Black theater matters

African Americans infuse Bay Area stages with renewed energy

Black theater matters

When prominent actor-director-educator Margo Hall was recently appointed artistic director of San Francisco’s Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, the news reverberated joyfully throughout the Bay Area theater scene.

Hall, the first female to head the nearly-40-year-old company, is a longtime and much-admired member of the community. She has worked with such stellar companies as Campo Santo (of which she is a founding member), Word for Word, California Shakespeare Theater, American Conservatory Theater and many more, and has taught at University of California, Berkeley, Chabot Community College, ACT’s masters of fine arts program and elsewhere.

Now, she is poised to bring much-needed new and vibrant life to the Hansberry. Alongside African-American Shakespeare Company, AfroSolo and Cultural Odyssey, the Hansberry comprises The City’s contingent of Black-led and focused theaters.

Hall says she’d been approached a few times in the past for the position but had been thinking about it seriously only in the last year or two. “When COVID hit and everyone went inside and then the death of George Floyd happened, I felt the need to shift my focus,” she explains, “to dedicate my time to Black theater and the work of Black artists. It was a big moment of confusion to a lot of people, but actually a moment of clarity to me.”

The company lost its two founders 10 years ago – -both artistic director Stanley E. Williams and executive director Quentin Easter died in 2010—and even before that had lost its prime downtown space.

Formed to produce plays by, about and for African-Americans, it was taken over by local actor-director Steven Anthony Jones until 2017, and more recently by interim artistic directors Aldo Billingslea and then Darryl V. Jones. But over the past decade it has never regained its cachet as it struggled with financial concerns.

For Hall, leading the Hansberry is an opportunity to develop and produce plays by two underrepresented groups: Black female and non-binary playwrights. “There are a lot of new voices in the Black and brown community” since the founders established the theater, she asserts.

Williams and Easter produced such plays as Lydia R. Diamond’s adaptation of Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye,” the works of August Wilson and other Black theater classics and experimental work, including West Coast and world premieres. They named the company after the award-winning playwright who was best known for “A Raisin in the Sun” and was the first Black woman playwright with a work appearing on Broadway. Hall plans to continue the theater’s legacy by focusing on playwrights who reflect the times we’re in right now.

Thomas Robert Simpson, founder and artistic director of the 26-year-old AfroSolo, says, “Stephanie [Shoffner, Hansberry’s executive director] and team have worked hard to shore up the company and bring it back alive [after the pandemic]. The latest move, hiring Margo Hall, is phenomenal.”

His own small company, initially devoted to “giving authentic voice to the Black male experience,” has over time been reaching out into the community in a variety of ways: through solo performances, musical events, educational outreach on issues such as health and justice and financial support and sponsorship for various artists and projects. Simpson is also planning an upcoming Zoom performance of “Black Men Standing in the Light” — in which Black men who have been incarcerated tell their own stories — and a new production of his own solo show, “Courage Under Fire: The Story of Elroy.”

The San Francisco Black company most comparable to the Hansberry in size and artistic mission is the African-American Shakespeare Company. Like AfroSolo, the theater, run by founder-executive director Sherri Young and artistic director L. Peter Callender, is 26 years old. Normally working out of the African-American Cultural Center, it has been homeless since the pandemic.

Young says that when she started the theater, the Lorraine Hansberry was “our ACT, our pinnacle Black theater organization.” Not wanting to compete with the all-powerful and undeniably territorial Williams, she saw a niche that wasn’t being filled — world classics produced and performed by Black theater artists —and created African-American Shakes.

Now, though, Callender and company are looking toward expanding into more contemporary work, including that of emerging playwrights. “It’s exciting that Margo is taking the helm [at the Hansberry],” says Young, anticipating a rewarding relationship between the two companies.

  • Sherri Young founded San Francisco’s African-American Shakespeare Company in 1994 and is its executive director. (Courtesy Lance Huntley)

    Sherri Young founded San Francisco’s African-American Shakespeare Company in 1994 and is its executive director. (Courtesy Lance Huntley)

Pandemic dislocation aside, other challenges exist for Black companies like African-American Shakes and Hansberry. Since Williams and Easter died, points out Young, larger white companies have been doing more and more Black plays: “There’s been this kind of elevation of Black actors working at big houses [such as ACT], but once the job is done, it’s done. [Yet] we [smaller, Black-centric companies] can no longer afford [to hire] them. They’ve turned Equity [joined the actors’ union],” says Young.

There’s another disadvantage for Black theaters seeking to include contemporary Black classics in their repertoire. Back when Young tried to get the rights to Ntozake Shange’s “For Colored Girls …,” play publisher-licenser Samuel French turned her down “to leave the opportunity for another theater [read: big, white] to do it.”

Hall, with her long background in local theater, is fully aware of the challenges ahead, including learning about budgets and finances. “But it’s a great time for me anyhow because there’s no major programming going on,” she says. “It’s amazing how much support has come from this Bay Area community, which is what I love about it.”

She’s hoping to eventually find a home base for the theater — which, prior to the lockdown was performing at the African-American Cultural Center and various other locations — whether in San Francisco or Oakland, and envisions training for designers and playwrights by way of a “huge educational component” that reaches not just young people but seniors as well.

And she’s already started a Theatre Fund for New Black Voices.

Anticipating working with such acclaimed playwrights as local colleague Britney Frazier and nationally known figures Dominique Morisseau, Nambi E. Kelley and others, she also thinks it’s time to showcase plays by 20th-century writers such as Alice Childress and the theater’s namesake, Lorraine Hansberry herself.

But, “part of my mission,” she emphasizes, “is not just about directing a play. It’s about how are we going to lift the community up and invite them into a space where they feel welcome and can see themselves onstage? It’s about community, bringing folks together.”

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