Category Archives: racism

One sentence that seared a book, highlighted a play, and inspired a young playwright

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Darius R. Booker, Morgan Camper, and Derek Jackson in “Gunshot Medley”

by Dionna Michelle Daniel

“I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.”

This sentence has stuck with me since the first time I read Claudia Rankine’s book, Citizen: An American Lyric. That sentence has been a jumping-off point and inspiration for the current play that I am currently developing.

I feel most colored

I first encountered Claudia Rankine’s Citizen while a BFA at the California Institute of the Arts. That year, I was taking a class on hybrid writing with a bunch of MFA creative writers. Although I felt slightly out of place from my comfort of theater knowledge, I was determined to get my minor in creative writing. Even though Rankine’s Citizen functions as a hybrid text, at the time it wasn’t on the course reading materials. However, that didn’t stop it from being spoken about almost every other class. This was also around the time when there were the headlines of the black woman reading Citizen at a Trump rally.  In the video, you see angry Trump supporters tap the woman on the shoulder, signaling that it is rude for her to not be complicit in Trump’s nonsense. It is rude for her to read. The woman’s response is one of the most epic things you will every see. She shrugs of the bitter rally attendees and continues to read her book. From that point on, it was clear to me that this book was a symbol of resistance and strength. I had to get my hands on a copy.

It’s funny how life happens. I began working at the Fountain Theatre in the Fall of 2017 and had no idea that Stephen Sachs had adapted a stage adaptation of the book. As a fan of this brilliant book and also a theatre nerd, I was excited to see this work brought to life and inhabited in the bodies of actors. I got my chance to see the performance at Grand Park on April 29th and needless to say, I was beyond moved. There is something about hearing those words spoken and coming from a black body that makes the text sink in that much deeper. The actors, all giving a beautiful performance, showed the pain & confusion that happens when constantly faced with microaggressions and systemic oppression. And when the lines, “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background” were spoken, I was overwhelmed by the weight of this sentence. Felt the weight right in my chest.

This message of this book and the stage adaptation correlates to the work that I am trying to flesh out in my own writing. Currently, I am developing a Part 2 to my play Gunshot Medley. The second part will take place in the present day and I’ m most interested in the idea of what happens to the black psyche after being faced with the trauma of seeing so many killings of black men on our phone screens. When does it stop? When can we heal? And if we look at the black body as a vessel, how much can it hold before it snaps and breaks?

Dionna Michelle Daniel is the Outreach Coordinator at the Fountain Theatre

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Tell me your story on how confronting “the other” led to deeper understanding

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An embrace at a rally in Gainesville, Florida

by Dionna Michelle Daniel

Several summers ago, I had one of the strangest morning commute experiences of my life.

I was working as a spoken word mentor to youth at Authoring Action Organization in Winston-Salem, NC. Every morning I’d ride my bike to the closest bus stop which was near the super Wal-Mart, wait around for the 7:40 bus, and travel across town to work. North Carolina summer mornings are particularly beautiful with the sun rising over a completely green landscape, the thickness of the humid air and the dew still sprinkled among the grass. Those bike rides became my daily ritual.

swatiska tatoo 2One morning I arrived at the bus stop to be met by a man completely covered head to toe in tattoos. The subject matter of his tattoos were of the white supremacist variety. He was completely bald and on the back of his head sat a large swastika. His arms and chest were also decorated in the Confederate flag. Not only did I feel uncomfortable as a black young woman who I had to be alone with this man, waiting for a late bus, but then it got even stranger when he decided to engage in small talk with me. He went on to talk about his past, how everyone he grew up with was a racist, how he became a skinhead, how he went to jail and how he realized his beliefs were awful after truly meeting and empathizing with people of color. He went on to say that he kept the tattoos as a reminder of his transformation and that people can change.

The bus eventually came and as I struggled to put my bike on the rack, he helped me out and then we parted ways. Why this man felt the need to tell me these things so early on hot humid morning, I have no idea. What I do know is that if this same man tried to have this conversation with me today, I’m not sure I would have engaged or listened.

