Chucho Valdés, Jazz Batá, and the Evolution of Afro-Cuban Jazz

A look at the emergence of Afro-Cuban jazz and its spread to the US and Canada.

By the 1940s, the stage was set for the birth of a new kind of jazz. In the United States, big band orchestras had been including Latin rhythms in their jazz tunes, as well as rumbas and congas in their repertoires, and many Cuban musicians were traveling regularly to play in cities like New York and New Orleans. Others immigrated, especially to New York. Meanwhile, Cuba had become well-known as a playground for U.S. tourists. Travel to the island was easy, alcohol flowed freely (it was prohibited at home), and casinos and live entertainment were in abundance.

Mario Bauzá, who emigrated from Cuba to the US in 1930, is usually held up as the pioneer of Afro-Cuban jazz. In 1943, as director of the New York big band Machito and the Afro-Cubans, he composed “Tanga,” considered by many musical historians to be the genre’s first single. This new style consisted of jazz with Afro-Cuban rhythms including the clave, which is the basis for almost all Cuban music. Latin elements and African percussion instruments such as timbales, bongos, and congas were part of the mix. Bauzá had a further key role in Afro-Cuban jazz: introducing fellow Cuban émigré Chano Pozo to Dizzy Gillespie in 1947. As the popularity of swing and big bands faded, Gillespie, a leader in the new bebop jazz style that fused nicely with Afro-Cuban rhythms, hired Pozo, making him the first regular conga player in an American jazz big band. Soon after, they recorded the standard “Manteca.”

“Soon after the 1959 Cuban Revolution, the United States cut diplomatic relations with Cuba, putting an end to the back-and-forth of musicians for about 20 years. With the 1961 United States–backed Bay of Pigs invasion fresh in its mind, the government of Fidel Castro labeled jazz and rock as dangerous foreign influences.”

The mambo craze of the 1950s heightened interest in rhythms from Latin America, and the evolution of Afro-Cuban jazz continued, mostly in the United States. For example, in New York, Havana-born Chico O’Farrill, an important arranger, composer, and bandleader, worked with many artists, including Benny Goodman.

Soon after the 1959 Cuban Revolution, the United States cut diplomatic relations with Cuba, putting an end to the back-and-forth of musicians for about 20 years. With the 1961 United States–backed Bay of Pigs invasion fresh in its mind, the government of Fidel Castro labeled jazz and rock as dangerous foreign influences. Nonetheless, they recruited Jesús “Chucho” Valdés, trumpeter Arturo Sandoval, saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera, and other outstanding musicians for the Orquesta Cubana de Música Moderna, created in 1967. The group was allowed to perform jazz, but in a manner that could be tolerated by the government.

Seeking greater creativity, Valdés, Sandoval, and D’Rivera became key members of Irakere, founded in 1973 and directed by Valdés, during what was known as the “five grey years” (1971–76). During this period of increased cultural orthodoxy, Cuba became more integrated into the Soviet bloc and African culture was considered backward by many apparatchiks. Irakere pushed ahead nontheless, incorporating popular Cuban dance, Afro-Cuban folkloric, and even classical music. With a heavy horn section, it also included funk influences from American and Canadian-American groups like Earth, Wind & Fire and Blood, Sweat & Tears. When Gillespie, Stan Getz, and a few other American jazz musicians visited Cuba in 1977, they found the band at the forefront of a rich music scene. Invited to the United States the following year, the band won a 1979 Grammy award for its first album, recorded live in part at Carnegie Hall. Arguably, Irakere remains Cuba’s most important jazz band to date.

Afro-Cuban jazz musician Chucho Valdés.
Afro-Cuban jazz musician Chucho Valdés. Photo by Carol Friedman

The ability of artists to travel between the United States and Cuba has continued to wax and wane according to the politics of the day. D’Rivera and Sandoval defected to the United States in the 1980s, where they have had tremendous success. A plethora of American-born artists have taken up the genre, many of whom have performed at the annual Havana Jazz festival that began in 1978.

Given the difficulties inherent in getting visas both to leave Cuba and to enter the United States, a good number of Cuban artists have ended up in Toronto after collaborating and touring with Jane Bunnett, the renowned Canadian sax player and flautist. Bunnett has been traveling to Cuba to perform and record with Cuban musicians since the 1990s. One of her latest projects, the Afro-Cuban jazz band Maqueque, is comprised of young Cuban women.Some of these artists have already left Maqueque to start their own groups, only to be replaced by Bunnett with musicians from what seems to be a never-ending talent pool from the island.

“Valdés is firmly rooted in Cuba, but there now exists a considerable diaspora of Cuban musicians not only in the United States and Canada, but in Europe and other Caribbean countries as well.”

In order to concentrate more on piano playing, Valdés started his own band in 1998, while continuing with Irakere until 2005. Chucho Valdés and the Afro-Cuban Messengers emphasizes African percussion instruments and often includes vocals. Similarly, his latest project, the trio Jazz Batá, focuses on Yoruba music and Batá drumming. Both groups exemplify the current trend of small ensembles and soloists. Valdés has said that he was discouraged from taking up the Batá project in the 1970s, but Jazz Batá has him looking once again toward the roots of Afro-Cuban music and a “deeper Cubanization of jazz and the classic piano jazz trio.”

Valdés is firmly rooted in Cuba, but there now exists a considerable diaspora of Cuban musicians not only in the United States and Canada, but in Europe and other Caribbean countries as well. Non-Cuban musicians have also embraced the music, with the result that Afro-Cuban jazz can be enjoyed live year-round in a number of countries, as well as during the festival season. The genre has slowly evolved over the decades and has seen a rise in the technical talents of its musicians, but continues to hold to its Afro-Cuban roots.

This feature was written by Celeste Mackenzie and was originally published in Stanford Live’s September/October program. Used with the permission of Stanford Live.

Chucho Valdés will perform at Stanford Live’s Bing Concert Hall on October 18. Tickets are available online.

In Conversation with Kelly Tweeddale

Kelly Tweeddale bec[ame] San Francisco Ballet’s new Executive Director on September 3. She succeeds Glenn McCoy, whose steadfast stewardship over 17 seasons has left the Company with an operating budget of $56 million, the second largest amongst ballet companies in the country, and an endowment that grew from $43 million to $127 million. That’s a tough act to follow, where does one go from there?

As arts organizations across disciplines grapple with the challenges and opportunities to stay visible and pertinent, a new leader at the helm is both exciting and suspenseful. We caught up with Kelly in August to catch up about leadership, organizational culture, our role in the community, and the ever-present pendulum of preserving tradition while fostering innovation.

You You Xia: You have led symphony orchestras and an opera company throughout North America. What is your impression of the ballet world?

Kelly Tweeddale: Even though I’ve spent most of my career in the fields of orchestra and opera, I actually discovered the world of performing arts through dance. I studied ballet in college and worked for an improvisational dance company through a work-study program. The way that ballet seems to defy physics, by being controlled and exuberant at the same time, and how movement connects music with emotion, is something that we all need in an era where our world has become as small as the devices that we hold in our hands. I think dance gives us peripheral vision; it is three-dimensional and almost forces us to look up, take notice, and see what happens beyond our screens and ourselves.

Excellence transcends all art forms, be it music, opera, or ballet. That standard of excellence that is a signature of Helgi’s artistic leadership is what attracted me to SF Ballet.

