Reporter’s Notebook: Black theater voices, activism takes center stage this month

Ahmed Dents, development coordinator for San Diego Repertory Theatre
Ahmed Dents, development coordinator for San Diego Repertory Theatre, will lead a panel discussion with Black theater artists on June 19 on behalf of San Diego Rep.
(Courtesy photo)

Virtually all of San Diego’s theaters showed solidarity this month in supporting the Black Lives Matter movement


As a wave of activism for the Black Lives Matter movement swept across the country on May 30 and 31, all of San Diego’s theater companies turned their social media accounts into vehicles for reflection, support and goals for the future.

About a week after protests over police violence against the Black community began, a new wave of online protests began nationally over the lack of black representation in the arts. A theater producer in New York created a spreadsheet of theaters that were not speaking out on racism; four Black theater artists discussed the corrosive power of racism in their industry in a New York Times article; and an A-list group of Black actors signed a searing open letter about racism at every level in the theater industry.

So how have San Diego’s theater companies addressed the issue of Black Theatre Matters? Here’s a look.

The Old Globe‘s director of arts engagement Freedome Bradley-Ballentine recorded a statement on Facebook that the company met in early June with a couple dozen black artists and community stakeholders to discuss the future role of Black people and their work at the Globe. It is also conducting an audience survey on the issue. And it will host its fourth-annual coLAB Juneteenth forum in a digital form on Facebook on June 19 to benefit the George L. Stevens Resource Center.

“We know that we are committed to becoming a more pluralistic theater company,” said Bradley-Ballentine, who is black. “We don’t know exactly what our next steps will look like right now, but we do know it will involve a lot of reflection, listening and willingness to transform.”

San Diego Repertory Theatre leaders Sam Woodhouse and Larry Alldredge published a “We are Listening” open letter to the community supporting the BLM movement and committing more resources to diversity in the future. It has also scheduled a Juneteenth Zoom-based panel discussion at 7 p.m. June 19. It will feature some of San Diego’s best known black theater artists. The Rep’s development coordinator Ahmed Dents will host the discussion featuring Delicia Turner Sonnenberg, Jacole Kitchen, Antonio “TJ” Johnson, Yolanda Franklin, Dajahn Blevins and Michael Taylor.

La Jolla Playhouse paused all of its online programming on May 31 for 10 days and released a statement about how they are making actionable plans to make the institution a more diverse, mission-driven theatre that gives further voice to BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) artists, staff and audiences.

Moxie Theatre launched a “Making Space” initiative on May 30, where it also paused its online programming to make space for voices of women of color. The company is asking Black women playwrights to send in their plays for consideration.

New Village Arts announced its recent commissioning of four Black artists to create a holiday musical based on their own stories called “Home.” It will be workshopped in December and presented in a full production in fall 2021. Back in April, NVA staff met with co-writers
Kevin “Blax” Burroughs, Milena (Sellers) Phillips, Dea Hurston and Frankie Alicea-Ford to create a holiday musical from a black perspective, since those stories are rarely seen onstage.

Cygnet Theatre made a vow to continue telling the stories that serve as a tool for compassion and understanding, saying “Cygnet stands with our black artists and community members and adds our voice to the collective outcry.”

Backyard Renaissance Theatre announced its commitment to Black Lives Matter and recognized that it has more work to do to present black writers voices on its stage.

Intrepid Theatre muted its social media from June 1 to 7 in solidarity with #AmplifyMelanatedVoices to share only Black voices and information.

Diversionary Theatre has also dedicated many of its posts since June 1 to black issues.

Blindspot Collective has been using its social media pages since May 29 to promote causes like BLM, the ACLU, Color of Change and the March for Black Womxn SD.

Moonlight Stage Productions’ fundraising arm, Moonlight Cultural Foundation, posted a “We are Listening” message of support on its Facebook page on June 1.

North Coast Repertory Theatre posted a statement of solidarity with the movement on its Instagram page on June 3.

Lamb’s Players Theatre posted a prayer for justice on June 2.

And OnStage Playhouse changed its cover photo and avatar on June 3 to Black Lives Matter graphics.

San Diego Musical Theatre‘s production manager Ron Christopher Jones posted a statement of support for people of all colors on the company’s Facebook page on June 1. But it generated a series of negative comments from four local theater artists, one posting under a pseudonym, who said the company did not have a good record of multiracial casting or staffing. Jones, who is Black and joined the company in January 2019, responded that people of color are represented in all decisions at the company and he invited further dialogue.

--- Pam Kragen is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune