TBA Online: News & Features: April 2017

Breaking Down Barriers: Black Female Directors In The Bay Area

Sunday, April 30, 2017   (0 Comments)
Posted by: TBA Staff
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by Jia Taylor


When Liesl Tommy received a Tony Award nomination for directing Danai Gurira’s Eclipsed on Broadway, she made theatre history as the first woman of color ever nominated for a Tony for Best Director of a Play.  Eclipsed set another unprecedented moment as the first show in Broadway history to have an all-female, all-black director, cast, and playwright—fitting for a production that chronicles the resilience of five women in unbelievable circumstances. 

While theatre appears to be experiencing a golden age of diversity, there is still a large disparity between the number of women and men that direct shows. According to Playbill, of the approximately 30 new Broadway productions announced for the 2016–2017 season, only six are being directed by women, an alarming number considering that women make up more than half of theatre audiences.  

But the success of Eclipsed, which just completed an acclaimed run at San Francisco’s Curran Theatre, reflects a growing excitement for stories told from a black, female perspective. In anticipation of the stories to come, I sat down with Margo Hall, Edris Cooper-Anifowoshe, Velina Brown, Dawn Monique Williams and Ayodele Nzinga—five black, female Bay Area directors to keep on your radar. 


Margo Hall   

Photo by Lisa Keating

Known for: Founding member of Campo Santo

What type of stories she’s drawn to: “I’m drawn to stories that will cause the audience to change in some way, open people’s minds.  I like the deep, gritty plays that ask the hard questions.  Of course, I like plays that are about the African American experience because I can relate to that but I feel it should be something that challenges the audience; even sometimes makes them feel uncomfortable. I don’t shy away from anything that’s shocking.”

What is the perception of African American female directors: “The perception that sometimes we can only direct black plays and then when you see us direct something else you go ‘wow, oh okay’… and it’s like why?  Why would you think that? Especially if we’ve had the same level of education.  We have the same feelings, we have the same desires, we have the same sorrows.”  

What she thinks about non-blacks directing black plays: “This is what I tell my students about directing something you’re not familiar with: your goal is to surround yourself with people who understand that culture.  I had a student who loved A Raisin in the Sun and she was Irish.  Then one of my students who is white said she can’t direct this play.  I said she can direct it but she needs to make sure she is surrounded by African Americans who she is willing to listen to.  A director is a visionary but they don’t have all the answers so you have to be open enough to say I don’t understand this. That’s the problem I feel when white directors take on diverse plays and they feel that when they’ve done some research they understand it and it’s like no you will never understand it more than me just like I will never understand something more than someone who’s lived an Irish life.”  

What has been her biggest challenge: “I felt like early on, my biggest challenge was directing men.  I encountered a couple of guys who just had certain ideas about a woman telling them what to do.  But I’m also from Detroit (laughs) and I have a thing that with all my niceness and being collaborative, I don’t allow anyone to disrespect me.  So for me, I think probably convincing people that I am a legitimate director.  I feel like I’ve done work that could have been on anyone’s stage, Berkeley Rep, A.C.T. but I don’t know how they see me as a director.”  

What’s up next: “I’m directing a play called Brownsville Song (B-side for Tray) for Shotgun Players, which is a beautiful play by an Asian playwright name Kimber Lee.  Then I’m going to be [acting in] Black Odyssey by Marcus Gardley at Cal Shakes and then I’m directing Barbecue by Robert O’Hara at SF Playhouse.” 


Edris Cooper-Anifowoshe

Photo by Anastacia Powers Cuellar

Known for: Founder and artistic director of Black Artists Contemporary Cultural Experience (BACCE)

What she looks for in a play: “I like a story that speaks to the moment we’re in right now, even if it’s an old revisited script, or if it has something to say about the moment we’re in socially or politically, I’m drawn to it right away.  If I pick up a script and I really hate it or I’m intrigued or if I don’t understand it, I’m drawn to it. If a play pisses me off or gets that kind of reaction from me, there must something valuable there.”

How she describes her directorial style: My style is very processual.  I like the process of acting; I’ve studied the process of acting and I’ve actually written papers on the process of acting and what acting does to the actor – how it either diminishes or fulfills the life they’re living.  I’m very much into details.  Everything you do on stage from the way you hold your fork I feel conveys information to the audience so you want to make sure that information is full.”  