“You never know where the next set of leaders for our field will come from and I feel a deep responsibility to offer guidance to anyone who shows potential and promise. ”

Kelly Tweeddale

In your opinion, how does leadership set the tone for an organization?

I have been fortunate to have worked with several leaders and mentors early in my career who led by example. I come from the mindset that “paying your dues” in the nonprofit world, especially the performing arts, starts with doing whatever is necessary so that the curtain rises and the show goes on. That means going the extra mile, lending a hand regardless of whether it’s your job, and always remembering to say thank you. 

Today, I think leadership is about giving back and being accessible. You never know where the next set of leaders for our field will come from and I feel a deep responsibility to offer guidance to anyone who shows potential and promise. When I was at Seattle Opera, the Executive Director became terminally ill. Speight Jenkins, the General Director and board president, came to me and asked me to step into the role. They saw something in me before I knew that of myself and gave me a chance. I think that is what leaders do—they know when to step forward, and when to step aside. I guess I’d say mentorship is a dance, one that is so much more rewarding when done with others. I’ve never been a leader who thinks that success can be achieved alone.

Along those lines, what makes an organization great? Is it the internal DNA or having the right leadership?

I think great organizations attract great leaders, and great leaders can create great organizations; but it’s not a given. I had the opportunity to spend time with the author Jim Collins when he was writing the book Good to Great. The difference between a good organization and a great organization comes down to a few things, such as having a laser-like focus, having the right people in the right roles, and taking advantage of momentum. That’s why I’m an avid student of the creative leaders within our organizations. Building a great company takes curation—in opera it is casting the roles with the right type of singer, in symphony it is building the ensemble, and in ballet, it is having a physical aesthetic that becomes the signature of the Company. I believe that the DNA of an organization starts with knowing who you are and why you exist. Once you know that, you build the organization through passion and tenacity. It’s never easy, but if you have alignment around purpose, it’s rewarding and can be life changing. It was for me. I think if you focus on the “why” of what you are doing rather than the “what,” you connect with each other, the art form, and ultimately, the audience.

“…if you focus on the ‘why’ of what you are doing rather than the ‘what,’ you connect with each other, the art form, and ultimately, the audience.”

Kelly Tweeddale

You have said that a thriving arts community is the bellwether of a great city. Can you elaborate on that?

If you look at any thriving city—London, New York, Paris, Tokyo, etc.—it is multi-dimensional. It has transcended past economic markets and built cultural centers and cultural organizations that are unique to each city. The sign that a city has evolved to provide its citizens more than just food, shelter, and economic livelihood can be measured by how it celebrates culture—its own indigenous culture, traditional and classical cultures of the world, and the cultural expression of the future. The cultural community is a measure of creativity, and one sign of a thriving city is how it invests in keeping that community healthy and relevant. What was left behind by the thriving civilizations that came before us is their art—dance depicted in paintings and sculpture, buildings that celebrated performance and drama, literature that highlights the value of the pursuit of creativity and art. Part of what we do today is leaving a lasting record.

And there is value in all of that.

One of the values that a ballet company brings to the ecosystem, which is especially relevant today, is that we are humans, with physical bodies, that exist outside of an electronic device. Ballet reminds us of our physicality and the miraculous things that a human is capable of when creativity is harnessed through our bodies. It tells a story, passes on traditions, and expresses the complexity of emotions that we are faced with in our daily lives. That expression is something that connects all of us, and that connection is what builds community. San Francisco is a diverse and evolving city, and SF Ballet should reflect that on stage and off, as well as act as a mirror to the world at-large.

We have a role to play for our communities now, but what about the future? At Vancouver Symphony Orchestra you oversaw the youth orchestra as part of the organization. It seems that arts organizations have also taken on a duty to enrich future generations.

Often, a music or art class at school or trip to a community center is the first exposure a child has to the arts. I know it was for me. I discovered dance when I was enrolled in a community program where we learned what a choreographer was, and how to make a dance. I still remember performing for peers and family, and how powerful it felt to put your ideas into action. That is the power of what we do, putting ideas into action, and in our case it is physical action, using the body and mind to make a statement. One of the things that I am excited about is the deep and sustaining role that SF Ballet has played in education. With the 40th anniversary of SF Ballet’s Dance in Schools and Communities program, we can extend that reach even further. I believe we have one of the most creative generations ever to have existed before us. They are craving something that allows them to connect, and our DISC program begins that connection in a sustaining and important way.

Tell us about the livestreaming agreement you spearheaded at the VSO.

I have always been an early adopter when it comes to technology; I guess I’m just wired that way. When I was in Vancouver, my orchestra colleagues asked if I would represent all Canadian orchestras and work with the Canadian Federation of Musicians to create a set of rules for livestreaming. Up until then, each project had to be separately negotiated with the local and national unions and by the time the negotiations were concluded, often the opportunity had passed. I assembled a committee with representation both by size of orchestra and geography. It took almost two years, but we got there. Canada now has a livestreaming agreement that is experimental, offers turnkey implementation, and provides incentives for multiple projects. We also recognized that technology is changing at a rapid rate and in order to be relevant and continue to build audiences we needed to do something now. The agreement isn’t perfect, but hopefully over the next three years, it will result in Canadian orchestras becoming visible in the digital space, learning by experimentation, and reaching new audiences.

“A streamed performance will never replace or be able to deliver the impact of a live performance, but it is the exposure and the ability to capture memorable moments [that ballet needs].”

Kelly Tweeddale

Would you say that is the biggest impact of new presentation formats such as livestreaming?

New technologies have only increased attendance to the performing arts. When recording was the new technology, opera and symphony audiences grew; radio and television broadcasting also expanded audiences. A streamed performance will never replace or be able to deliver the impact of a live performance, but it is the exposure and the ability to capture memorable moments. That is what I believe ballet needs–more exposure and the ability for our audience to relive the memorable moments our dancers deliver. Digital capture is also essential for documenting new work and for passing choreography from one generation to another.

Yet much of what we do is preserving the traditions of the classical art form. Why should they matter in our world today?

There is a lot of debate over whether tradition or classic art forms have relevancy in a world that is agile and is constantly reinventing itself. Classical art forms like ballet are just as valid today and may even have more impact than in the past. Why? I often ask people to tell me about a family tradition that they have and then I ask them what would happen if the tradition simply faded away. The response is always emotional and an expression of loss. Traditions have a way of making us feel connected to the past and the people who came before us. Ballet is like that. But traditions also evolve and are kept fresh by succeeding generations through adaptation and invention. Ballet is also about aesthetics. There is a discipline, a predictability, and yet a virtuosity that is just as awe-inspiring. And because we perform live, anything can happen, and no two performances are ever the same. That unpredictability makes for a great experience in the theater. And I think the world is thirsty for great experiences.

“We don’t know who the next Balanchine will be, but we have an obligation to give the composers, the choreographers, and the dancers the chance to put their mark on the art form…”

Kelly Tweeddale

What about new works? Visual artists, composers, choreographers: what is their role in our institutional communities?

I’ve often said if we only perform the works of the past, we are on a mission to become obsolete. Another way to make work new again is to re-stage the classics. It is so important to set existing works in new contexts, and ballet can do that and lend a new perspective to a well-known work by changing the production elements (like sets and costumes). By changing the perspective without changing the choreography, we often reveal something about the work to ourselves and our audiences.

