Category Archives: racism

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

by France-Luce Benson

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

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

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

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

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

FLB: What do you miss most about Philly?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FLB: Lol! Agreed!!

FLB: What’s been keeping you sane?

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

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

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

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.

The Space In Between …

France-Luce Benson

Playwright France-Luce Benson is the Community Engagement Coordinator at the Fountain Theatre, and host of the online gathering, “Saturday Matinees.”

by France-Luce Benson

A few days ago, a friend and I were discussing the concept of Liminal space, moments in life where you experience the pain and discomfort of being on the threshold of change. We are all feeling it right now; in our communities, in our cities, as a country, and in the world. As we navigate this liminal space collectively, some of us, myself included, are also feeling our way through the challenges of personal transition. Uncomfortable, yes. But ripe with the promise of inspiration, enlightenment, and growth.

After three and a half months quarantining in Florida with my Mom, I’m relieved to be back in L.A. I hesitate to say back home, because I’ve been in a kind of holding space. I moved out of my old apartment, and have been house sitting in Arcadia while waiting to move into my new West Hollywood apartment. Not to mention, nothing in Los Angeles is as I left it. Most everything remains shut down – from beaches to bars, movie theatres, museums, and worst of all for us, theatres. Closed. Indefinitely. Meanwhile, uprisings, small and large, fill the space in between. Artistic directors, producers, playwrights, actors and directors are having difficult conversations about the future of theatre. No one really has the answers. But I believe whatever the future is, already exists in this space in between.

I’ve spent much of these last few weeks listening to the neighbors’ children play in imaginary worlds, absorbing every last bit of their summer, unburdened by financial pressures, political anxieties, and this unrelenting fear Covid-19. While I envy the freedom of innocence and ignorance, the urgency that accompanies our collective awakening is oddly comforting. I am reminded that as artists, our voices are powerful and as a black, female artist – my voice is necessary. Now more than ever.

During my hiatus from Saturday Matinees, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this power, and the many ways I have felt powerless in a country, and industry, tainted by white supremacy. I have been asked by many of my colleagues, on the front lines of demanding radical change in the theatre, to recollect and testify about the many ways I have been oppressed in the theatre. The University professors who were unable or unwilling to expose me to artists representative of my identity, the artistic directors who implied that the cultural specificity of my work lessened its value, the directors and producers who failed to honor my vision simply out of laziness and ego. I thought about how powerless I felt at the time. But in this liminal space, I am reminded of how powerful my voice actually is, and how choosing to tell stories that challenge stereotypes and amplify marginalized voices is a powerful act of rebellion. And I’ve been thinking about the ways I might wield this power, peacefully, creatively, urgently. One of those ways is as curator, co-producer, and host of “Saturday Matinees” with The Fountain Theatre.

Saturday Matinees began with a simple premise: A virtual community gathering with live performances. It was an opportunity to break the isolation of quarantine, and to satisfy our hunger for creative expression and live entertainment. It was such a joy getting to know The Fountain audience, and allowing myself to be seen and heard through my own work, and on an intimate level that was completely unexpected. But the greatest gift, by far, was introducing theatrical artists I love and admire to our Fountain family. Once the uprisings began, it occurred to me how powerful this platform could be.

So when Saturday Matinees returns on August 22, I intend to joyfully honor the many voices representative of this powerful liminal space. I hope you will join me in my celebration of resistance, equality, global and social justice, and positive change. Our first guest on August 22 will be Dennis A. Allen II, writer, actor, director, activist. Allen will share from his work and discuss what the current uprisings means to black artists who have been vocal about these issues for decades.

Many of us have desperately attempted to ease the discomfort of this liminal space with catch phrases like “reset” or “pivoting”. But the hard truth is that liminality is defined by the ambiguity, disorientation, and uncertainty one experiences in the middle stage of a rite of passage. However, when the rite of passage is complete, we emerge with greater clarity and strength. In the words of George Bernard Shaw, “Progress is impossible without change.”

 

France-Luce Benson is the Community Engagement Coordinator at the Fountain Theatre, and the host of the online gathering, Saturday Matinees.

Video: 2019 was only one year ago …

As 2020 continues on its perilous path and our theatre sits empty, we look back at a jam-packed and deeply rewarding 2019. It was only last year but it feels like a century ago. Enjoy!

Stay Home: Fountain Theatre builds community alliances during time of crisis

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Hollywood Food Coalition

by France-Luce Benson

As we all hunker down, I’ve been thinking a lot about home. As a playwright/performer, I’ve lived a kind of gypsy lifestyle for most of my adulthood. Home is wherever the gig happens to be.  For the last year and a half, home is Los Angeles.  Of course, in Los Angeles, I can’t think about home without thinking of the millions of men, women, and children who are experiencing homelessness today. As our public officials urge us all to “stay home”, rightfully so, I can’t help but wonder what that means for those who don’t have a home.