After Trump was elected, I unapologetically deleted a slew of old Facebook friends. A lot of the ones deleted where old middle & high school classmates that I knew growing up in rural North Carolina. Now my Facebook feed is completely curated to a more liberal, anti-Trump demographic with the occasional far-right article that somehow finds it way onto my news feed. At that time, it was great to delete all of those people from my life. However, I’m sure they still say problematic things and are complicit to hate speech. The only thing that changed after deleting them was that I don’t have to view their rhetoric.

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“Gunshot Medley” by Dionna Michelle Daniel

As an artist and activist, I am interested in humanity’s capacity to change. I’m interested in transforming hearts & minds in a way that has lasting impact like the former skinhead I met at the bus stop. That’s why I believe that for real change to begin the divide has to be bridged and discourse must happen. I’m not saying that we should re-add every problematic person we deleted from Facebook after the 2016 elections. Neither should we try to humanize every racist, misogynist, xenophobe or any other person who doesn’t believe in a more diverse future. What I do believe is that if we keep ignoring one another, we will definitely keep the divide polarized. Beginning some sort of dialogue is the best way to bridge the gap. And the best way I know how to contribute to this conversation is through theatre.

At the Fountain, our current season is dedicated to inclusion and awareness of people who are generally marked as “other”. Our current show, The Chosen, focuses on two boys forming an unlikely friendship that all started because of their love of baseball. This summer, we will open an original work by Stephen Sachs called Arrival & Departure, which beautifully recognizes and brings attention to the Deaf community. That will be followed by the west coast premiere of Cost of Living, Martyna Majok’s poignant play dramatizing two characters with physical disabilities.

Our mission is to share diverse stories, break down barriers and bridge the divide. Now it’s your turn to tell me your story. I want to know about an experience when you bridged the gap and shared a moment/bonded with a person who was different from you.  Please email your story to me at dionna@fountaintheatre.com and perhaps we can share it here on the Fountain Blog.

Dionna Michelle Daniel is the Outreach Coordinator at the Fountain Theatre. 

 

From rejection pile to Pulitzer Prize: Women of color rise to take stage as playwrights nationwide

 

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Vickie Ramirez, unidentified, Nikkole Salter, Roberta Uno, Dionna Michelle Daniel, Marissa Chibas, Lynn Nottage (photo: ArtsChangeUs)

by Dionna Michelle Daniel

On March 6th, I had the pleasure of participating in the book launch at The Public Theater for the anthology Contemporary Plays by Women of Color edited by Roberta Uno. Not only was a scene from my play, Gunshot Medley, performed that afternoon but I also performed onstage with my actors Derek Jackson & Morgan Camper. 

Gunshot Medley stretches across the Antebellum American south through present day to weave a rich history of the Black-American experience, responding to the historical expendability of Black bodies and the lives lost to hatred, racism, and police brutality. I first wrote the play in response to the Charleston church shootings and the debate surrounding the insensitive usage of the Confederate flag. The play, combining spoken word and live music, sheds new light on the American slave narrative while paying homage to the real Betty, Alvis, and George, three historically documented slaves that died in North Carolina before the emancipation proclamation was signed.

After the selected scene performances, such playwrights included in the anthology as Lynn Nottage, Marissa Chibas, Nikkole Salter, Vickie Ramirez and I signed books in The Public Theater’s lobby. The energy in the room was magnetic and powerful with so many women taking up that kind of space. 

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Vickie Ramirez, Dionna Michelle Daniel, Marissa Chibas, Oskar Eustis (photo: ArtsChangeUs)

None of this would have been possible without the genius of Roberta Uno (Director of Arts in a Changing America). Roberta edited the 1st and 2nd editions of the anthology, the 1st edition being published a little over 20 years ago with such playwrights as Anna Deavere Smith and Elizabeth Wong. I even remember discovering the 1st edition in my undergraduate library while perusing the shelves, hoping to find work that represented me. As a young undergraduate actress at the California Institute of the Arts, I was thankful to have instructors such as Nataki Garrett and Marissa Chibas who aided in helping me find material I could relate to.

