By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
“I was aware there was an overflow response to opening night,” says Sheldon Epps, the Pasadena Playhouse’s artistic director. “We had to call many people who had comps to request they move to another night.”
Indeed, the probability of an overbooked premiere was known within the Playhouse well before opening night, according to a person familiar with the theater who wished to remain anonymous. There was a growing celebrity buzz about the event, especially after a rumor spread that Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes would be coming, although the couple did not attend that night. Even the after-show party, sponsored by Ruth’s Chris Steak House, was overbooked, and invitees were turned away.
Epps says he is “annoyed and dismayed” by the charges that have been made by the Hopkinses and others. It’s easy to see why. Fences, which he directed, is the Pasadena Playhouse’s biggest-selling show ever and should be a crowning achievement for both Epps and the Playhouse. And, against conventional wisdom, he has successfully transformed the theater, which, when he assumed control of it in 1997, had become an irrelevancy — a white-shoed, blue-haired venue adrift in a sea of demographic and artistic changes. He has accomplished this with a program that balances black plays and musicals with controversial “white” works such as John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt and David Hare’s The Blue Room. The effect has been to bring in more African-American audience members without provoking white flight from his theater.
“Obviously, what happened was not racially motivated,” he says. “The problem is that you give away a lot of free tickets on opening night, and you overbook because people who are comped will decide not to come. But everyone responded. We were in an awkward situation.”
Reactions to the opening-night snafu have been relatively mild, perhaps because Epps is also one of a very few examples of someone who runs a large, non–African-American institution and who himself happens to be black. Yet that status cuts both ways, and some of his critics within the roughly dozen and a half black newspapers that print from here to San Diego clearly believe the happens-to-be-black part has isolated Epps and made him aloof from their readers.
“Sheldon Epps has been missing in action in the black community,” says Dr. Gerda Govine, a friend of the Hopkinses who is listed as a contributing writer on the Journal’s masthead. “African-Americans and Latinos may work at the Playhouse, but they have no power. They don’t walk the talk.”
Lena Kennedy, district coordinator for Assemblywoman Carol Liu, is a founding member of the Sheldon Epps Diversity Project but acknowledges the theater’s image problem among African-Americans. “The Pasadena Playhouse is perceived as a white institution,” she says. As bad as the perceived ticket snub was for members of the black press, far more serious to them is the ongoing absence of advertising from the mostly white-run arts community and entertainment industry — an issue that reflects the wide gulf in racial perceptions in America today. This became evident in what might seem to be an insignificant tale of miscommunication between the Playhouse and the Pasadena Journal, but which speaks of the larger anxiety and anger felt by a black business community that sees itself continually marginalized in the marketplace.
The Hopkinses firmly believe that the Playhouse agreed to place an ad in their paper for its production of Fences and that Kennedy assured them it would run; they say they twice held space for the ad until past the Journal’s ad-copy deadline but never received it. Both Kennedy and Ken Novice, the Playhouse’s director of external affairs, say that the ad was a one-time placement for the Diversity Project–sponsored August 29 preview of Fences. Novice suggests that ultimately “the funding did not materialize” for the ad. It was this misunderstanding that prompted the Hopkinses’ protest.
OUR WEEKLY DID RECEIVE AFENCES AD, but black publishers and editors interviewed for this article all agree with the Pasadena Journal’s owners that mainstream cultural and entertainment organizations and companies underadvertise in their publications and that when they do advertise, it is usually only for black-oriented films or plays.
“All across the board, corporate America does not respect the black dollar,” says Melanie Polk, the publisher and owner of the L.A. Watts Times. Polk, who claims she was also disinvited without explanation to Fences’ opening night, says, “They’ll have justifications every which way, but the quick answer is that racism is alive and well.”
Here again, perceptions cleave along racial lines. Whites can argue that a theater is a business and should advertise only where it feels it will get the biggest response for its ad dollar. To buy ad space in a publication with little chance for bringing in audiences is an act of guilt-assuaging charity and looks like a donation rather than a business investment. Likewise, it makes more sense to ensure that large-circulation papers attend opening nights at the expense of publishers and editors of small periodicals that may not be reviewing the plays.
To people like Gerda Govine, however, it’s a matter of “leveling the playing field.” Members of the African-American media see themselves, as Our Weekly’s Cole says, “in the forefront of the black community,” with their publications exerting far more political and economic influence than their circulations would suggest.