Like many theatres across the country, The Fountain made the painful decision to suspend performances of Human Interest Story, which grappled with several issues around homelessness. Sadly, this also meant cancelling all of our BID events, including a panel discussion with representatives from several homeless relief organizations in our community.

Although the show cannot go on, we’ve decided to keep the conversation going with one of our esteemed panelists, John Billingsley. As the Board President of Hollywood Food Coalition, Billingsley knows firsthand about what it means to be on the front lines of the fight to end homelessness in L.A.

FLB: First, can you please tell us about Hollywood Food Coalition’s mission and what services you provide:

Billingsley: Every night of the year we serve the most immediate needs of people in our community: we provide a healthy and nutritious five course meal to all comers, no questions asked (soup, salad, choice of vegetarian or non-vegetarian entree, fruit, bread, desserts, milk, water).  We also distribute shoes, blankets, sleeping bags, clothing, bus passes, laundry vouchers, toiletry kits, and etc. We  have medical, dental and vision vans from UCLA visiting our campus on a regular basis. We are secular, but we serve our meal on the campus of the Salvation Army, (in one of their two dining halls) and we also help clients access way cool stuff provided by other community social service organizations (our neighbors and buds).  Additionally, insofar as we rescue approximately 7000 pounds of food a week, we aim to distribute the food we cannot use to other Not For Profits serving our community.

FLB: What led you to Hollywood Food Coalition?

Billingsley: Approximately 4 years ago, apres the disastrous 2016 election, I was looking for ways to get more involved in my community. In addition to doing some political fundraising, I started making bad fruit salads at the Hollywood Food Coalition. (I washed dishes badly, as well). I was foolish enough to shoot off my mouth a bit about ways to grow the board, raise more moolah, blah blah blah . . .  and now I’m the Board President!  It (almost) reaffirms my faith in America. Or, perversely, makes me question the sanity of our Executive Director, Sherry Bonanno.

FLB: What has been your focus as Board President?

Billingsley: We believe food is a medium for coalition building.  My specific interest revolves around what it means to build coalitions, to make pals, to get to know our non-for-profit neighbors. We’re interested in helping to bring NFP’s in our community together to collaborate, where possible, on ‘common actions’, like we’re doing with The Fountain Theatre. We’re interested in exploring mechanisms by which we can further each other’s missions: Can we help you do what you do better? Can you help us do what we do better? How?

FLB: In Stephen Sachs’ play, Human Interest Story, the Jane Doe character offers a raw look at the realities of homelessness. She talks about being assaulted, feeling invisible, and the stigma attached to homelessness. In your opinion, what is the biggest challenge homeless men and women face?

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Tanya Alexander and Rob Nagle, Human Interest Story.

Billingsley: First off, and apropos of nothing – ‘people who re experiencing homelessness’ is a more artful construction, I have been taught  – when we use the term ‘homeless’, and God knows we all use it, we kinda consign people to a bit of a Dante-esque ‘circle’, a ‘home’, oddly enough . . .

 People go through shit.

One can say: I am going through this time in my life, I am experiencing yada yada yada . . . it’s subtly, but legitimately, different than saying: I am a this.  I am a that.  People ain’t homeless.  They’re living a particular kind of life, they’re experiencing homelessness at this time in their life .  One hopes that they will be living a different kind of life soon.

But to answer your question:

The biggest challenge homeless people face is the biggest challenge most of us face: the folks who rule our country, and many other countries around the world, actively attempt to delegitimize, if not actively dehumanize, people who don’t agree with them, or look like them, or in any way challenge their values or their hold on power. The challenge we all face, or can’t even begin to face (or intellectually recognize) is a deep and internalized acquiescence in the face of systemic and organized political disenfranchisement; perhaps to the perpetuation of our own diminution.   Continue reading

For this L.A. couple, societal issues in ‘Human Interest Story’ are personal

Dick Price and Sharon Kyle

Dick Price and Sharon Kyle

by Dick Price and Sharon Kyle

With his stunning world premiere presentation of Human Interest Story at the Fountain Theatre, playwright and director Stephen Sachs stitches together issues deeply affecting American society, delivering them with a witty edge and kinetic punch that thrilled the audience the night we attended.