However, I know this is not the case for every young person of color (POC) actor and actress who is currently seeking a degree in acting. So often, I’ve heard my fellow black actors at other institutions talk about not knowing any contemporary black material they can do scene work from. They say that their instructor is usually giving them material from August Wilson’s body of work. Although August Wilson’s work is beautiful and presents the African-American experience in such a deep and profound way, it appears we have forgotten there are other great black writers out there. And, of these overlooked black playwrights, it is the women who are most forgotten.

At the book launch, Roberta Uno spoke about how she acquired a lot of the material for this current anthology. She said she spoke to many theaters and artistic directors asking for their rejection piles. It was clear to her that in this rejection pile was where most of the work submitted by women playwrights resided.

On the bright side, it seems that the theater world is embracing more female playwrights and stories. While I was in NYC that week, I witnessed Soho Rep’s production of Aleshea Harris’s play Is God Is. Not only did I have a mind-blowing experience, but I was in awe and so proud of this all-black cast telling such an epic tale by a young black female playwright. 

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“Is God Is” at Soho Rep.

Is God Is is a fascinating piece of theater because it mixes so many genres: Afro-Punk, Spaghetti Westerns, and experimental theatre all into one cohesive piece. I read the play on my flight to NYC and Harris’s use and experimentation with language completely breaks new ground. Even the way that the actors embodied this text was refreshing and eye-opening. It really inspired me as a young playwright to see other black female writers getting recognition for pushing the boundaries of what a play “can” or “should” be. Harris was actually the first winner of The Relentless Award, which was established to honor actor Philip Seymour Hoffman. The American Playwriting Foundation’s website says, “The Relentless Award is the largest annual cash prize in the American Theater awarded to a playwright in recognition of a new play.”

Also, in the past year, women of color playwrights have been killing the game in other avenues. Dominique Morisseau’s Ain’t Too Proud broke Berkeley Rep’s house record in 2017 and currently, CTG and LATC have produced all three plays in Quiara Alegeria Hudes’s Elliot trilogy. It is quite evident that times are changing.  And in the words of Maxine Waters, it appears women of color playwrights are indeed, #ReclaimingOurTime!

Dionna Michelle Daniel is a playwright and the Outreach Coordinator at the Fountain Theatre.

 

 

Fountain Theatre’s ‘Citizen: An American Lyric’ to highlight new LA arts festival at Grand Park

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‘Citizen: An American Lyric’ at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, 2017.

The Fountain Theatre’s critically acclaimed and award-winning stage adaptation of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric has been chosen as the centerpiece of a new festival celebrating the diversity and excellence of the arts in Los Angeles. The festival, called Our L.A. Voices, will be launched April 27 – 29, 2018, in downtown Los Angeles at Grand Park. 

Envisioned as an annual “best of L.A. arts festival,” this free, three-day performing and visual arts showcase will bring dance, music and theatre performances as well as visual artwork by L.A. artists to Grand Park every spring. Grand Park’s Our L.A. Voices will serve as a home for L.A. artists, underlining Grand Park’s commitment to L.A.’s creative communities.

The Fountain Theatre’s production of Citizen: An American Lyric has been chosen to represent excellence in Los Angeles theatre.  The compelling play about racism in America will be the culmination of both evenings on Friday April 27th and Saturday April 28th, both performances at 8pm, serving as the centerpiece for the multi-arts festival.

Stephen Sachs’ stage adaptation of Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine won the 2016 Stage Raw Theatre Award for Best Adaptation, declaring it “a transcendent theatrical experience.The Los Angeles Times hailed it as “powerful”, highlighting it as Critic’s Choice. The production was chosen by Center Theatre Group for its first Block Party celebration of intimate theatre in Los Angeles at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in 2017.

Director Shirley Jo Finney returns to direct the Grand Park outdoor production. Original cast members Bernard K. Addision, Leith Burke, Tony Maggio, Monnae Michaell, Lisa Pescia will be joined by Adenrele Ojo. The original design team — Yee Eun Nam (set and video), Pablo Santiago (lighting), Peter Bayne (sound), Naila Aladdin-Sanders (costumes) — also return with production stage manager Shawna Voragen. 

