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.”
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.
“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 A FENCES 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.
The Pasadena Journal, which has published for more than 16 years, may not look like promising ground for theater advertisers. It’s a small paper with a 15,000-copy run. The August 31 issue attacking the Playhouse seemed to consist mainly of opinion pieces by Joe Hopkins, fictitious-business-name announcements, and press releases packaged as articles. This particular issue had no theater reviews, nor did the paper’s Web site.
Still, Joe Hopkins maintains that “there are people who only read our paper. Everyone thinks if they buy an ad in the Sentinel, they’ve reached all blacks. Theaters will get more bang for their buck in our paper because we’re a niche paper and we don’t charge as much [as other papers]. We’re not begging, we’re not asking for charity.”
“They don’t take the ethnic press seriously,” says Andre Herndon, editor of the Los Angeles Wave. “We see it with the number of press invitations we receive for events and with the way we’re offered interviews, which is usually in the form of junkets. But our market research has shown us that a lot of our readers get most of their news from us or give us a higher credibility rating than the MNM — the mainstream news media. We go to see everything. I’m black, and my mom’s favorite actor is Will Ferrell.”
THE FENCES FIASCO HAS FORCED into public conversation the privately expressed belief that blacks aren’t interested in plays or films that aren’t African-American–themed.
Joe Hopkins attacked this assumption in his open letter to the Pasadena Arts Council, claiming that “we are consistently ignored, as if we represent the ugly, mentally ill sister who is best kept in the basement.” He asked, rhetorically, if Pasadena’s arts community’s lack of advertising in the black media stems from a desire not to see too many blacks in audiences, “because they don’t know how to act” and “too many of them might cause whites to be uncomfortable.”
Within Hopkins’ charges lurks a visceral accusation — that perhaps cultural venues don’t advertise in black papers because they don’t want black audiences that are perceived as unruly. The Weekly has learned that in the previews leading up to Fences’ opening night, many blacks in the Playhouse were emotionally vocal, calling back to the stage with shouts of “Tell it!” and “You go, girl!” Anyone who’s seen a play produced south of Pico Boulevard — from dramas to chitlin’-circuit farces — is familiar with this participatory tradition, yet one person familiar with the Playhouse organization says it became a source of concern before Fences’ premiere.
The opening-night ticketing spectacle quickly died down, another chapter that will join a collective memory of fact and mythology about race relations in Pasadena and Los Angeles. Today, Joe Hopkins says he is pressing for more dialogue on the issue of getting more advertising for black newspapers in general and, in particular, more work at the Pasadena Playhouse for African-American–owned catering businesses, florists and photographers.
“We went through this in 1992, when we complained to the Tournament of Roses Committee, which then all of a sudden found black businesses to share in the work. It’s been pretty diverse there ever since,” Hopkins says. For now he’s seeking a meeting between the Pasadena Playhouse and local black business leaders. “I’m not asking for a boycott,” Hopkins says.