New work is also essential to what we do. We don’t know who the next Balanchine will be, but we have an obligation to give the composers, the choreographers, and the dancers the chance to put their mark on the art form and that tells us what dance looks like today, what ballet has to say in the 21st century, and what we as a Company are thinking about. As a Company, it is our job to create. Audiences will determine what stands the test of time. They always have and I expect they will continue to do so.

Unique to the ballet world is that the goal of pre-professional training programs, such as San Francisco Ballet School, is to prepare young dancers to hopefully join professional companies upon completion. This is different from the orchestra world, for example, where youth orchestra musicians are not necessarily in the program in order to eventually join a professional orchestra.

To me ballet has always been way ahead of other art forms in the commitment to invest in how we train the next generation of artists. Training facilities are an investment in the pipeline both by creating the future dancers, but also choreographers, audience members, and advocates. We also know that the impact of San Francisco Ballet School is seen on not only our stages, but stages around the world as alumni find professional careers at leading companies. It reminds us that we as a Company exist not only to keep the art form alive and evolving, but that ballet is a human endeavor that transcends both the past, and present.

If the future of ballet starts at the School, what does that mean for how we run our training programs today?

One important element about SF Ballet School is the concept of mentorship. Technique can be taught, but mentorship is how the traditions of the company, the aesthetics of the art form, and the safeguarding the well-being of future professional dancers are transferred from the professional to the trainee. I think one of the questions that SF Ballet will have to ask itself as it relates to the School is how we ensure that we reach potential dancers outside of those who already have access to the Chris Hellman Center for Dance. I have some experience with setting up satellite programs in neighborhoods that may not currently be represented with our current schedule. Seeing how we can both expand our reach and our impact as we look to change the face of ballet to represent our diverse community without sacrificing aesthetics will be an exciting challenge, but one which is essential as we strengthen our commitment to making ballet more inclusive and equitable.

This interview was conducted by San Francisco Ballet Director of Communications You You Xia and was originally published on SF Ballet’s blog. Used with the permission of San Francisco Ballet.  

A Conversation with Lindy Hume, Stage Director of Seattle Opera’s ‘Rigoletto’

Lindy Hume creates a contemporary production of Verdi’s tragedy which explores, rather than overlooks the sexual assault and misogyny that is rampant within the opera. Bringing a relevant Rigoletto to audiences in a post-#MeToo era takes a feminist perspective and some inspiration from modern-day political figures.

Stage Director of 'Rigoletto.'
Stage Director Lindy Hume. Courtesy of Seattle Opera

Why did you update Rigoletto?

Lindy Hume: The problem with not updating Rigoletto is that a Renaissance-era codpiece-cloak-and-hose setting in a fictional court of Mantua lets the licentious Duke off the hook for his appalling treatment of women. Verdi turned a famous philanderer into a rock star by giving him some of the best music to the most misogynistic lines ever written (Act 1 “it’s this girl or that girl, they’re all the same to me …” and in Act 3 “women are unreliable …”). These are two of the most jaunty, charming, popular tunes in the entire operatic repertoire, with a bravado that’s guaranteed to win the audience over. Even contemporary audiences in a post-#MeToo world, who can’t help but gasp at his shameless audacity and brazenness, adore those arias—which is what makes them so brilliant! I created this production for New Zealand Opera in 2012. I found inspiration for the spirit of this bad boy Duke of Mantua in Silvio Berlusconi, the former Italian Prime Minister, who at that time was breezing through his “bunga bunga” sex trial with his signature blend of political incorrectness, immaculate tailoring, and dazzling—if cosmetically enhanced—smile. Where better to set the debauched action of Rigoletto than the colorful, charismatic, spectacularly excessive “Berlusconi Court”? Even now that Silvio has retreated from public life his reputation is the stuff of legend.

So, this interpretation isn’t about Donald Trump?

It’s not explicitly Trump’s America, or Berlusconi’s Italy, but a modern, highly recognizable version of the dystopian, brutal, corrupt society Victor Hugo and Verdi imagined as the background for the tragedy of Gilda and her father. The court’s treatment of Monterone, the heartbroken father of a girl whose reputation the Duke has publicly ruined, quickly descends from boredom to murder. Tired of the old man ranting, the Duke sentences him to death in a state-sanctioned execution. As a feminist and a fan of Verdi’s wonderful observation of human behavior, how could I resist bringing these worlds together in an imagined scenario where the excesses of obscene wealth, the corruption of high political power, and the moral void of the court all vibrate with an undercurrent of fear, violence, misogyny, and criminality? This is the world of Verdi’s Rigoletto, and our own.

Madison Leonard in Seattle Opera's 'Rigoletto.'
Madison Leonard in Seattle Opera’s ‘Rigoletto.’ Photo by Sunny Martini

Why do you choose to explore sexual assault in the theatre?

As we have seen in recent years, particularly through the #MeToo movement, sexual assault is an issue across society that women have been living with for centuries, and increasingly have decided to confront wholesale. My response is not only from the perspective of a feminist woman director, but from that of an average audience member (opera audiences are mostly women, as you know). For years, I’ve been frustrated that this art form has not called out sexual assault and violence, but often celebrated it. For example, Wikipedia says: “the Duke sings of a life of pleasure with as many women as possible,” and mentions that “he particularly enjoys cuckolding his courtiers.” In the most famous and beloved operas—Rigoletto, Don Giovanni, Carmen, Tosca, Madama Butterfly—the tragic heroine is part of the vernacular. Sopranos must rehearse how to fall, be stabbed, brutalized, and thrown across the room, behaviors they would never accept in real life. In 2019, if opera aspires to be a progressive, future-focused art form with relevance in contemporary society, then it must evolve and be responsive to a changing society. The topic of sexual assault and violence against women in opera is right there in front of us, either to explore, or to ignore.

Originally published in Seattle Opera’s Rigoletto program. Used with permission of Seattle Opera.

Rigoletto is onstage now at Seattle Opera through August 28. Tickets are available online.

Talking Conquests and Comedy with John Leguizamo and Tony Taccone

During a workshop of Kiss My Aztec! in New York City this March, Artistic Associate and Assistant Dramaturg Katie Craddock huddled up with John Leguizamo and Tony Taccone in a wee writing studio to learn about the inspiration for this show, the political function of comedy, and their creative partnership.

Katie Craddock: John, where did the idea for this piece come from?

John: I wanted to create a space for our Latin stories, in the same humorous way I’d seen on Broadway with shows like Spamalot and in movies like Blackadder. The general public doesn’t know a lot about Aztec history—for instance, the Aztecs had libraries full of extensive codices, but many were burned by colonizers. Erasing history was (and is) a means of controlling a people.

Tony: When we were auditioning actors for this show, it was really depressing to me how many people had the same two or three shows on their résumés. It was a clear reminder of the paucity of Latin work, and it’s horrifying—there’s no established assumption yet that this work should be done. So you find yourself carving a new pathway, and John’s obviously done a brilliant job of insisting on that—in an inviting way. His genius is that he has found a voice and built a comic relationship with people across many backgrounds that wanna hear from him.

John: And Tony’s been my accomplice. I love working with Tony because he’s a beast for storytelling and narrative; there aren’t too many people on the planet as passionate and obsessed about proper storytelling as Tony. Also, he’s half Puerto Rican. That is so exciting for me—I wanna reach in there and grab that Puerto Rican in him, and tell him that he’s okay.

