When Raelle Myrick-Hodges was hired a little over a year ago to take over the reins from outgoing founder Ellen Gavin as the second-ever artistic director of the
"How do you focus an organization that has never had an opportunity to truly define itself artistically?" Myrick-Hodges says at a coffee shop near Brava. "Not philosophically or politically—I think my predecessor did an excellent job with that—but artistically, what is it that we really want to share? Because doing work by chicks is not that interesting if they suck.I prefer for us to go for it, have some huge mistakes and some great triumphs, and then sort out what we really want to be doing."
In recent years the historic Mission District building that has housed the organization since 1996—the former York Theater built in 1926 by the same architects as Oakland's Grand Lake Theatre—had been primarily a hosting venue, presenting musical acts and the occasional theatre piece such as the visiting Guantánamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom or Gavin's homegrown Hurricane Katrina play Stardust and Empty Wagons.
Myrick-Hodges had something else in mind. The season she announced in May contained no fewer than eight theatrical productions in addition to several of the multicultural music, dance and comedy events than had been the company's bread and butter in years past.
"Yeah, I picked a lot of stuff this year, but how could I say no?" Myrick-Hodges says. "These are great things with great artists who are really interested in supporting Brava, and this is the time to do it. By top-loading it, it gives my entire staff as well as myself an opportunity to figure out what we should be doing."
The theatrical season was to kick off in October with the West Coat premiere of Beyond the Mirror, a historic US-Afghan collaboration between New York's Bond St. Theater and the Exile Theatre of Kabul, but that had to be canceled at the last minute when the United States refused entry visas to any of the male Afghan members of the cast.
"But you know, it's not profiling or biased or anything," Myrick-Hodges says caustically. "It's just those damn tumblers from
Brava hoped to be able to reschedule the show for January but the visa situation remained unresolved, so now the show is slated for the San Francisco International Arts festival in June.
In the meantime Brava inaugurated its new 2nd Stage in its erstwhile dance studio with Myrick-Hodges's staging of Kobo Abe's absurdist 1964 play Friends. Megan Soto will direct Mac Wellman's Sincerity Forever there in January, followed by the West Coast premiere of Pearl Cleage's A Song for Coretta, memorializing Coretta Scott King. February brings the West Coast premiere of New York performance artist Penny Arcade's Bitch!Dyke!Faghag!Whore!, in March Evren Odcikin directs Sophie Treadwell's 1928 expressionist Machinal, and April boasts two world premieres by local playwrights: Myrick-Hodges directs Brian Thorstenson's Over the Mountain, and Jessica Heidt takes on Molly Rhodes's All the Babies' Fathers. The season wraps up in June with the West Coast premiere of The Beebo Brinker Chronicles, adapted by Kate Moira Ryan and Linda S. Chapman from Ann Bannon's 1950s lesbian pulp novels.
All this is between the 368-seat main stage and the much smaller new 2nd Stage upstairs. Come summer, just in time for next season, Brava hopes to have its long-planned cabaret space next door completed, and then Myrick-Hodges and the Brava staff will have three stages to play with.
"Everyone's like, 'That's very ambitious of you!,'" Myrick Hodges says. "An artistic director in DC about nine years ago said to me, 'So, what do you want to do as a director? What's your main goal?' I said to him that I want to be the producing artistic director of a sensible, midsize theatre company where we have an extensive education program that allows us to create a space for the community. Then he asked me what kinds of plays I liked, and at the end he said, 'That's a lot. That sounds really hard.' I said, 'I'm a black girl who grew up in
She's been making and directing plays since she was a kid, in fact, staging them at home for a paying audience of her peers.
"Some people are called to be priests; I was called to annoy the hell out of my parents," she says. "I did my first play when I was six to the O'Jays song 'Brandy.' I always thought it was about his woman who left him, but it wasn't. When I found out it was about a dog I realized that it had to be produced, because obviously it's very easy to misinterpret, as I explained to my mother at six. I can't remember not wanting to do this for a living. In church I'd write plays for the Christmas pageant, mostly so I didn't have to be in it."
From then on she was hooked, a constant presence in school plays in high school, then studying theatre at the
"I lived here very early out of college, worked at the Exploratorium as an explainer, worked at ACT—that was my first professional job as an intern in stage management," Myrick-Hodges says. "I worked Carey Perloff's first season. I worked on Duchess of Malfi, had a conversation with Mr. Robert Woodruff when he did the flippant director's thing where he takes all the PAs out for drinks. He asked me what did I want to do, and I said I think I really want to direct. He's like, 'Well, this is the last show you're stage managing, then.' And it was."
Now the 38-year-old erstwhile freelance director is landing in the local theatre pool with a huge splash. She's been around the Bay Area off and on for years, directing staged readings and shorts with
"I always wanted to live in
While Brava feels its way toward forming a new artistic identity, Myrick-Hodges is in the happy situation where doing things right translates roughly to doing what she wants.
"I hate the word 'diverse,' and I hate the word 'eclectic,'" she says when asked to define her first season. "I think it's a little bit post-punk-rock. A bold discussion about gentrification. A bold discussion about censorship. A bold discussion about the lack of respect given to African American women who were part of the civil rights movement. This first season is defined by plays I wanted to see. I want to create work that's going to contribute to the canon of work that's being created by theatrical organizations in the Bay Area now. I don't want to be doing what Loretta's doing at the Magic. I don't want to be doing what Carey's doing at ACT or what Tony's doing over at Berkeley Rep. I want it to be a place where they come and see things that might inspire them down the road, not things where they're like, 'Thanks for stealing my idea and doing a weak-ass version of it!' My hope is that we get to be contributory and not competitive."
However much she has on her plate, Myrick-Hodges gives a strong impression of the boundless energy, sharp vision and force of personality needed to pull it off.
"I will always be the kid doing the O'Jays at my mom's house," she says. I will always have that enthusiasm. I will always be excited like that, and I will still throw a temper tantrum 20 minutes before the show because it's never perfect, and then turn around and be proud of it. I'm always going to be that kid. It's not going to change because I've got this job."