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The Disinvited 

How Fences divided a community

Wednesday, Sep 27 2006
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TO A TOWN THAT PRIDES ITSELF on racial sensitivity and cultural bridge building, it was a blunder of almost farcical proportions. On September 1, the Pasadena Playhouse — Southern California’s only major theater with a black artistic director — opened a revival of August Wilson’s African-American classic Fences. The play’s high-powered cast, led by movie heavyweights Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett, guaranteed a huge premiere audience — the biggest, in fact, in the 600-seat Playhouse’s recent history. But there were two problems. The first was that opening night was overbooked and some theatergoers’ reservations were not honored, including those media members who allegedly RSVPed after the 50 pairs of tickets set aside for the press were exhausted. The second was that the most visible group bumped that night were members of Southern California’s African-American press.

These included publishers who’d received complimentary invitations in the mail from the Playhouse to be the theater’s guests on press night. The revocation of these “comps” was clearly an unintended result of the theater combining Fences’ press night with the play’s gala opening. (Many high-profile theaters hold their press nights the evening before.) By the time the curtain went up, nearly everyone who’d arrived at the theater received a seat, but the snafu exposed a raw nerve among black journalists who saw in it confirmation of their second-class status.

“I got that special invitation and RSVPed when I got it,” recalls Natalie Cole, the publisher of Our Weekly, whose target audience includes middle-class and affluent blacks. “A couple of days prior to the opening, they called to confirm and I did.”

click to enlarge Sidewalk critics: Pasadena Playhouse protest
  • Sidewalk critics: Pasadena Playhouse protest

Yet when Cole arrived at the Playhouse, she was told that night’s performance had been overbooked and was directed to an overflow standby line. Cole vehemently objected and was eventually given a pair of tickets to two front-row seats — which turned out to be occupied by a couple holding identical tickets. The seated couple agreed to yield their seats to Cole, who called the mix-up “a cultural reality check.”

At least Dr. Paulette Brown-Hinds, associate publisher of Riverside’s Black Voice News, received a call in advance from the Playhouse requesting that she change her press-reservation date. A few days later, she says, while still deciding when to go, she got a second call claiming that there were now no media tickets available for any performance. But then the Playhouse relented — somewhat.

“On Friday morning,” Brown-Hinds says of September 1, “I received a call from the theater’s Office of External Affairs. The man said, ‘We don’t want to give the impression that the black media isn’t invited — we have some cancellation tickets.’ He offered tickets for anytime during the run, [but] after that it was kind of tainted for me.”

Brian Townsend, who publishes San Bernardino’s Precinct Reporter, felt twice burned — not only had his paper, he claims, donated advertising space to Fences, but he was told that his reservation could not be honored only about 24 hours before the opening. “I was definitely insulted,” Townsend says.

Says black commentator Earl Ofari Hutchinson, who attended opening night without any problems, “It sent a very bad message that even influential African-Americans are disrespected and marginalized. The Pasadena Playhouse owes them a public apology.”

The day before the premiere, attorney Joe C. Hopkins and his wife, Ruthie, who own Pasadena’s only African-American paper, the Pasadena Journal, attacked local cultural institutions in print for not advertising in their paper and, specifically, the Pasadena Playhouse for not buying space for Fences or for the Sheldon Epps Diversity Project, a youth-outreach program named for the Playhouse’s artistic director. The couple organized a small but highly visible opening-night demonstration in front of the theater. They stood next to a signboard asking, “Why does the Pasadena Playhouse discriminate in its advertising purchases against Pasadena’s only black newspaper?” The Hopkinses were joined by the black publishers who, to use their word, had been “disinvited,” receiving quick, curious glances by paparazzi taking pictures of Dennis Hopper and Tyra Banks.

THE PASADENA PLAYHOUSE quickly responded to the Journal’s charges with a press release pointing out the theater’s record of advertising in African-American media (including the Journal), its commitment to diversity and the fact that it is an equal-opportunity employer. The statement did not address the issue of black press members’ having had their opening-night reservations yanked, but the Playhouse forwarded to the Weekly a list of media who attended Fences in the days after opening night. While the implication was that black media were not alone in being admitted to Fences after press night, it may be cold comfort to the Wave, the L.A. Watts Times and others to know that they had to share the same boat with Web sites like willcall.org, TalkinBroadway.com and Theatrescope.com.

The Playhouse’s list also doesn’t show who, if anyone, had his or her original press-night RSVPs changed and who actually requested nights other than September 1. Evan Henerson of the Daily News attended September 2, but told the Weekly he specifically asked for that night. Similarly, the Daily Breeze’s Jeff Favre had requested the September 3 performance instead of opening night. And, while the Playhouse’s list for press who attended after opening night includes members of the Los Angeles Times, the Orange County Register, the Pasadena Weekly and Backstage West, the critics who were reviewing Fences for these publications all got in on opening night.

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