Tony Taccone, co-writer and director of 'Kiss My Aztec!'
Tony Taccone, co-writer and director of ‘Kiss My Aztec!’ Photo by Cheshire Isaacs

Tony: That’s a real thing for me. I started unconsciously pursuing Latin work about 15 years ago. Susie [Medak, Berkeley Rep’s managing director] pointed it out—she said, “Do you realize how much Latin work you’re doing? Your dormant Puerto Rican genes are blooming here.” But it was working on Latin History for Morons that drove me to make a conscious effort to examine my past, and actually research it. I went back to my mother and relatives and took their oral histories. It’s part of my heritage that could be lost—I need to recapture it and understand where I’m coming from. The pressure on my mother to assimilate was immense. She’s 92 years old and teaches Spanish to this day, but her upbringing was about trying to get in there with white people to succeed.

John: That’s what happens. I grew up in the hood, and all my friends were Latin and Black, but then when I got to college I was like, “Oh my God, I sound different than everybody, I talk different, I have different vernacular, and slang. I need to un-ghetto myself if I’m gonna succeed. ’Cause obviously I rub people the wrong way, and I just stand out too much.” But then I went to auditions and I’m like, “Wait a minute. They want me to be a gang leader, a drug lord, a janitor, or the killer in the episode.” And I’m like, “Wait a minute! I just went through this whole process of assimilating as hard as I could.” So quickly I learned that it didn’t matter how hard I worked, I would not be cast as lawyers or doctors.

Tony: Is that how your solo shows were born?

John: Absolutely. I thought, “Where are the Latin stories? Why aren’t we anywhere?” I needed to make material for myself. ’Cause I knew we were funny, I knew we were intellectual. I knew we had great stories to tell: present, past. So that became my life’s work. You ask yourself, “Why does this matter? What am I doing to change culture?”

This is a piece you are writing but not performing in. Is that something that you knew early on?

John: No, I was writing it for myself originally, about 10 years ago. It was a play then, not a musical. It wasn’t gaining traction. They said it was “funny, but, Aztecs?” They just didn’t get it. I had a lot of stories like that. Stories about Latin culture had no traction in Hollywood or TV. They just couldn’t get it.

How did you decide to not act in it?

John: Well, when it became a musical I was like, “I’m out.” I mean I’ve got an amazing voice, except for pitch or melody; otherwise you’d love to hear me.

Why did you make it a musical?

John: I think the impetus was Spamalot. The way they turned Holy Grail into a musical made me think, “Wow, maybe I can do that with my Aztec piece.” But then I realized I can’t write music, and started working with Benjamin [Velez] and David [Kamp], who can.

Tony: But the sensibility of a lot of the music comes from John—the comic spirit we’re tapping.

John: And you. Tony wants songs to move the plot forward. When I first started writing the musical I thought songs were like in an opera; they could just reveal the unconscious, or just be about emotion that you didn’t see. But it can’t—

Tony: In a musical you have to keep the momentum. It’s a difficult art form. The many elements have to feed each other…and we are trying to write a nontraditional musical. It’s a crazy new hybrid. There’s more book than usual, and we’re doing this Elizabethan/urban slang combination—this colliding of worlds. ’Cause it’s set in the 16th century.

Cast of 'Kiss My Aztec!'.
Cast of ‘Kiss My Aztec!’ Photo by Cheshire Isaacs

What do you find exciting or useful about that combination of period and modern language?

John: I wanted to create an Elizabethan patois. A Shakespearian language with ghetto slang. I love it in my ear—that juxtaposition. I’ve always loved slang, American vernaculars, and urbanisms. I grew up with that, and love hearing it combined with the Elizabethan language.

Are you hoping bridging that linguistic gap will make people draw parallels between the 16th century and now?

Tony: We never lose the sensibility that we are in the present day watching a theatrical event.The frame of the show breaks the fourth wall; it’s a company of actors saying, “We’re both sharing this same world with all its contradictions, challenges, fucked-up-ness, and beauty. And we are all gonna now look at what happened back in 1540.” We’re always trying to make the audience connect it to their own experience today. A lot of the contradictions and injustices are the same, which is depressing.

John: I mean, yes, things haven’t moved as far as we’d like, but we have to remember that progress is never linear—it goes backwards and forward, it’s not steady.

Tony: Yeah. I’ve only been alive in this period of time, but it seems to me from studying history that—

John: Oh you’re much older than you let on, come on. Didn’t you actually polish Cortés’ helmet?

Tony: What a bastard.

John: Yeah, Tony’s drawing from personal experience when we’re talking about the conquest.

Tony: Exactly. Oh, the horses were brutal. What was I saying?

You were talking about history.

Tony: Right. We tend to fall victim to mini cycles of our experience. Trump is elected, so we think, “Oh my God, there’s been no progress. We’re back to square one.” But that’s not really true historically, as John was saying. There is a war going on now. But our sensibility tends to be dominated by the present moment and we forget that if we look back at history, there’s always a struggle.

John: We progress and we regress.

Tony: It’s an ebb and flow. But hopefully the ebb doesn’t take us so far back that we can’t return from it.

On that rather dark note—this piece is full of outrageous humor, but it’s about a murderous oppression and attempted erasure of a people. It’s relentlessly silly, but makes powerful assertions about identity and resilience. Why is it important for you to be telling this dark story with humor?

John Leguizamo, conceiver and writer of 'Kiss My Aztec!'
John Leguizamo, conceiver and writer of ‘Kiss My Aztec!’ Photo by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

John: That’s how I grew up, so that’s my sensibility. I had a very difficult upbringing, and humor was the thing that saved me and my family. And I think part of why I grew up that way is a consequence of the conquest. Like when I even look at some of the violent games that we played in Queens—Hot Peas and Butter, Manhunt, and Knuckles—they’re all games brought on from the conquest. There was such abuse of people, and abuse of families and children. So, I wanted to create this dark world, but also assert that there’s always hope. No matter how dark it is, no matter who the president is, and how much he’s trying to destroy decency and respect of others, it’s still a great time where women are rising in power and Latin people are getting their due. We elected many women, including Latina women, into office in the midterms. A lot of great things are happening even in this darkness.

Tony: That’s a perfect answer, John. The more personal answer for me is that I was the class clown because I had a massive speech impediment. I could not talk in complete sentences until I was in seventh grade. Being funny was the way out—the way to be liked. So I married that personal experience to a worldview. I realized comedy could invite people to look past their own prejudices, and that became part of my aesthetic. Look at Dario Fo—an amazing, political Italian comic who won the Nobel Prize [in 1997 because he “emulates the jesters of the Middle Ages in scourging authority and upholding the dignity of the downtrodden”]. Read his acceptance speech—it was very controversial that a clown won the fucking Nobel Prize, but he was a major political thinker using comedy to make people pay attention.

Tell me about the show’s range of musical genres.

John: We wanted a broad bandwidth of Latin music—the salsa, Latin freestyle, merengue, reggaeton, cumbia, as many of the beautiful aspects of Latin music as we could squeeze in, and the dances that come with them. We even throw a tango in there. Our music is everywhere these days. Cardi B is Dominican, and she’s the highest selling female rapper in the world. You got Bruno Mars, he’s Puerto Rican, and he’s doing the pop thing. And then you got Camila Cabello, she’s Cuban and she’s doing a more Latin R&B sound. Latin music goes everywhere, and so that’s what we try to cover, though it’s impossible to completely achieve—the A to Z of Latin music.

What are each of your favorite genres of Latinx music?