“In the sprawling Los Angeles metropolis, Grand Park provides both a place and a reason for Angelenos to come together to experience the arts and each other in ways they never have before,” said Rachel Moore, president and CEO of The Music Center.   

Grand Park is a 12-acre urban oasis nestled between The Music Center and City Hall. Operated by The Music Center, the park features fountains, outdoor dining, recreation, sprawling lawns and an outdoor stage. That stage will be the center platform for the Our L.A. Voices Arts Festival, highlighting the variety and high quality of L.A.-based artists and companies.  The weekend-long event will feature music, dance, theatre, spoken word poetry and fine art. Food trucks will offer savory menus of LA cuisine. 

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Grand Park, Los Angeles.

“It’s an honor for the Fountain Theatre to be representing Los Angeles theatre at this exciting new arts festival,” beams Co-Artistic Director Stephen Sachs. “We’re proud to be partnering with the Music Center and Grand Park to celebrate the diversity and artistic excellence of our city.” 

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Dionna Michelle Daniel joins Fountain Theatre to plant seeds for social change

Dionna Michelle Daniel

Dionna Michelle Daniel

Greetings! I am Dionna Michelle Daniel and I am excited to announce that I have joined The Fountain Theatre as the new Outreach Coordinator. At The Fountain, I will be focusing on educational programming and community engagement.

In May, I graduated from the California Institute of the Arts with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Acting and a minor in Creative Writing. I am coming to the Fountain after a month-long run at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival of my new play Gunshot MedleyGunshot Medley stretches across the Antebellum American south through present day to weave a rich history of the Black-American experience, blending poetry and song to respond to the historical expendability of Black bodies and the lives lost to hatred, racism, and police brutality. At the Fringe it received four 5 out of 5 star reviews and ultimately became a crowd favorite.

While at The Fountain, I will also be working as a youth instructor teaching creative writing at the Boyle Heights Arts Conservatory through CAP. Building a nurturing community for young artists and educating students is one of my personal missions, so I am excited to embark on helping expand The Fountain’s educational program, Theatre as a Learning Tool.

Theater that is rooted in social activism has always been a passion of mine. I believe that art, especially live performance, has the potential to dramatically change hearts and minds. Theater has the ability to plant the seeds of empathy, inquiry, and discussion. From those seeds, real social change begins.

Fountain stands for social and political theatre in LA with ‘Building the Wall’ and ‘Citizen’

CITIZEN WALL layout

That Was The Week That Was was a satirical television show in the early 1960’s that brought focus to social and political issues of the day. The Fountain Theatre may look back on this current week, May 1 – May 7 in 2017, and brand it the same name. This week, in an unplanned juncture of synchronicity, the Fountain Theatre has two acclaimed productions running simultaneously in Los Angeles — one at its 78-seat Hollywood home on Fountain Avenue, the other at the 300-seat Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City —  each dramatizing in mesmerizing fashion the urgent issues of race, injustice, and politics.

The Fountain’s National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere of Building the Wall by Robert Schenkkan was a smash hit the moment it opened in March at the intimate Fountain Theatre, selling out weeks in advance.  Set in the near future, the powerful new drama unfolds as a man awaits sentencing in a federal prison for carrying out the orders of Trump’s national policy to round-up and detain immigrants by the millions.    

 

Meanwhile, across town at the mid-sized Kirk Douglas Theatre, the Fountain’s acclaimed and award-winning encore production of Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine, adapted for the stage by Stephen Sachs, is galvanizing audiences. The centerpiece of Center Theatre Group‘s inaugural Block Party celebrating intimate theatre in Los Angles, Citizen is a searing, poetic riff on race in America based on the best-selling book.   

 

“To have these two important, meaningful productions running concurrently, one in an intimate theatre and the other in a mid-sized venue, is extraordinary,” says Fountain Co-Artistic Director Stephen Sachs. “It exemplifies who we are, what we do, and why we do it.”

Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Robert Schenkkan agrees. “Both Citizen and Building the Wall deal with the issue of race and the fundamental question of who is it we mean when we say, ‘We, the people,'” explains Schenkkan. “For more than twenty five years, the Fountain Theatre has been presenting exhilarating, necessary theater, wrestling with the most pressing social and political issues of the day.” 

LA Stage Alliance Executive Director Steven Leigh Morris points out that this week is no anomaly. Morris notes, “That the Fountain Theatre has two productions running simultaneously — one at its home space in East Hollywood and the other at the Kirk Douglas Theatre as part of Center Theatre Group’s Block Party program — is a testament to the rigor and meticulous artistry that has been part of The Fountain tradition for twenty-seven years.”

By all accounts, this is an unforgettable week for the Fountain. We vow to continue our commitment to create, develop and produce meaningful new plays that bring to life urgent issues, week after week, for many years to come. 

Tickets/Info BUILDING THE WALL

Tickets/Info CITIZEN: AN AMERICAN LYRIC

Director Shirley Jo Finney: The healing power of ‘Citizen: An American Lyric’

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Lisa Pescia, Leith Burke, Bernard K. Addison, Monnae Michaell, Tony Maggio  in The Fountain Theatre production of “Citizen: An American Lyric” at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. Photo by Craig Schwartz.

The journey of veteran director Shirley Jo Finney to the Kirk Douglas Theatre’s Block Party with The Fountain Theatre’s Citizen: An American Lyric began two and a half years ago, when Fountain co-Artistic Director Stephen Sachs called to ask her if she had read Claudia Rankine’s New York Times bestseller Citizen. Or maybe it began in 1997, when Finney directed her first of eight works at the Fountain. Or perhaps decades earlier when, as a recent MFA graduate of UCLA, Finney participated in Center Theatre Group’s New Work Festival at the Mark Taper Forum. Or really long before that, when Finney grew up in a segregated neighborhood and attended all-white schools where she was the only person of color.

In 2015, Sachs told Finney he was considering adapting Citizen for the stage, and that she was the right director for the project. “I read it, and I went, ‘Oh, this is my life,'” said Finney, recognizing her own experiences of “walking through and navigating those torrential waters of mainstream America when you are a person of color or ‘other,’ and what you have to swallow in order to survive.”

Citizen premiered at the Fountain in August 2015; last summer, Finney directed it again at the Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, South Carolina, just one year after the city was devastated by a deadly assault that took the lives of nine African-Americans at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Every performance was followed by a discussion with the audience. “We felt it was necessary while that community was still healing and that wound was oozing,” said Finney.

There will also be Stage & Audience Talks after every performance at the Douglas, where Citizen is onstage April 28 – May 7, 2017. Citizen touched audiences deeply in Los Angeles in 2015, but much has changed since then—for the cast and crew and for the audience.

The Fountain Theatre production of "Citizen: An American Lyric," at Center Theatre Group's Kirk Douglas Theatre, Culver City, America - 30 April 2017

Shirley Jo Finney

“As human beings we’ve been living our lives…we all evolve,” said Finney of herself and the company. “At the same time, in those two years, there has been a transformation in the collective. I’m interested to see, now, how it’s going to land with our audiences. Because what was maybe specific to a tribe has now expanded…something has been awakened, because ‘the other,’ now, is everyone.” The election, said Finney, “fractured what our belief system is about being an American and being a citizen, and what that culpability and responsibility is.” She added, “Not only do you have to say, ‘What does it mean to be a citizen?’ But also, ‘What does it mean to be a human being?'”

The re-staging at the Douglas offers an opportunity for the show to make a bigger impact in other ways as well. “My designer is excited because we have the height now onstage that we didn’t have in the [Fountain]. Our projections are going to have the impact that we wanted to have,” said Finney.

“I think it’s a healing piece with a historical narrative, and we need it at this point in time,” she concluded. “When you look at what we need as human beings, the three things, if you cut everything away, are: we need to be seen, we need to feel nurtured, and we need to feel safe. Citizen, I think, makes us aware and opens that space for that healing to begin.”

Citizen: An American Lyric is now playing at the Kirk Douglas Theatre to May 7th.

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This post originally appeared in CTG News & Blogs