What are some stereotypes about black female directors:  “They have so many ideas about us.  They put us in a little box. Every time we direct, we open up a new window into how diverse in thought we are.  Because in the culture, black women are mothers, that’s a huge stereotype that we get pegged in no matter what we do, where we go.” 

What has been her biggest challenge: “You’re black and you’re a woman and you just don’t have the trust; sometimes it’s gender, sometimes it’s both. I almost think it’s more gender than race for directing because we don’t see women as leaders.  Women get one chance to fail.  Men can fail over and over again and can have five bad reviews and keep getting bigger opportunities. Women have one bad review and they’re back to self-producing.” 

What’s up next: Type/Caste [a solo show by Rotimi Agbabiaka about acting while black and queer], which I directed, just got invited to the National Black Theatre Festival in North Carolina.  Brava has just restrengthened their commitment to [BACCE] and so we’ve been charged with putting together a series of plays that look back at the production of black art over the last 30 years in the Bay Area … and I’m directing Walls, a new musical for the San Francisco Mime Troupe this summer.”    


 Velina Brown 

Photo by Lois Tema

Known for: 25 years as a collective member with the San Francisco Mime Troupe

What kind of theatre she likes: “There’s art that encourages you to stay asleep and art that encourages you to be awake so I like the ‘awake.’  There are things that maintain and support the status quo and things that question and challenge the status quo.  We’re at a point now more than ever, we need people to be awake and engaged and present and accounted for.”

What she likes about directing: “When I directed Cinderella at African American Shakespeare Company, I made the decision that I was going to have Cinderella have natural hair.  When she makes the transition from the poor little girl covered in cinders (that’s why her name is Cinderella), her hair stays natural, she’s not going to suddenly come out with it all ‘op-pressed.’  Because I wanted to make that statement that when she’s revealed as the beautiful vision, her hair is natural because that’s beautiful too.  There are so many ways you can talk about things and provide imagery that is nourishing where it’s normally missing for us.” 

How African American women directors are impacting theatre: “None of them are people who are going through the motions and as my grandmother would say ‘just making the day.’ They all know how important it is every time they get a chance, every time they’re up to bat.  You don’t have the luxury to just coast or phone it in because everything that we do, we are representing everybody. And so every single time, they’re bringing it in the work that they do.”

What has been her biggest challenge: “People hire who they’re used to working with.  And so it keeps going around in a circle that way.  As you go into the bigger and bigger theatres and there are fewer and fewer people of color, that just keeps getting reinforced. It’s like each individual situation, there’s a story for why but after a while when it’s a pattern, you say well we need to take a look at this.”

What’s up next:  “My very next project is Mime Troupe.  Every Mime Troupe summer show is a world premiere addressing current events from the perspective of people who work for a living. This one called Walls, written by Michael Gene Sullivan, is about immigration and health care. In October, I’m going to New York for an album release and I’ll be performing at Joe’s Pub with a Brooklyn-based ensemble called Barbez; I’ve done some performances with them for the celebration of the Abraham Lincoln brigade.”  


 Dawn Monique Williams 

Photo by Jordyn Williams

Known for: Resident artist at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and a 2016 Princess Grace Foundation Theatre Fellowship Award winner.

What it’s like being a woman of color directing Shakespeare: “A lot of people aren’t looking for us in the way I think they should be.  People default to who they know so even when it’s a play that might be written by a black author, written by a black woman, written by a woman, they still might hire a white man to direct the play.  It’s even tenfold when it comes to the classic plays because there are a lot of people who believe they are the authority on Shakespeare so I have to pitch very hard to get those opportunities to do the classic plays.  When you see a theatre doing Suzan-Lori Parks’ Venus and they haven’t hired a black woman to do this play, I don’t understand how in 2017 you wouldn’t hire a black woman.  So, we don’t have the agency to tell the plays that are written about our own bodies but I also can’t direct The Cherry Orchard or Shakespeare either. Where do I fit then in the new you of storytelling? It’s very discouraging.” 

How African American women directors are impacting theatre: “I feel like I have a really strong sisterhood of other women directors and especially women of color directors who when they get offered a gig and can’t take it, they recommend the next woman of color for the job.  That we’re sharing each other’s names, we’re advocating for one another, we’re promoting one another—I feel very supported in that sense of sisterhood.  For the sisters who are getting in the door, I feel a strong sense that they are keeping that door propped open, they have put their shoes right there, they have wedged that door and let me know I left that door open for you to come through.” 