John: There are many styles that I love, but in particular la Sonora Matancera. They’re a Cuban/Afro-Cuban group that started in the 1920s—they made Cuban music that permeated Latin America. They were incredible crooners and wrote beautiful love songs.

Tony: Salsa, ’cause of my mom. Tito Puente was my mother’s cousin.

John: No! Oh my God, you’re illustrious.

What would your mothers think of this show?

Tony: Well, our mothers get along famously. My mother loves everything I do because I’m doing it.

John: I’ve been a huge pain in my mom’s ass trying to get her to understand the culture she came from, to help her understand her indigenous roots. Every time she sees my pieces, she learns something about herself and the culture she came from, and it’s great ’cause then she influences her friends.

Which character in the show do you most identify with?

John: It’s gotta be Pepe; he’s the artist saying, “Look, we matter, we count.”

Tony: Yeah, it’s the guy who’s trying to be funny and popular, but he’s doing all the wrong things.

John: We don’t win at basketball, we don’t win at football, we don’t win all the fights, but hey, we’re funny and interesting.

The world premiere of Kiss My Aztec! is now playing through July 14 at Berkeley Rep. Tickets can be purchased online.

This interview, written by Artistic Associate and Assistant Dramaturg Katie Craddock, was originally published in the program for this show.

Taking Risks and Minimizing Failure—Part Two

This is part two of two of Johanna Pfaelzer and Lisa Steindler in conversation, in which they continue their discussion of intergenerational leadership in theatre and supporting artists in the Bay Area.

Johanna Pfaelzer is the incoming artistic director at Berkeley Rep Theatre and Lisa Steindler is the executive artistic director of Z Space.

Lisa Steindler: Hopefully we’ll have young leaders running mid-size organizations sooner rather than later and, in ten years, they will be running the regional theatres with so much more expertise under their belts. With so many people leaving the field after many years in leadership roles, I’m not sure we have adequately developed or created opportunities for the next generation to take up the reigns.

Johanna Pfaelzer: I think for women, especially, figuring out how to balance parenthood and these jobs is a real issue that we must pay attention to. How can we retain women as leaders and create the flexibility in our structures that will enable them to stay within these organizations? I was really lucky to be working for a working mother—Carey Perloff—when I became a parent.

Steindler: One hundred percent agree. I feel most excited about that right now, in this moment in my career, to foster and mentor three incredible millennial women who are all way smarter than me. They have a lot more knowledge about the world of twenty-year-olds and the technology that goes along with that, and I believe that is crucial to the relevance of an organization. That merged with the historical knowledge of the organization and the field that I bring to the table, we have a pretty robust cauldron.

Pfaelzer: I also think different generations of theatremakers are thinking about what theatre can do as an art form in really different ways. I don’t think it’s solely generational but I do think there’s a reason that, when we look at the twenty-year-olds and the thirty-year-olds in our field, they’re thinking about collaboration, about the process of how and why and you make work together, in a much broader way. They’re going to demand that of the institutions, and the structures are going to have to adapt to their vision, and they should.

Steindler: Absolutely, they should. Here at Z Space we’re all about failure in a good way, being able to take artistic and organizational risks without fear of failure. Taking on a leadership role involves a steep learning curve and the navigation of multiple relationships, during which myriad risks are encountered where one might potentially fail. But if we’re intentional about creating this new leadership model, supporting young leaders, and building from within the Z Space family to engage and invest in new and diverse leadership, we can quite possibly achieve much greater milestones while taking risks and minimizing failure.

Pfaelzer: Indeed! And that question of failure, not like I’m obsessed with it right now as I’m in the middle of season planning or anything, but the model of New York Stage and Film is based on the idea that you get to take huge risks. And that we as an organization can turn to a body of artists in any given year and say: “Go big. We’ve got you and we can keep the stakes low.”

One of the challenges for me, going into an institution with Berkeley Rep’s scale, is to make sure that some piece of me can keep that notion alive. For myself, for the artists in the building, and to bring an audience into that as well, to help them understand that the task of an artist isn’t to give them polished perfection. Because theatre is this ephemeral, living, breathing thing, how do we let that notion of transformation and risk and change and attempt and failure be part of the process, delight, and specificity of how the show is then experienced?

…failure can become a very nourishing aspect of the creation of great work. If we’re afraid of failing, we will get a certain type of work that can be calcifying…

Lisa Steindler

Steindler: Once you put it into a context of process, people are super excited about that. They’re generous. And failure can become a very nourishing aspect of the creation of great work. If we’re afraid of failing, we will get a certain type of work that can be calcifying, potentially. That frightens me. You and I have both dedicated our lives to new work and to creating space where these things can be explored and then actually happen.

We’ve been looking at a strategic plan and one of the classic questions that came out of it was: “Who are we serving?” And my answer was very different than the answer of these younger women leaders I am working with at Z Space now. My answer was: “We’re serving the artists.” And their answer was :“We’re serving the audience.”

Pfaelzer: The younger people working in your organization said serving the audience?

Steindler: Yeah.

Pfaelzer: Wow, that surprises me.

Steindler: It surprised me too, it’s fascinating. But they’re really clear about, “If we don’t have a fully inclusive audience, we don’t have an institution.” And I said, “If we don’t have artists creating excellent work, what are we serving the audience?” It is chicken and egg, but it exemplifies one of the many benefits of distributed and intergenerational leadership.

Performance of American $uicide at Z Space
Performance of American $uicide at Z Space. Photo by Clayton Lord

Pfaelzer: One thing you mentioned, which I thought was really interesting in these moments of transitions, was about new work, because it can take a company so long to partner with an artist to make something new. From first conversation through commission through early drafts through development, to realization in whatever form that is… When a transition happens at some midpoint along that trajectory, what happens to the piece? What happens to the institution? What is it for an artist who has a deep relationship with the artistic leader who first made that commitment to them and a real, honest expectation of realization within that structure? What is it for the incoming person to say: “Oh, great, here’s a bunch of stuff I get to fall in love with” or “The pipeline has been primed for me in fantastic ways.”

That’s not an entirely hypothetical thing, given where I sit right now, because the Berkeley Rep team has been so extraordinarily generous in saying: “Let it be a clean slate for you.” And, on the other hand, there are decades of relationships with artists that Tony Taccone, the outgoing artistic director, has established that I want to make sure I’m aware of and honoring in appropriate ways, and, frankly, can avail myself of.

Steindler: I think it’s tremendous that Berkeley Rep has handed you a clean slate. It’s a little scary to have that responsibility in a relatively new community for you, in which all those relationships already exist. But the blend is potentially so rich. And because you’ve been doing this for quite a long time, especially with new work in New York, and now again on the West Coast, you’ve got really established relationships with a vast roster of great artists. I imagine there’s a lot of crossover from those relationships. But the question is what do you inherit and what do you blend in of your own to open those doors wider to achieve your aesthetic.

I’ve always thought about creating pipelines and working in concert with other organizations here. So if an artist begins working at Berkeley Rep, moves to a project at the Magic, comes to Z Space, and then goes on to A.C.T., we’re really working in concert with one another, and together we make it possible for these artists to actually make a meager living. And hopefully we are creating a pool of artists who will stay and see a viable career here in the Bay Area.

Pfaelzer: That also provides the opportunity to marry an idea or a particular piece to the organization that would best serve it at a particular place in its lifespan.

Steindler: That’s true.

