation of In the Heights, which is scheduled to be released in June. We spent a joyous summer shooting the film—on location, in our neighborhood—and issues that were always inherent in the text now stand out in bold-faced type. Gentrification has rendered Lower Manhattan, Harlem, and much of Brooklyn unrecognizable to the previous generations that called those neighborhoods home. The East Village of Jonathan Larson’s Rent is nonexistent, lettered avenues notwithstanding. And the narrative of immigrants coming to this country and making a better life for themselves—the backdrop of everything that happens in In the Heights, across three generations of stories—is somehow a radical narrative now.

Donald Trump came down the escalator to declare his presidential run, and in his first speech he demonized Mexicans: They’re rapists; they’re bringing drugs; they’re not sending their best people. We young Latinos had thought of our parents and grandparents as the latest wave making its home in this country, and we thought that we would be the next group to make this place a better place, to prove once again that the American dream wasn’t just a figment of some propagandist’s imagination. And now we’re in a different age when, for some, considering an immigrant a human being is a radical political act.

Consider this rap, written 12 years ago and delivered by Sonny, In the Heights’ youngest character, in a song called “96,000”:

Your kids are living without a good edumacation,
Change the station, teach ’em about gentrification,
The rent is escalatin’
The rich are penetratin’
We pay our corporations when we should be demonstratin’
What about immigration?
Politicians be hatin’
Racism in this nation’s gone from latent to blatant

It was always political. It was always there. Donald Trump made it even more true.

Trump uses language to destroy empathy. He criminalizes the impulse and imperative to seek asylum, to seek a place to live thousands of miles away because the alternative at home is worse. Through his lens, these seekers are not people; they’re “animals” or “bad hombres.”

What artists can do is bring stories to the table that are unshakably true—the sort of stories that, once you’ve heard them, won’t let you return to what you thought before. I think about the crisis on the border constantly. I think about the famous photograph of a little girl crying beside a Border Patrol truck. That picture went viral because it seemed to capture the horror of family separations. But it turned out that the girl wasn’t being separated from her mother—her mother had simply been ordered to put her daughter down while she was searched by agents. The family was in distress, and the border crisis was real, but people used the details of this particular incident to close themselves off from empathy. “Fake news,” they said. A child is crying for her mother, but that’s not enough to keep people from pushing empathy away. I believe great art is like bypass surgery. It allows us to go around all of the psychological distancing mechanisms that turn people cold to the most vulnerable among us.

At the end of the day, our job as artists is to tell the truth as we see it. If telling the truth is an inherently political act, so be it. Times may change and politics may change, but if we do our best to tell the truth as specifically as possible, time will reveal those truths and reverberate beyond the era in which we created them. We keep revisiting Shakespeare’s Macbeth because ruthless political ambition does not belong to any particular era. We keep listening to Public Enemy because systemic racism continues to rain tragedy on communities of color. We read Orwell’s 1984 and shiver at its diagnosis of double-think, which we see coming out of the White House at this moment. And we listen to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific, as Lieutenant Cable sings about racism, “You’ve got to be carefully taught.” It’s all art. It’s all political.


This article appears in the December 2019 issue of The Atlantic. Lin-Manuel Miranda is a Pulitzer Prize, Grammy, Emmy, and Tony Award–winning composer, lyricist, and actor.

PHOTOS: First rehearsal for Pulitzer Prize winner ‘Between Riverside and Crazy’ at Fountain Theatre

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Liza Fernandez, Joshua Bitton, Guillermo Cienfuegos, Victor Anthony, Lesley Fera, Montae Russell and Marisol Miranda

What happens when you mix a Pulitzer Prize winning script, a company of phenomenal actors and a skilled director together in one room? You get magic.  From the moment the first lines of Stephen Adly Guirgis’ funny and powerful Between Riverside and Crazy were spoken at Wednesday night’s first rehearsal, all knew they were in for a wild and joyous ride.

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In Gurigis’ profane and tender tale, ex-cop and recent widower Walter “Pops” Washington and his newly paroled son Junior have spent a lifetime living between Riverside and crazy. But now, the NYPD is demanding his signature to close an outstanding lawsuit, the landlord wants him out, the liquor store is closed—and the church won’t leave him alone. When the struggle to keep one of New York City’s last great rent-stabilized apartments collides with old wounds, sketchy new houseguests, and a final ultimatum, it seems that the old days may be dead and gone.

Directed by award-winning Guillermo Cienfuegos, the cast includes Victor Anthony, Joshua Bitton, Lesley Fera, Liza Fernandez, Matthew Hancock, Marisol Miranda, and Montae Russell.

At the first meet-and-greet, the company was joined by Fountain staff, Board members and donors.  The group enjoyed a brief welcoming reception and then gathered on the Fountain stage for the reading of the script. Director Cienfuegos commented that he was struck by the support of the Fountain Theatre Family. Never, he said, had he witnessed such a show of community at a first rehearsal, with such a large number of dedicated people so eagerly present. “This is wonderful,” he grinned. “Because the play, in addition to being about racism and class and police work, is really about family.”

Between Riverside and Crazy opens October 19. More Info/Get Tickets

Post-Show Blues

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by Melina Young

Post-show blues. It’s a common phrase among theatre folk.