What inspires her: “My daughter is a great inspiration to me in my spirit as a human but also in my artmaking because I’m so fascinated by the way she sees the world, what her logic is, how these young people are different from us.  In retrospect, like oh my gosh what my mother must have felt! It’s so eye opening to try and see the world from her perspective.”

What has been her biggest challenge: “One of the things about being a director is sometimes the anonymity and how there’s good and bad that comes along with that anonymity. I could be walking through this small town where I am [Williams is currently in Ashland, Oregon directing for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival] and people aren’t stopping me at the grocery store the way they do the actors.  But also, I don’t fit the image of who people think a director is so sometimes in the theatre at my own show, I am treated as if I don’t know how to behave in a theatre, as if I don’t have theatre etiquette.  Nobody assumes that I’m a theatre professional so that’s sometimes a little disheartening, and that’s just when I enter the space as a patron.”  

What’s up next: “I am in rehearsals for Merry Wives of Windsor at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival that will open in June.  Then in July I will go to Chautauqua Theatre Company to direct Romeo and Juliet, which is my favorite play ever. Then in the fall, I’ll be back in the Bay Area directing Paula Vogel’s A Civil War Christmas at Town Hall Theatre in Lafayette.” 


Ayodele Nzinga 

Photo by Kevin Neptune Jenkins

Known for: Founding Director of the Lower Bottom Playaz and the only director in the world to direct August Wilson’s Century Cycle in chronological order. 

How she got into theatre: “I remember my mother asking me one time when I was 14 or 15 what did I want to do and I said I wanted to be an actress and being a black mother who loved her child, she disabused me of that notion; she literally told me that’s not something black women do so she suggested I be a teacher because black women were allowed to be teachers.  But I was not very interested in being a teacher so she told me to pick something else, and I decided I needed to be the president then because if black women couldn’t be actors, then there was a problem.  That was that period of time of trying to do other things because that’s what people expected you to do, that’s how you could make a living. And I found my way back to art because I firmly believe that’s what God whispered in my ear right before I took my first breath. It’s the language that I think in.” 

What it’s like being a woman of color directing Shakespeare: “I was really popular for taking Shakespeare and adapting it to right now and this moment setting it in black neighborhoods in West Oakland to make it more relevant to the audience I was courting—which was an audience that didn’t necessarily value theatre or had not experienced it or perhaps theatre as they knew about it was somehow irrelevant to them.  So when I put them in the play, then it changed.  Literally, by putting actors who are at risk or actors who had no pathway to moving forward in the industry and training these actors and taking stories that were huge stories and housed in a very site specific way in a marginalized neighborhood, that got to be my trademark.” 

Her favorite thing about theatre in the Bay Area: “In the Bay Area, there are different thoughts about the role of theatre in society. You find things like Campo Santo, the African American Shakespeare Company, Ubuntu from San Jose State, Brava—there are all of these people who understand the inherent power of theatre and the inherent power of art to inspire reality so there is no shortage of places to find your way into production or artistic activity.  There is so much energy in some of these smaller houses. I think you can see almost every kind of theatre here in the Bay and I think we’re a force to be reckoned with and what’s going on in Oakland in terms of the breadth and depth of small companies would really be astounding if folks paid attention.”

What has been her biggest challenge: “Our company is entering its 18th season and I find it very difficult sometimes to get funding for the type of work we do.  If the work doesn’t have to do with what I call a human spirit or the making visible of invisible narratives; if not a story through a black lens, I’m really not interested because there are plenty of other spaces to tell those other kinds of stories. I have a black lens and sometimes because I’m very vocal about that lens, I find it difficult to find funding.  We, like all other small companies in Oakland, are always precariously continuing to exist because of lack of funding and availability of affordable venues so it’s a labor of love in many ways in being a full-time theatre maker.” 

What’s up next: “I [just did] Overnight, which is a trilogy of 3 plays that all answer the question what would you do if a huge building appeared in your neighborhood overnight?  The piece that I wrote for Lower Bottom Playaz is called Ticky. Ticky. Boom!  Then we do a pre-summer camp and kids 5-18 can learn how to act on stage and then we move into our project Beyond the Bars: Growing Home, which focuses on those affected by incarceration.”