Pfaelzer: I think of the vibrancy of what Campo Santo does in a space that is inherently smaller than at the Geary Theater, which is part of A.C.T., for instance. If we can all be thinking a bit more collectively, one of the things to consider is what stories demand to be told in which mode? What is it to sit outside at California Shakespeare Theater and experience the story in that environment?

…I do think that there is a way that we as organizations can be better, do better, at creating those opportunities and being thoughtful about how we build and sustain a larger, more diverse pool of artists creating great new work.

Lisa Steindler

Steindler: When Mark Rucker first got to A.C.T. as associate artistic director, I remember he was very interested in how we keep the Bay Area artists here, how we create an environment they will invest in, so they stay here and don’t go to LA or New York? An idea he had that I loved, but we never got to bring to fruition, was to sit down as six, seven, eight organizations and say, “Let us create a season for these actors. Let’s look at these fifteen actors and make sure that six or eight of us can find roles for them.” It’s a challenging idea, but it’s something we could revisit. Because there really is an issue here.

The pool of artists has shrunk over the last decade plus, and it’s not being replenished to the degree it should be. I think it’s largely due to the cost of living. And I do think that there is a way that we as organizations can be better, do better, at creating those opportunities and being thoughtful about how we build and sustain a larger, more diverse pool of artists creating great new work. Which in turn will serve our audiences… Back to the interests of my younger colleagues.

I can’t wait for you to be here, to play with you and support you in any way I possibly can.

Pfaelzer: That makes me so happy and so reassured. The only thing that’s making this transition not entirely terrifying is that I feel like I am walking back into a place I know and love, one where I have such admiration for the people who are there, doing the work.

This piece, “Taking Risks and Minimizing Failure” by Johanna Pfaelzer and Lisa Steindler, was originally published on HowlRound Theatre Commons, on December 23, 2018 and has been lightly edited.

Taking Risks and Minimizing Failure—Part One

This is part one of two of Johanna Pfaelzer and Lisa Steindler in conversation, in which they discuss Pfaelzer’s upcoming transition and the division of leadership roles in theatre.

Johanna Pfaelzer is the incoming artistic director at Berkeley Rep Theatre and Lisa Steindler is the executive artistic director of Z Space.

Lisa Steindler: When do you start your tenure at Berkeley Rep Theatre?

Joanna Pfaelzer: I’ve started already, at least in a very part-time way, in that I’m planning the 2019–20 season. But I won’t be there full-time until next September. It’s been a while since the Bay Area has actually been home. I left American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.) to come back to New York in June of 2007.

Steindler: So it’s been a decade. Things have changed, but you know the Bay Area still. We’ve been through a couple of booms and busts since then, artistically, economically, socially.

Pfaelzer: That seems to just happen there; the ups and downs are dramatic.

Steindler: They are. That’s a question I’m interested in because four of our large theatre institutions here—TheatreWorks, A.C.T., the Aurora Theatre, and Berkeley Rep—are all undergoing leadership transitions within two years. I’m very excited and hopeful about this next phase for the artistic community of the Bay Area. What will it look like in five or ten years? What sort of partnerships can be forged? What kind of work will be done? It’s the Wild West again.

How do you envision yourself in your new leadership role, working with the artistic community of the Bay Area? What are some of the partnerships you hope to forge; how do we become stronger together? I believe if Berkely Rep is strong as an arts organization then Z Space is strong as an arts organization. It’s not about competition. We all make each other stronger, ultimately. Although a little competition is inevitable, and healthy.

Pfaelzer: I couldn’t agree more. Programmatically, I don’t yet know what that could mean and it would be super presumptuous of me at this point to walk in and say, “Hey everybody, here’s the plan.” But I do feel like there’s a real openness and Pam MacKinnon, the new artistic director of A.C.T., and I have started talking about this, and I know Susie Medak, the managing director at Berkeley Rep, and Jennifer Bielstein, the new executive director at A.C.T., are having these conversations as well, about what we can collectively do to make the Bay Area a viable place for artists to lead grown-up lives, and therefore for them to continue to commit to the community.

A performance of Good Men Wanted at New York Stage and Film.  Photo by Buck Lewis
A performance of Good Men Wanted at New York Stage and Film. Photo by Buck Lewis

Steindler: That’s a great start. I’ve been thinking about creative ways to address those very challenges. I’m part of a kind of think tank put together by the Rainin Foundation. We’re focused on creating the best possible conditions for art to be made and looking at different models of sustainability.

Did you read the article David Dower wrote about these transitions in leadership positions?

Pfaelzer: Yes. I felt immediately years behind in my own thinking.

It’s hard to walk in as the new person, so how do you position yourself and implement your own ideas and aesthetics while honoring the past?

Lisa Steindler

Steindler: One of the things he touched upon is that any organization transitioning leadership will inevitably lose artists, board members, patrons, and subscribers. All organizations undergoing these transitions are vulnerable to these losses. It’s hard to walk in as the new person, so how do you position yourself and implement your own ideas and aesthetics while honoring the past? What are your thoughts on how to navigate that or where you do you see the challenges?

Pfaelzer: I went from New York Stage and Film to A.C.T. and then back to New York Stage and Film. So it was a funny trajectory, but I think you’re asking an incredibly important and really, really complicated question. When I first came into New York Stage and Film, it was a company with three founders—Leslie Urdang, Max Mayer, and Mark Linn-Baker—who deeply identified with and were hugely invested in the organization. And, at that point, in 1998, they were very hands on in its day-to-day operations.

One of the things that the four of us learned over a period of five years was how to share not just the management of the company but the relationships of the company. But we had time to do it because there was essentially a multiyear transition in that case, so there was time for those artists to get to know me and there was time for me to get to know them. And it was a conscious choice to say, “These are people who are extraordinary in their field and who have this deep sense of identification with this company and I want this to continue to be a home for them.”

Steindler: Was it two or three years that you worked side by side with them?

Pfaelzer: Two years before they made me an equal partner with the three of them. And then there was a slow shift where we evolved our leadership structure, but it didn’t really formalize until I came back in 2007, after five years at A.C.T., and they stepped back and made me the company’s first artistic director. I think the reason we all felt so comfortable with it is that we knew each other deeply, there was a real shared sense of values. And not just values, but practices. One of the things we’re anticipating here now as we embark on the beginning stages of a search for the next artistic leader for New York Stage and Film is realizing that we’re going to have to do it in a very different way. And that feels both exciting and a little daunting.

performance of HOME at Berkeley Rep
Performance of HOME at Berkeley Rep. Photo by Kevin Berne/Berkeley Rep

Steindler: Different in how it normally happens? As in you can’t just hire a headhunter and put it out to the field, but that you have to be much more creative, transitional and invested?

Pfaelzer: Yeah. New York Stage and Film is such a uniquely structured company, and I think there’s a real openness on the part of the founders and the board to think about what leadership might look like going forward.

Steindler: There was a study that Emiko Ono from the Hewlett Foundation wrote in 2016 called Moving Arts Leadership Forward. It was about looking at organizational structures and how we can rethink and prepare for the next twenty-five years, which I took to heart. We just celebrated Z Space’s twenty-fifth anniversary this year. And so what do the next twenty-five years look like. We have started the process of creating a distributed leadership model.

The idea of distributing leadership, and this burden or joy, depending on the moment or month, is to share all of that, but also to share the creation of the art as well.

Lisa Steindler

Pfaelzer: What does that mean to you, and what does it mean specifically about Z Space?