Our colleague and friend, Eric A. Gordon, just published a delightfully detailed review with us: Human Interest Story,’ Playwright Stephen Sachs’s Righteous Rage Against Corporate Heartlessness. Rather than replicate his work—or, rather foolishly, try somehow to top it—we’ll share the ironic way Sachs’ themes struck the two of us. Ironies abound, as you’ll see.

At curtain rise, long-time opinion columnist Andy Kramer (played by Rob Nagle) is about to lose his job in a cost-cutting move by his newspaper’s new owners, who are decimating the staff and moving quickly online to save the paper from folding, a fate so many print publications have suffered in recent years.

On his way out the door, as a way to give the new editors the finger, Andy concocts a letter purportedly written by an anonymous homeless woman, Jane Doe, who’s so bereft by her plight that she promises to kill herself on the approaching Fourth of July.

And, of course, in this digital age, the letter immediately goes viral, generating lots of hits on the paper’s website and saving Andy’s job. Problem is, the editors want to know more—lots more—about Jane Doe.

And, of course, in this coincidental world, Andy soon stumbles across a homeless black woman (Tanya Alexander) living in the park, who, after some negotiation, agrees to play Jane Doe. Together they use their ruse to shed a harsh light on the plight of the homeless while saving their own bacon.

But, as Jane Doe will later say, “there’s no good way to do a bad thing,” so problems ensue: rising media stardom, intruding corrupt politicians, distracting sexual escapades, and soulless publishing magnates all colliding in an engrossing stew—“ripped from the headlines,” you might say. You’ll need to see the play—and you absolutely should—to see how all this works out.

Our first irony: Hours before we saw the play, the two of us were at LA CAN (Los Angeles Community Action Network) on West 6th Street, in the heart of L.A.’s sprawling Skid Row, helping to plan the “Radical King” event planned for April 4th.

Moreover, to avoid the crush of L.A.’s highway traffic, we frequently take surface streets to activist meetings we attend downtown, a route that takes us through Skid Row. At one point, we had to stop taking this shortcut because Sharon would break down in tears at the sight of so many of her people—black people—pushing shopping carts down the street, huddling in the endless rows of tents, shaking their fists at an unforgiving sky. At one time, her former brother-in-law had been among them, a Vietnam vet devastated by his wartime experiences and brief capture by the Viet Cong.

And long ago, Dick had been executive director (some would call him “house daddy”) of a halfway house in Torrance where many homeless were among the residents, an experience that showed him that beneath the grime and tattoos and missing teeth, they were every bit as human as he—and not some kind of alien beings you might only see in news reports or passing by quickly in your car.

homeless man

A second irony, of course, is that for the past 12 years we’ve published two online magazines,LA Progressive and Hollywood Progressive, which are in the mix of the shift away from print publication to digital, which has caused the loss of so many editorial jobs like Andy’s.

And again moreover, in Dick’s last job working for other people (other than Sharon), he worked on venerable print magazines at the very start of the move to the digital world, his job to figure out how to preserve revenue—and his staff’s jobs—while moving online.

While readership levels rose dramatically with the much wider reach the Internet afforded, his readers were much less willing to pay for the privilege as they had with print magazines—and the money they did pay had to first go through the Web publishing shop, which took most of the gravy, shrinking the editorial staff bit by bit. His version of Andy, walking out the front door with his belongings in a cardboard box, became an all-too-common sight.

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

But the third irony is perhaps the most telling. Sachs’s play has the middle-aged white “word slinging” columnist ghostwriting speeches and articles for the somewhat younger black homeless woman—who, by the way, was an award-winning fourth grade teacher before bad luck put her on the street. Point being that the white man assumed he needed to do the thinking and writing for a black woman, who, by the way she spoke and acted and carried herself, could surely have used her own words and thoughts quite nicely, thank you very much, given the chance.

Now, at the Dick & Sharon collective, Dick would never dream of putting words in Sharon’s mouth. But our parallels to the play are strong—older white man (she’ll remind you), younger black woman, joined not just with an ampersand but at the hip for years on end. Many days we spend the entire 24 hours within 30 feet of each other, talking to the same people, watching the same programs, reading many of the same things, chewing through the day’s events as one.

We’re together most of the time when the world comes at us, but how we interpret that world, especially around issues of race, can be quite different (one of us says “quite,” the other “somewhat”). If we hear news of yet another unarmed black man gunned down by police or a black mother sent to prison for enrolling her child in the wrong school or reports of a friend suspiciously denied a job or promotion, Dick hears it, hurts for it, perhaps discusses it, and moves on. But then hours later he’ll find Sharon still sunk down in despair for the endless targeting of her people, thinking of her son’s safety, her brothers’ safety, black people’s safety and well-being in general.

