Black playwrights, directors and actors cropped up on stages all over this spring. Temporary coincidence, or sea change?
In the past two years, theaters such as the Guthrie and the Ordway have been targeted by critics for not including more women and people of color as playwrights, directors and performers.
In a reversal of fortune, a bounty of diverse shows appeared on Twin Cities stages this spring, nearly all of which have received positive reviews.
“This is definitely a moment to celebrate,” said Robin Hickman, who consults with the Ordway Center. “The question is, is this an exception or is this a sign of things to come?”
The Guthrie, whose 50th-anniversary season evoked rancor for not being inclusive, has strong productions on all three of its stages, all directed by African-Americans and featuring top-notch talent. “Othello,” on the big thrust stage, is directed by Tony nominee and Obie-winner Marion McClinton and stars Peter Macon in the title role (opposite theater heavyweight Stephen Yoakam). The cast includes Sun Mee Chomet, Kurt Kwan and Regina Marie Williams.
Penumbra Theatre’s Lou Bellamy, another Obie winner, staged “The Mountaintop,” Katori Hall’s imaginative play about the last night of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life. That production, on the Guthrie’s proscenium stage, stars Erika LaVonn as a hotel maid and James T. Alfred as King.
And at the Guthrie’s Dowling Studio, playwright Carlyle Brown wrote, directed and produced “Abe Lincoln and Uncle Tom in the White House.” This fanciful chamber piece yokes the fictional character from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s classic novel with the 16th president as the latter considers signing the Emancipation Proclamation. James A. Williams and Steve Hendrickson star in Brown’s one-act.
The Guthrie has had diverse shows over the years, but usually one at a time.
“When I come to the Guthrie, the ushers usually know exactly what theater to send me to,” one avid black theatergoer quipped. “Now they’re pleasantly confused about where I should go.”
Theater lover Jean Ann Durades, 82, pays for “30, 40 shows” a year and ushers so that she can see others for free.
“When I first came here in ‘83, I had to run around and search under rocks to find shows with black people in them,” said Durades. “Now, I just can’t keep up. It’s very exciting — and very expensive. Because I like theater and dance, I go to as much as I can.”
At the History Theatre in St. Paul, Austene Van directed a cast that includes American Indian, Latina, black and white women in Helen Benedict’s “Lonely Soldiers.” The ensemble includes Jamecia Bennett, Hope Cervantes and Rhiana Yazzie.
The Ordway just closed Diane Paulus’ Tony-winning revival of “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess,” which harmonized operatic, gospel and musical-theater voices and starred Nathaniel Stampley and Alicia Hall Moran.
Many theaters count diversity as central to their mission, including Penumbra, Mixed Blood, Mu Performing Arts, Teatro del Pueblo, Ten Thousand Things, Pillsbury House and the Children’s Theatre. But that mission, encouraged by foundations and protests, is being extended to other venues.
“What does it all mean?” asked Jack Reuler of Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis. “Is it about employment for talented theater artists? Is it about aesthetics? Or is it a whole package? When I travel [to other cities], I’m so grateful for the high artistic standards of the one I live and work in.”
At Children’s Theatre Company, “The Scarecrow and His Servant” has a diverse cast that includes new company member Traci Allen Shannon and two performing apprentices. (The show stars Dean Holt and Brandon Brooks as the title characters, both of whom are white.)
Theatre Latté Da cast Isabel Monk O’Connor, a formidable, Yale-trained veteran, in a lead role in “Our Town.”
Elsewhere, Threads Dance company recently did a show with Sweet Honey in the Rock at the Cowles Center, and a Brazilian hip-hop dance troupe performed at Walker Art Center.
“The thing that we have to look at is not just what’s onstage, but the leadership and the boards of these organizations,” said actor, director and Macalester College professor Harry Waters. “I don’t want to be a cynic.”