Sheldon Epps on combating theater's prolonged-standing whiteness

Sheldon Epps turned the major Black particular person to steer a important theater in Southern California when the Pasadena Playhouse appointed him creative director in 1997. on the time, he was one in all a handful of Black artists inside the nation to maintain such a place. the excellence, says Epps, was an honor imbued with good problem.

“I felt sure and required to discover success. Not solely for myself. I wished to ship in every potential method in an effort to show that it was potential for a particular person of colour to run such an institution effectively,” Epps writes in his these days printed memoir, “my very personal instructions: A Black Man’s Journey inside the American Theatre.” “This was an unimaginable further burden to bear ready that was already stuffed with its personal challenges and obstacles.”

larger than 26 years later, Epps’ feelings mirror the fraught conversations the theater world is at present embroiled in. After the homicide of George Floyd, the ensuing waves of mass protest swept into the humanities world in 2020, and theater makers started talking loudly a few lack of range and racial parity on and off stage as properly as to in management ranks.

In June 2020, a collective of BIPOC theater practitioners demanding accountability and alter inside the artwork type launched a name to movement, “We See You White American Theatre.” The initiative had over 300 signatories collectively with marquee names like Lin-Manuel Miranda, Cynthia Erivo and Billy Porter. That quantity has since ballooned to larger than one hundred,000 signers, and the work of cultivating anti-racist theater functions has been ongoing.

Epps is heartened to see this activism — in truth, the modern movement is a factor of what impressed him to place in writing his memoir inside the major place. With it, he wished to let youthful Black artists know that they do not appear to be alone and that they will succeed. nonetheless, he says it’s irritating to acknowledge his wrestle mirrored in so many people’s experiences larger than 1 / 4 of a century later.

Why has lasting, systemic change proved so elusive in theater — a realm that touts its enlightened liberal credentials however as quickly as extra and as quickly as extra fails to discover the values it purports to assist?

Epps tried to parse that question in an interview on the photo voltaic-dappled patio of the Pasadena Playhouse, shut to a bench the place he sat a few years in the past watching patrons enter the theater and questioning why he was the one Black face amongst them — and the method he may change that dynamic.

“Let’s not little one ourselves that these conversations started in 2020, they did not,” Epps says, his voice exact and commanding — the voice of an actor, with the poise and posture to match. “Actively, loudly or covertly, I’ve been talking about this for many years.”

super strides have been made, he says, however the artwork type stays to be “combating an prolonged custom of the American theater as a white institution, and the vitality inside the American theater, each commercially and inside the not-for-revenue world, being inside the arms of the white institution.”

Epps says he feels a bit nervous regarding the most interesting method the situation has performed out since 2020. He’s heartened to see an enhance inside the quantity of leaders of colour as creative directors and authorities directors, however he fears that “it’s a second and by no means a movement.”

Epps has been aware of far too a lot of these moments. And now, when theater is confronted with one in all its best challenges ever — regaining monetary footing and attracting new audiences inside the wake of the devastating COVID closures — he’s afraid many properties will minimize workers or shut completely. If that occurs, he says he’s anxious that some BIPOC leaders pays the worth.

people will say, “properly, you see, they will’t do the job. you understand, we tried, however they’re actually decrease than it,” Epps says. “and additionally they’ll neglect about COVID. They’ll neglect about lumber costing extra, and union prices, and all of that, and simply level the finger, and use that as an excuse to reverse a pair of of the progress that has been made. I pray that that’s not going to be true. however I do have some exact trepidation about that.”

Epps speaks from expertise. When he first arrived at Pasadena Playhouse, an alt-weekly recognized as metropolis Paper printed an inflammatory piece of commentary titled “Theatre of the Absurd,” which started with the highway, “Sheldon Epps may even be simply the particular person to deliver new flavors to Pasadena, a metropolis recognized largely for its vanilla.”

The story, which lauded the selection to lease Epps however questioned his potentialities of success inside such a white institution, went on to ask: “Is Epps the particular person to fulfill the geezers, impress the hipsters, placate the board of directors and preserve the closet racists at bay? in that case, this Black artist chief in a racially sophisticated neighborhood has his work minimize out for him.” In his memoir, Epps recounts how his mom “bowed her head and softly cried” when she study the article, which was accompanied by a cartoon of Epps submerged in a boiling cauldron of oil flanked by WASPy white people.

Born in Compton Hospital in 1952 and raised inside the neighborhood till center school, Epps recollects being a factor of a know-how of youthful Black people who have been informed they might probably be utterly something they set their minds to. His father was a minister for the Presbyterian Church and inside the Nineteen Forties had started the major Black congregation of that denomination inside the West.

The church engaged the neighborhood artistically as properly as to spiritually, and Epps recollects a pivotal afternoon when he was round 10 years outdated and took a bus on a church-organized journey to see a matinee of Carson McCullers’ “The Member of the bridal ceremony,” starring Ethel Waters. The expertise brought on Epps to fall in love with theater. In a accident, that current occurred to be on the Pasadena Playhouse.

Epps’ father was later requested to affix the church’s administration, which was housed in NY metropolis, and when Epps was in center school the household moved to Teaneck, N.J. Uprooted from the neighborhood of Compton, Epps quickly found the most interesting method it felt to be one in all many solely Black faces in school — a sense which will final as he moved into the realm of theater for his profession.

the selection to dedicate himself to the artwork type acquired here as he submerged himself inside the magic of Broadway all by highschool — when he wasn’t busy performing in school performs, he typically took the bus to Manhattan to see as many reveals as he may. He was later accepted into the elite theater program at Carnegie Mellon college in Pittsburgh.

From there he turned a contract director, finally touchdown at San Diego’s outdated Globe theater as affiliate creative director earlier than making the leap to main Pasadena Playhouse, the place he would stay for the subsequent 20 years, programming an eclectic differ of reveals that drew crowds from all by the place inside metropolis and the area.

Sheldon Epps stands in the Pasadena Playhouse courtyard.

“there have been years when it was me shouting into the wind and no particular person was actually listening,” Sheldon Epps says.

(Jason Armond / l. a. instances)

Epps writes passionately about his creative journey in his memoir, noting that it was very important to him to not be thought to be a “Black director.”

“inside the most interesting method that time period is used and interpreted in our area it is, by intention or not, demeaning and meant to be diminishing of 1’s talents,” Epps writes. “the exact fact is that i’ve by no means heard my colleagues of the lighter hue described as White directors.”

amongst the numerous proudest accomplishments of his tenure at Pasadena Playhouse: A 2006 manufacturing of August Wilson’s “Fences,” which Epps directed, starring Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett; the premiere of “Sister Act: The Musical” that very similar yr; a 2011 manufacturing of “Blues for an Alabama Sky,” starring Robin Givens; 2012’s staging of “Intimate attire” by Lynn Nottage; and a manufacturing of “Twelve offended males” tweaked to attribute six Black characters and 6 white characters, and produced shortly after George Zimmerman was found not responsible inside the killing of Trayvon Martin.

Epps succeeded in bringing range to the stage and viewers on the Pasadena Playhouse regardless of super odds. His accomplishment is a supply of pleasure however acquired here at a terrific private and emotional price. He writes about not being invited to dinners and journey events of board members and major donors, and about patrons canceling subscriptions as a end result of he was programming too many Black performs.

by the aim Epps stepped down from his function in 2017, the Pasadena Playhouse had been reworked. however that work in theater is ongoing, says Epps, and is as obligatory now as a end result of it has ever been.

“there have been years when it was me shouting into the wind and no particular person was actually listening,” he says, including that regardless of many setbacks, exact progress has been made. “There are extra voices now. They’ve been louder voices. They’ve been voices of good renown, and additionally they’ve undoubtedly been extra honest.”

In his memoir, Epps writes about “the darkish secret of yank theater,” describing the “ghettoizing of artists of colour in our supposedly extremely superior, liberal and openminded area.”

That secret, he says, is now not, “a hidden secret — we haven’t solved the draw again — however no decrease than it’s not a secret anymore.”


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