Steindler: Like all executive artistic directors, I bear the burden of the failure or success of my organization. It’s on my shoulders alone, or at least it feels that way. I think, organizationally, that can be a very precarious place to be. The idea of distributing leadership, and this burden or joy, depending on the moment or month, is to share all of that, but also to share the creation of the art as well. It doesn’t necessarily mean there are four artistic leaders—it’s about being very thoughtful in where everyone’s expertise lies. Someone may be more creative, someone better with finances, someone more operational. And you work together from those zones, but you are working as equals.

On an organizational chart those are equal leadership positions because they are all integral to the success or failure of the enterprise. But you have your expertise in each of those places, and that hopefully creates more ownership. You need to be very clear about who has the responsibility for what, who’s accountable to whom, who is consulted and who is informed, so there’s not redundancy. But it’s critical we create opportunities for the next generation to enter the field and let them know there is opportunity for growth and leadership potential.

Pfaelzer: Absolutely.

Steindler: Hopefully we’ll have young leaders running mid-size organizations sooner rather than later and, in ten years, they will be running the regional theatres with so much more expertise under their belts. With so many people leaving the field after many years in leadership roles, I’m not sure we have adequately developed or created opportunities for the next generation to take up the reigns.

Continued in “Taking Risks and Minimizing Failure—Part Two.”

This piece, “Taking Risks and Minimizing Failure” by Johanna Pfaelzer and Lisa Steindler, was originally published on HowlRound Theatre Commons, on December 23, 2018 and has been lightly edited.

Empowerment Through Teen Activism

Encore asked TeenTix if one of their members from the TeenTix Press Corps program would contribute a piece about what teen activism means to them. Huma Ali shares her experience as an activist and feminist as a teen today.

As I’ve gotten older, activism has become increasingly popular among my peers. Maybe it’s because we desire a sense of belonging, have discovered unwavering principles to hold on to, or seek to create change—each individual has different motivations. But collectively, my generation has found power in our voices. As students, we have begun to speak out about the changes we want to see in society. We’ve planned walkouts, formed clubs and attended protests—we have become activists. But while some of us have pursued activism, another group has set out to bring us down. Growing up among a fairly kind bunch of students, it was unusual to see kids doubt the activism of their peers. Yet, I have come to realize that such a reaction is inherent to activism; someone will always second-guess you.

“Everyone is welcome” sign for Ali’s Feminism Club
“Everyone is welcome” sign for Ali’s Feminism Club

In the seventh grade, I befriended an upper-class student who introduced me to activism and the need for it in today’s world. Until that point, I had been under the impression that conflict was absent in our world. I thought war was a tale of the past, and that we lived in a utopian society. To some extent, I blame my elementary school curriculum for this because every Martin Luther King Day lesson left me, and other students, thinking that racism didn’t exist anymore. Well, I soon realized that’s not true. I learned that the world is not a perfect place. The world probably can’t be perfect, but it can be better. I became an avid human rights activist, labeling myself a feminist. Activism provides an outlet for individuals to support their beliefs in a way they will be heard. The power of their words allows for change, in a society that needs it.

We’ve planned walkouts, formed clubs and attended protests—we have become activists. But while some of us have pursued activism, another group has set out to bring us down. 

Freshman year I joined my high school’s Feminism Club. It was a nice space, quite positive and full of like-minded individuals. But a torrent of hate lingered behind the club. Many students thought it was unnecessary—and some still do. Another group tried to start a “Meninist” club. Many of my peers thought of feminism as a derogatory term, and often called our events, like one of our walkouts, “stupid.” But these people wouldn’t make time to understand the reasons behind our actions. It is safe to say that it wasn’t always easy to be a part of the club. Recently, someone defaced our “Feminism Club! Everyone is Welcome!” poster by adding a line that read “no straight males.” It’s hard to comprehend a student’s motivation behind writing such a comment because our club’s priority is inclusivity. In response, we created an arrow out of tape, at the tail of which was another poster reading, “This is why we need Feminism Club. This type of mentality is exactly what we are trying to overcome. Feminism by nature is inclusive. We hope you will visit our club with an open mind!” I hope they actually come to one of our meetings. If they do, I don’t think I’ll be mad at them for defacing the poster—I’ll be happy they showed up and gave feminism a chance.

Being a teen activist, the most important thing I have learned is that you must stay rooted in your beliefs. People have agendas, intentional or not. You need to know what you are fighting for. There is value in the ideas of others, but there is power in the ideas you form by yourself. Activism empowers youth to fight for their beliefs through a viable means, in which they are given a chance to influence change in our society—at the very least, this is what it has done for me.

Huma Ali is a junior at Lake Washington High School who is passionate about the power of words. She is a patron of the arts, an active writer and works to make teen voices heard through TeenTix’s Press Corps program.

Casting an Actor with Albinism: The Importance of Authenticity on Stage

Playwright Julie Taiwo Oni explores the difficult, yet necessary task of casting actors who authentically represent characters written and the effect this representation has on marginalized identities. 

How do you cast authentically when there is not a single actor of a certain identity to be found within your community? If my mission as a playwright is to share stories of the underrepresented, then how can I cast an actor who lacks the marginalized identity my script requires? This obstacle is an important element of the current fight for fairness in casting, and I encountered it full-force on my own journey to find a Black teenage male actor with albinism.

As a Nigerian-American and a storyteller, I am in constant conflict between heightened awareness of widespread misconceptions of non-Western cultures (my global side) and sheer shock and horror at the encountering of some ritual practices (the good ole American in me). When I first heard about the persecution of PWAs (person with albinism) in Africa from my father a few years back, I thought it must be an ancient myth; I was mistaken. In fact, even today, Tanzania has one of the highest global rates of people with albinism, and they are frequently attacked and killed for the sale of their bodies to witch doctors for good luck potions.

To dramatize this unfortunate story, I wrote Chisel, a two-character play about a Black American teen with albinism and his interaction with a biracial Tanzanian art student. Sal, my teen protagonist, is in conflict with his albinism because he doesn’t feel that he’s accepted as a Black Lives Matter activist due to his lacking pigmentation. He therefore engages in an aggressive activity that lands him in a juvenile detention center. Alice—his counter—struggles with being mixed race in a culture that often resents non-native citizens. I finished a draft of the play and placed it aside a few years ago, mainly because I had no idea who would perform either role, especially that of Sal.

The representation struggle has become all too familiar these days, from the rampant cultural appropriation of hip-hop, to Katy Perry’s kimonos and dreadlocks, to the whitewashing and gender identity-crossing of Hollywood via the likes of Scarlett Johansson. Yet an important part of the conversation is the challenge of representing marginalized identities when privileged bodies are so much more accessible on casting couches. Constant rejection and appropriation discourages under-represented actors, making it even more difficult to get them into the room. The unfortunate result is that more privileged actors get more opportunities to hone their skills in all levels of theatre.

Sometime into my own representation journey, my friend Bri, who was set to perform the role of Chisel’s Alice for a reading, sat down to help me brainstorm possible actors to play the PWA male character Sal. We were at a loss. Would an audience be able to gather the full weight of the story—centered on the identity of a young man with albinism—if the actor playing the role did not have this condition? It felt so important to see him. We decided that the absolute minimum at that moment was to find somebody who would understand Sal’s journey intellectually and be willing to engage in conversation about the PWA plight. We decided to cast Tom, a TV actor and friend. The reading went well, but the question of course came up: was this play castable?

