Category Archives: race

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.

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.

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