Ford Theater introduced in Sheldon Epps to make it a various programming middle
Sheldon Epps wanted a recreation. It was 2013, and the person who killed Florida teenager Trayvon Martin had simply been acquitted, sparking widespread outrage and heated conversations about racism in America. As inventive director of the Pasadena Playhouse in Los Angeles, Epps knew he needed to discover a option to tackle the problems that arose with this shoot. However how?
Then Epps, a longtime theater and tv director, had a flash of inspiration. Maybe his entry got here via the trial – the jury that determined to let Martin’s killer go. So he determined to stage the psychologically advanced play by Reginald Rose from 1954, Twelve offended males– solely as an alternative of specializing in an all-white jury, Epps made half of the deliberators black. “The unhappy half is that the play was written over 50 years in the past,” he says, “and once you put it on stage, with out altering a phrase, it is related and speedy. It is great from a theatrical perspective, however a form of political and social tragedy.
The revamped manufacturing was a success, and in 2019 Epps introduced it to DC for a run at Ford’s Theater. Now, he is cast a a lot nearer relationship with Ford, enlisting in August as senior artwork advisor. With Epps’ new function comes a mandate to boost the theater’s range efforts and produce extra artists of colour to its stage.
Ford is an uncommon establishment – higher often known as the location of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination than as a spot to see a theater pushing the envelopes. Its scene was darkish for greater than a century after the Lincoln taking pictures, but it surely reopened in 1968 as a working theater and vacationer web site co-managed by the Nationwide Park Service. You’ll have gone to see his annual staging of A Christmas Carol or to see Broadway staple revivals like Hi there Dolly! Or perhaps you visited simply to look at the preserved Presidential Grandstand the place John Wilkes Sales space’s bullet discovered its goal.
The theater truly has an extended historical past of presenting a wide range of works, courting again to the Nineteen Seventies when gospel musicals have been an everyday a part of the lineup. Over the last years, The Wiz, Fly (in regards to the Tuskegee Airmen), and August Wilson performs Jitney and Fences have been a part of the multicultural choices. However the overwhelming majority of playwrights and administrators Ford has exploited previously have been white and male.
Final 12 months, Ford chief Paul Tetreault determined he wished to do extra, particularly because the American theater world was – like many establishments – grappling with broader problems with racism and illustration. His determination to convey Epps on board full-time indicators a major funding in range. Epps, in the meantime, sees his function as an growth of the theater’s efforts as an alternative of a serious zig-zag. “If I did not really feel like this was one thing Ford had targeted on for a few years,” he says, “it would not be a job that I might be occupied with.”
When Epps began at Ford in August, all of its programming was on maintain as a result of pandemic. However this steady pause has made it doable to take radical steps. Epps and Tetreault determined to chop a lot of the theater’s beforehand mapped schedule. So when the disaster lastly subsides and the curtain rises once more, there can be no manufacturing of the favored musical comedy. The fellows and the dolls, as initially deliberate.
As a substitute, Epps and Tetreault – working with the theater’s inventive group, together with Kristin Fox-Siegmund, José Carrasquillo and Erika Scott – will supply a trio of works on civil rights leaders, beginning with the mission led by Epps. My Lord, what an evening a play in regards to the stunning friendship between Marian Anderson and Albert Einstein. There may also be sequence of Vital sacrifices, which explores Lincoln’s relationship with Frederick Douglass and that of Katori Corridor The highest of the mountain, the primary play by a black lady to be produced at Ford in many years. “We began occupied with initiatives that handled huge racial points,” says Epps, who voices his ideas in a sluggish baritone that is each commanding and a little bit hypnotic. “What are the valuable and unimaginable issues that may outcome from discovering our commonalities, these issues that unite us and unite us?”
Epps has been pushing for extra range in theater for many of his profession. Rising up in Los Angeles and New Jersey, he began out as a stage actor after which co-founded a small theater firm in New York Metropolis. His breakthrough on Broadway got here in 1982 with the musical revue Blues within the evening, that he created and produced. (It was nominated for a Tony for Finest Musical.) Later, whereas persevering with his theatrical profession, Epps additionally moved on to tv, directing episodes of Associates, Frasier, and Girlfriends, amongst different exhibits.
When he took on the very best inventive place on the Pasadena Playhouse in 1997, Epps grew to become one of many first black inventive administrators of American regional theater. The efficiency corridor was in dire monetary straits on the time and catered to an viewers that was older and whiter. His hiring was not universally welcomed. “When he first arrived there was a political cartoon in a neighborhood newspaper of him boiling in oil and little previous women from Pasadena dancing across the kettle,” says Seema Sueko, who labored with Epps in Pasadena from 2014 to 2016 and till just lately was Assistant Creative Director of Enviornment Stage. “I believe most individuals would have stated, ‘I can not keep right here’. Moderately, he stated, “I’ve to do artwork right here”. “
So that is what he did and in doing so, Epps attracted a youthful and extra various viewers. The work he introduced was notably extra multicultural, as have been the actors on stage. The technique was not solely fairer, it was additionally worthwhile.
In 2017, after a profitable 20-year run, Epps left his full-time function in Pasadena, and he spent a couple of years directing performs in numerous venues. (It’s on this capability that he introduced his Twelve offended males manufacturing at DC.) However when the chance arose to reshape the inventive imaginative and prescient of an establishment as vital as Ford’s, Epps determined to simply accept the problem.
Now, he spends plenty of his time occupied with different methods to maneuver Ford ahead. The most important initiative to this point – which Epps leads with Tetreault – known as the Lincoln Legacy Commissions. The theater calls on 5 coloured playwrights to create new productions about characters from the story. “They’re free to look at any historic determine they wish to study, no matter that individual’s race,” Epps says. “So you possibly can have a black playwright who writes about Thomas Jefferson or [Atlanta’s first Black mayor] Maynard Jackson. “
Whereas he acknowledges that many years of combating racial points within the theater have left him “uninterested in the dialog,” Epps can also be “inspired that the conversations are actually happening in a way more sincere method.” . And he really believes that as an artist he can use the stage to assist folks take into consideration inequalities in our nation. “The viewers wants to return to the theater able to be entertained,” he stated, “but additionally to sort out extra of the reality – the lengthy, lengthy historical past of racial injustice in America.”
That was definitely the purpose in 2013, when Epps determined to make use of this ultra-familiar Fifties play on a divided jury as a option to sort out up to date racial violence. “One of many causes I drifted into Twelve offended males Does that point out a risk, ”he stated. “The chance that if we’re able to open our minds – if we’re prepared to talk and actually hear – it’s doable that we will come collectively. It’s not inevitable. And the play does not say that. However the play says it is doable for us to return collectively – to maneuver ahead with consensus. “