Tag Archives: Black History Month

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.

Black History Month: Revelations of African American Culture in ‘In the Red and Brown Water’

"In the Red and Brown Water" (photo by Ed Krieger)

“In the Red and Brown Water”

by Natalie Mislang Mann

Kinetic energy charged with emotion. That describes Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Los Angeles premiere of In the Red and Brown Water presented by The Fountain Theatre. The location of this acclaimed, vibrant, nonprofit performance space in a humble Los Angeles neighborhood foreshadows the economic reality of the play’s kaleidoscopic mix of characters traversing the stage. In this context, McCraney’s play represents a microcosm of shattered dreams and unrealized potential within the larger world.

Treading In the Brown and Red Water, the audience descends into the protagonist’s depths. Set in an impoverished section of the fictional San Pere, Louisiana, Diarra Kilpatrick’s Oya is a passionate runner who abandons a college track scholarship to take care of her dying mother, Mama Mojo, played by Peggy A. Blow. In the process of losing her dreams, she escapes into a fiery relationship with Gilbert Glenn Brown’s Shango and relinquishes the one man, Ogun, who declares his heartfelt love. As Ogun, Dorian Christian Baucum exudes an honest, inner-strength that contrasts with Shango’s impulsive personality.

Diarra Kilpatrick and Gilbert Glenn brown in "In the Red and Brown Water"

Diarra Kilpatrick and Gilbert Glenn Brown in “In the Red and Brown Water”

On a superficial level, the plot reads formulaic: Tragedy hits girl. Girl turns to wrong man. Girl finds herself alone. However, McCraney’s vision is anything but banal. The onstage interactions between Oya and the characters with Yoruba deity names evoke the transcendental belief that spirits interact with humans in the everyday world. Through Oya’s relationships, the audience begins to explore not just socio-economic realities, but the human desire to survive. Simultaneously visceral and intellectual, this “circular” ode to human spirit emerges then concludes in similar yet distinct ways.

Peeling away In the Red and Brown Water’s stratum is akin to unraveling textual and historical layers of a Sorrow Song. Within this context, McCraney’s drama illustrates civil rights activist W.E.B Du Bois’ analysis of slave songs as “the music of unhappy people, of the children of disappointment [which] tell of death and suffering and unvoiced longing toward a truer world, of misty wonderings and hidden ways.” Through the allusion to Yoruba deities, McCraney echoes aspects of African American culture that used to remain hidden. His knowledge of Yoruba Diaspora adds to the dialogue of African American art.

Mama Moja

Peggy Blow as Mama Moja

While prominent art historians, such as Robert Ferris Thompson, have examined the spiritual and practical aspects of West African culture brought to the Americas through the slave trade, In the Red and Brown Water pushes beyond enumerating bodies of work which focus on elevating African American folk art from obscurity to cultural center. McCraney indirectly asks: Why stop there? He bridges the aesthetic, spiritual and socio-political gap that encompasses not just race, gender, class and sexual identity, but – most importantly – the psychological self, the whole self affected by poverty onset by institutionalized human bondage.

During the ensemble’s performance, parallels between In the Red and Brown Water and choreographer Alvin Ailey’s Revelations arise. Known for drawing on the emotional and spiritual experience of African Americans rooted within a rich musical tradition, Ailey, who McCraney cites as one of his influences, connected the past to the present. Traces of Ailey’s influence emerge as drumbeats pulsate through the heart of the play, interweaving through spiritual scores and contemporary beats. The connection between past and present compounds in an agonizing scene. In the midst of electronic house music, Oya breaks down. Tapping into her primal emotions, she ruptures into African dance, which emphasizes the beauty of African American culture ingrained within the realities of personal struggle.

Shirley Jo Finney’s discerning direction coalesces the multidisciplinary facets of Peter Bayne’s talents as composer/sound designer and Ameenah Kaplan’s choreography to evoke the presence of Yoruba culture within a contemporary play. Although Frederica Nascimento’s minimalist set appears stark, she places attention on every detail: From what resembles a divination bowl sitting under the porch to the assorted water vessels on stage. Even the plastic water bottle turned percussion instrument summons the spirit of San Pere. In the Red and Brown Water conjures ancestral spirit as literal, figurative and mystical dreams appear.

Natalie Mislang Mann has a Master of Arts in Humanities from San Francisco State University and writes for Playwriting in the City.

In the Red and Brown Water  Must End Feb 24th  (323) 663-1525   More

Fountain Theatre’s Acclaimed ‘In the Red and Brown Water’ Extends to Feb 24

LA Premiere Held Over to Celebrate Black History Month

“In the Red and Brown Water” (photo by Ed Krieger)

The Fountain Theatre has extended the Los Angeles premiere of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s lusciously theatrical and boldly original In the Red and Brown Water through the end of February, in honor of Black History Month. Performances will continue through December 16 as previously scheduled, then resume on January 5 for an additional eight weeks through February 24.

Lyrically weaving together elements of urban contemporary realism with West African mysticism, In the Red and Brown Water tells the tale of Oya, who can run faster than anyone—but not fast enough to escape her destiny. Her journey from the promise of youth to the complicated yearnings of womanhood is joyous, raucous, raw and brazenly beautiful.

The Fountain production has been declared “100% Sweet” by Bitter Lemons, a website that aggregates Los Angeles theater reviews, and which, in a rare editorial comment, writes, “Once again, the Fountain Theatre shows that they are the class of Los Angeles theater, big or small… this is simply what theater is meant to be.” The Los Angeles Times raves, “CRITIC’S CHOICE! Beyond the fact that it is sensational, the Fountain Theatre’s production of ‘In the Red and Brown Water’… introduces Los Angeles audiences to a dramatic poet in the process of discovering his singular voice and shows how magnificently one of L.A.’s better small theaters can serve bold new talent.” The LA Weekly agrees, “GO! A visceral fable that rises up from the underbelly of America,” and Back Stage calls In the Red and Brown Water “a production that explodes in sounds, imagesand extraordinary performances.”

It took the Fountain three years to obtain rights to produce McCraney’s play, which first exploded on the theater scene with a production at New York’s Public Theatre in 2009. On his personal Facebook page, Los Angeles Times Theater Critic Charles McNulty posts, “I love [the Fountain Theatre] production — even more than the one at the Public Theater. LA Theater is not to be underestimated!”

In the Red and Brown Water is helmed by multiple award-winning director Shirley Jo FinneyDiarra Kilpatrick stars as Oya in “a lead performance that is so good you wonder if somehow the designers may have concocted some kind of CGI image in front of your eyes instead of a living breathing human being; her movement, range of emotion and depth of passion is so indescribable that it will literally take your breath away.” (Colin Mitchell, Bitter Lemons). The ensemble also includes Dorian Christian BaucumPeggy A.BlowGilbert Glenn BrownJustin Chu CaryStephen MarshallSimone MissickIona MorrisTheodore Perkins and Maya Lynne Robinson.

Performances of In the Red and Brown Water continue through February 24 on Thursdays (through December 13 only),Fridays and Saturdays @ 8 pm and Sundays @ 2 pm (dark December 17 through January 4).  Call (323) 663-1525 or go to www.FountainTheatre.com.