Is it worth the ongoing and discouraging search for an actor of a marginalized identity when there are so many of privilege willing to play the role?

I believe it is.

So, I persisted. Everywhere I went, to anyone I met, I mentioned Chisel and my struggle to find an actor. I spoke of the PWA attacks in my classes on culture. I emailed modeling and casting agencies. I asked my acting students for recommendations. The result was a sharing and tagging anytime a friend or colleague saw a story on albinism and a collection of books and magazine articles sent by friends, yet still no Sal.

Perhaps six months after the reading, I got a message from Tom: “I see the Tanzanian albino girls we talked about in rehearsals.” The girls were Tindi and Bibiana Mashamba, sisters who were in Los Angeles on refuge after Bibiana had been attacked and lost a leg and fingers. They were at his local lunch spot. My heart jumped with joy. “Well talk to them!” I waited impatiently. Hours later, he told me he’d lacked the nerve to speak to them: “I didn’t know what to say. Sorry.”

And here we encountered the next obstacle on our mission: the hypocrisy of drawing attention to albinism when the heart of Chisel’s story is about a desire for acceptance instead of social isolation. If I were to pass a Black male with albinism that looked like a possible Sal, what would I say to him, “You’re a PWA, I need you”? Fortunately, Tom saw them again a few months later and asked if they would be interested in meeting up with the Chisel team. They were overjoyed (probably because they recognized him from TV, but I’ll take it). Their host and co-founder of African Millennium Foundation, Malena Ruth, arranged for us to all have tea. During our meeting, they told the story of Bibiana’s attack, and we were all horrified by their trauma yet inspired by these two warriors. 

If only these girls had been actors.

Despite these frequent roadblocks, I firmly believe that the theatre community can work together to hold each other up in the mission toward authentic casting. I think most of us want representation; the challenge is the grit that it requires.

A year or two after the initial Chisel reading, with a second reading under our belt but still no PWA actor for Sal, a new theatre colleague sent me contact information for a Black actress with albinism she’d heard about in Chicago. I emailed her a long, detailed, impassioned letter about my journey and how excited I was to be connected with her. I didn’t expect a reply. Ten minutes later, I got one. She was as excited as I was to be in touch.

I sent her Chisel and thought that perhaps I could find a way to cast her in the male role or adjust the script’s gender dynamics. She gave me the most heart-felt and thorough script feedback I had received, noting the ringing-true to her experience and sharing questions that came up. Casting her proved an impossibility because of the story’s essential commentary on Black male experience, but I promised to keep in touch and update her on the process. We made plans to collaborate in the future, and I asked if she knew any male PWA actors.

She did!

This is it, I said to myself, crafting another heartfelt email, this time, at long last, to a Black male actor with albinism. I got no reply. I was back to square one, even with some strong and inspiring ladies in my court.

A few weeks later, I was scrolling through my Instagram when I saw a post from @albinism_beautiful, a group I’d been following for years. It hit me that the members of this particular community might be worth approaching. The second I passed the profile of Jordan White, an eighteen-year-old young man from Atlanta, I knew I’d found my Sal. He was a Black teenage male with albinism with the description “Actor/Model.” I didn’t wait this time. I messaged him immediately and heard back within an hour or so. We began an ongoing dialogue about my play.

It turned out one of Jordan’s most prominent performances was tied to another PWA actor’s casting in a TV series shot in his city. Marginalized groups do have this profound ability to hold each other up, but we need to see that others respect our stories as well by pushing forth characters that are multidimensional—not archetypal. And we need the space to bring them to life ourselves. This is the key to representation.

On June 14, 2018, Jordan flew to LA for the first time to perform in a reading of Chisel at Pepperdine University, where I work. The Department of Humanities and Teacher Education generously hosted him for Albinism Awareness Day. After months of talking through the script and planning, we finally met in person.

I was shocked by this young man. He reminded me of the importance of life experience and observation to breathe humanity into a story. Jordan was an articulate, enthusiastic, hilarious and confident guy. When he entered the theatre, fresh off a long flight (and the first of his life), he greeted us all with handshakes and hugs, pumped and ready. I had anticipated—after all these years of studying the oppression of PWA—to encounter a shy and self-conscious young man who would need time to warm up to us; he was just the opposite.

“I like to be seen,” he said as we drove down Pacific Coast Highway after that first rehearsal. “I used to be mad all the time and hate the stares, but now I just smile.”

In a world of rampant cultural and identity appropriation, we have a responsibility as practitioners of live performance to allow the audience to experience another’s story truthfully. The joy of encountering an underrepresented actor onstage playing a character of his or her actual identity is too powerful to forego. The more marginalized actors see themselves represented authentically, the more they will start to fill our casting couches. The maze will dwindle.

Julie Taiwo Oni is a Nigerian-American playwright with an interest in exploring the African diaspora through narrative. Recent plays include nat&EM, Bunk, Denim, Black-Proof, and Chisel—a story that displays the oppression of people with albinism in Tanzania. Oni is Visiting Assistant Professor of English at Pepperdine University.

This piece, Casting an Actor with Albinism: The Importance of Authenticity on Stage by Julie Taiwo Oni was originally published on HowlRound on August 2, 2018.

Midweek News – May 10


Here’s news from Seattle’s performing arts community and beyond.

Today is the Seattle Foundation’s Give Big campaign. It’s your opportunity to give to your favorite non-profit. 

The Seattle Opera and San Francisco Opera are co-commissioning an opera about the life of Steve Jobs

The Seattle Opera is currently showcasing Mozart’s beloved opera, The Magic Flute. Learn more about it, here. Reviews call it “spellbinding.” 

The Tony Awards are coming soon. The nominations were recently announced. Read the full list of potential winners, here.

Are there many Seattle connections to this year’s Tony Award nominations? Yes.

Come From Away, that was at the Seattle Rep before going onto Broadway, just won Outer Circle Critics awards. 

An American in Paris is currently at the Paramount Theatre. Here’s an interview with twin sisters who are both in the show. 

Book-It Repertory Theatre recently annonced their coming season. Learn more about it, here.

The new Upstream Music Festival is nearly here. Is it Seattle’s answer to Austin?

The Seattle International Film Festival is coming soon. What movies are coming with it? These movies

Talking about movies, Tina Fey’s Mean Girls is turning into a Broadway musical. It’s coming soon.

Midweek News – April 26


Here’s news from Seattle’s performing arts community and beyond.

Seattle Symphony’s esteemed leader, Ludovic Morlot, has announced that he will step down in 2019. Learn more, here.

Learn about Seattle Symphony performance involving Andy Warhol and Thelonious Monk.

Have you seen Seattle Rep’s production of Here Lies Love? You should “go see it.” It’s a “bold, swirling spectacle,” that’s “engaging” and “boogies.” Also, have you seen what they have in store for their next season?

Have you seen the 5th Avenue Theatre’s production of The Secret Garden? It’s “heart-warming” and “sumptuous.”

Look who is coming to SIFF this year.

Congratulations, Seattle Arts and Lectures, on your coming season.

Bumbershoot is coming soon. The lineup can be seen, here.

Also coming soon, on April 29th – Seattle Independent Bookstore Day.

Also coming soon, on May 3rd, a discussion of diversity in ballet, hosted by the Pacific Northwest Ballet.

Where can you hear local composers? Here.

And, talking about classical music, Bill Murray has thrown his hat in that ring. Yes, Bill Murray.