As we close the final performance of the Fountain Theatre’s arts education program, Walking the Beat Hollywood, as panels are struck and lights come down, as kids head safely home to their families, and cops return to patrolling the streets, the phrase takes on new meaning. In the context of Walking the Beat Hollywood, the phrase alludes not only to the malaise that accompanies the end of an affecting production, but also to the image of an LAPD uniform.

Post-show blues.

Walking the Beat Hollywood is a theatrical residency for high school students across Los Angeles and the police officers who patrol their neighborhoods. Together, students and officers devised a piece of theatre they titled “A Wall is Just Another Door,” about community policing informed by their personal experiences. During the show, performers begged the question in a rap battle, “When you see me in my uniform what do you see?” The question asks us all to challenge the assumptions we make and to acknowledge our biases, disadvantages, and privileges.

I have often been told that if I want to make a change in the world, I’m in the wrong business. I’ve heard that political theatre preaches to an audience that is already in agreement. This assumes that the audience attending theatre is of the same ilk. And yet, after Walking the Beat Hollywood I have never been more convinced that theatre changes lives.

Perhaps that is because the theatrical community that created and witnessed Walking the Beat Hollywood was not typical. (Walking the Beat Hollywood challenged convention as soon as the doors opened.) Development offices at theatres all over the world work hard to gather demographic information about their audiences. As a result, we know that theatrical audiences are largely white, liberal, affluent, and over 50. Working for a theatre festival during college, I was tasked with reviewing and digitizing hard-copies of audience surveys. One respondent answered the race and ethnicity question: “Really white.”

This respondent’s answer still makes me laugh. However, it’s also true and has far-reaching and troubling consequences. The ambition to democratize theatre can paradoxically become pretentious and self-serving. This is when theatre-makers become white-saviors. “Democratizing” can often look more like condescending to a group of people those in power ostensibly want to “uplift.” This is tokenism. The antidote to this kind of practice is recognizing that individuals are individuals and not representatives of a group. They are people of worth and power. Walking the Beat Hollywood succeeded in democratizing theatre precisely by self-consciously circumventing that goal.

It would be untrue to claim that the regular homogeneity of most theatrical audiences was unrepresented at Walking the Beat Hollywood. But largely this audience and this cast were unconventional. In fact, the ensemble worked hard to disrupt and challenge convention. Their tools in dismantling systems of oppression were their own stories. The ensemble gave generously of themselves and as a result moved their audience.

MY BG

Melina Young and Barbara Goodhill welcome guests to “Walking the Beat” at LACC.

Angela Kariotis, a visionary theatre-maker, teaching artist, and WTBH playwright writes, “Telling a story is simple, but not easy. Easy and simple are not the same thing… We never think we have any stories. But then all of a sudden, they come tumbling out because we cracked open the door a little. And here they are all demanding, demanding to be told.” That demand imbued Walking the Beat Hollywood with honest urgency. Sitting inside the Caminito Theatre, the call for truth was palpable and stirring. My father wept as he listened to each student’s identity poem and so did I. I already knew and loved these kids and by the end of the performance I think he did too.

When I handed one of the students her final pay check, she looked at me with a telling pout and said, “I don’t want this one.” When I asked her why, she said “because it means it’s the end. And I don’t want to say goodbye to everyone.” Her reluctance was evidence of love. Sixteen strangers—ten kids and six cops—became friends.

Theatre. Changes. Lives.

I saw these kids change. I saw them grow. Many students started this process shy. Many didn’t. Some are still shy and some still aren’t. But I know that they know their worth. I know that they proclaimed their worth in front of an audience eager to bear witness to it. That is genuinely important.

Sure, this was a production focused on cops and kids coming together to discuss the problems of community policing. But the final performance did not offer a solution. Rather, it highlighted human beings of different experience coming together to listen to one another.

I return to the idea of post-show blues. How did Walking the Beat Hollywood change our proverbial uniforms? If only for an evening, we have been armed with an open mind and with the impulse to listen.

I want to challenge theatre-going audiences to continue the legacy of this performance. Be silent and be moved. Listen. After all, “Listening is an act of love.”

Melina Young is the 2019 summer intern at the Fountain Theatre. We thanks the LA Department of Arts and Culture for the support of its Arts Internship Program. 

VIDEO: Actor/teacher Theo Perkins visits Hollywood High School for Fountain’s ‘Walking the Beat’

Take a look as actor/teacher Theo Perkins visits Hollywood High School to interview students for the Fountain Theatre’s new educational outreach program, Walking the Beat. Our innovative program will bring together ten students from six high schools with five LAPD officers, using theatre as a tool to create understanding and empathy.

In partnership with Elizabeth Youth Theater Ensemble, Hollywood Police Activities League, and the Los Angeles City College Theatre AcademyThe Fountain Theatre will introduce Walking the Beat, a summer theater arts based program for inner city high school youth and police officers in the Hollywood area. This pioneering arts education program, originated by New Jersey’s Elizabeth Youth Theater Ensemble in 2016, and now expanding into Hollywood with The Fountain Theatre, will provide transformative experiences for police officers and underserved youth in Hollywood. Utilizing performing arts as a vehicle for youth empowerment and community building, Walking the Beat has transformed lives with a results-based arts education methodology and curriculum. This 10 week program builds confidence, character, communication skills, and community. Walking the Beat inspires — in students and officers alike — an appreciation for their common humanity, and a commitment to community and social justice.

Our first orientation is this Friday.  More Info

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