See, if Dick walks out our front door, pretty quick he’s just another white dude walking down the street in a mostly white neighborhood, the consequences of racism becoming increasingly intellectual. Sharon doesn’t have that luxury.

So, the heart of Human Interest Story — for us, at least — is the interplay of racism in our lives, white and black, that rot at the heart of America’s soul.

Go see for yourself.

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This post originally appeared in Hollywood Progressive.

Fountain celebrates 30 years with electrifying season of premieres in 2020

FT night cars 2018Deborah Culver and Stephen Sachs founded the Fountain Theatre in an intimate, Spanish-style, East Hollywood building that belies the sizable local impact and international reach of the company’s acclaimed and award-winning productions. Now entering its 30th year as one of the most highly regarded theaters in Los Angeles, the Fountain is announcing a celebratory 2020 season of dynamic premieres and events.

“Thirty years ago, when we first entered this theater and stepped onto its stage, we knew we had found it. A place to call home,” Culver and Sachs said in a joint statement. “Since that April three decades ago, our charming haven on Fountain Avenue has been home to thousands of artists and millions of patrons. Fountain plays are now performed worldwide and seen on TV. Our flamenco concerts are first class. Our outreach programs change lives. Our legacy is noteworthy. And our future looks bigger and brighter than ever.”

The season opener, the world premiere of Human Interest Story — written and directed by Sachs who, in addition to his role as co-founder and co-artistic director of the Fountain, is an internationally acclaimed playwright — will open on Feb. 15. In this timely drama about homelessness, celebrity worship and truth in American journalism, newspaper columnist Andy Kramer (Rob Nagle) is laid off when a corporate takeover downsizes his paper. 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 (Tanya Alexander) to stand-in as the fictitious Jane. She becomes an overnight internet sensation and a national women’s movement is ignited.

Slated for Spring, 2020, the Los Angeles premiere of If I Forget by Steven Levenson (Dear Evan Hansen) will be directed by Fountain producing director Simon Levy. In this viciously funny, unflinchingly honest portrait of a Jewish family and a culture at odds with itself, a liberal Jewish studies professor reunites with his two sisters to celebrate their father’s 75th birthday. Both political and deeply personal, this play about history, responsibility, and what we’re willing to sacrifice for a new beginning was a New York Times “Critic’s Pick,” while DC Metro calls it “one of the greatest Jewish plays of this century.”

Summer brings the Los Angeles premiere of An Octoroon by 2016 MacArthur fellow Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, who won the Obie for this radical, incendiary and subversively funny riff on Dion Boucicault’s once-popular 1859 mustache-twirling melodrama set on a Louisiana plantation. A spectacular collision of the antebellum South and 21st-century cultural politics, An Octoroon twists a funhouse world of larger-than-life stereotypes into blistering social commentary to create a gasp-inducing satire that The New York Times calls “This decade’s most eloquent theatrical statement on race in America today.” Judith Moreland directs.

Another noteworthy Los Angeles premiere closes out the season in the Fall: Escaped Alone is a caustically funny and surreal afternoon of tea and calamity by celebrated British playwright Caryl Churchill. In a serene British garden three old friends are joined by a neighbor to engage in amiable chitchat — with a side of apocalyptic horror. The women’s talk of grandchildren and TV shows breezily intersperses with tales of terror in a quietly teetering world where all is not what it seems. In his Off-Broadway review for Escaped AloneNew York Times theater critic Ben Brantley hailed the play as “wondrous” and Caryl Churchill as “the most dazzlingly inventive living dramatist in the English language.”

Also coming up in 2020:

Forever Flamenco: The dancers, musicians and singers of the Fountain’s monthly series will continue to delight audiences throughout 2020. The Los Angeles Times hails Forever Flamenco as “the earth and fire of first-class flamenco,” and LA Splash says, “the way you feel when you walk out of a Forever Flamenco performance is pretty darn fabulous.”

Hollywood Dreams: CBS star and Fountain family member Simone Missick (All Rise) and Fountain board chair Dorothy Wolpert will be honored at the Fountain’s dazzling 30th Anniversary Gala at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel on SaturdayJune 27.

Walking the Beat Hollywooda pioneering arts education program for inner city high school youth and police officers, will return for its second year this August.

The Candidate: The Fountain’s third annual celebrity reading at Los Angeles City Hall, a stage adaptation of the 1972 Academy Award-winning movie that starred Robert Redford as a young, straight-talking candidate for the U.S. Senate, is set for ThursdayOct. 22. One night only.

For more information about the Fountain Theatre’s 2020 30th anniversary season, call (323) 663-1525 or go to www.FountainTheatre.com