Art Talk with Sherri Young of the African-American Shakespeare Company

By Paulette Beete
Headshot of Sherri Young of the African-American Shakespeare Company
Sherri Young, executive director and founder of the African-American Shakespeare Company. Photo by Lance Huntley

“Theater's there to challenge ideas and to question and it's a safe place to think differently because sometimes you don't get that space in time or place to really have that moment to reflect.”—Sherri Young

When Sherri Young, executive director and founder of San Francisco’s African-American Shakespeare Company, was in drama school, she fell in love with the classics—Shakespeare, the Greeks—because she felt those stories still resonated in modern times. Still, while Young and the other actors of color in her program played iconic Shakespearean roles in class, there was an expectation that they would stick to “black plays” when they graduated. That was inconceivable and unacceptable to Young, so she founded African-American Shakespeare Company as a place where actors of color could perform roles like Lady MacBeth and Hamlet. For Young, however, actively promoting diversity in theater is about more than making sure people of color are on stage in a wide range of parts and plays. As she explained in a recent phone interview, diversity is also telling stories, particularly ones that are part of the classical canon, in a way that they integrate cultural traditions that resonate with communities of color. Read on to learn more about why Young believes audiences of color vitally need Shakespeare and the like, and to get a sneak peek at the company’s NEA-supported production of Xtigone, an adaptation of Sophocles’ ancient tragedy Antigone. NEA: What was the need that led to the founding of the African-American Shakespeare Company? SHERRI YOUNG: I really started thinking about it in 1992-93. At that time there was a colorblind casting initiative. I had just graduated from the American Conservatory of Theatre and, there was this big push to have more diversity on the stage. But what was happening was a lot of the theater companies, they were putting the bodies on the stage without really incorporating the culture as part of the production. So you would have a King Lear and it would be an Asian or African American and a Latino somewhere, but they weren't playing the major roles, and it was still a very European production. I was at a production of the California Shakespeare Festival, that's what they called themselves at the time, and it was a production of King Lear and I was the only black person in the audience. And [there was] the big scene where King Lear falls down and the whole court was around him and no one reacted and I thought of that as being so unfamiliar in my culture. If the monarchy or the patriarch of the family had fallen after giving this impassioned speech, people would've reacted or said something or did something or there would have been some kind of commotion, you know, happening and it was just so very stilted and dry. And I just said to myself, "I get why none of me wants to see this." Because it is not ringing true to what I know culturally. What if it was done in a different setting? What if they had characters and icons that resembled the people that we were familiar with, and by we I mean the African-American community? What if we had music, you know, that helps transport you to a different place and time? But I never wanted to change the language itself because when you change the language and do an adaptation or reinterpretation of it, then that gives the community the idea, "Well you guys aren't smart enough really to understand Shakespeare; only the really intelligent people can understand it." So that's why I started African-American Shakespeare because as any artist in the industry no matter what field you are, you always want to have your masterpiece as an artist, you always want to do the challenging works that are going to test you. And I want that same opportunity not only as an artist or a talent but also for our community. I wanted to see more of me in the audience. I wanted to attract what I would call the audience that is not attracted to Shakespeare and that's why I founded the company 20 years ago. When I first started out, a lot of companies [didn’t] know what to do with people of color. If you're a white director and, more often, when you're an artist and someone says there's a perception of what the black culture is and what the Latino culture is or what the Asian culture is, there's a perception for a white director to come in and say--and I've heard this before and if you speak to any other actor or artist of color, they'll tell you they've been told this before even to this day--"Can you be more black?" When you have an organization full of black artists or other minorities, but we're still 98 percent African-American artists on the stage, there already is an understanding of vernacular. For instance, [our artistic director] Peter Callender hired Becky Kemper as a director. [We had] all these African-American actors doing a show of Merry Wives of Windsor. So she had a great concept but she wasn’t as familiar with black culture as our artists. There's a segment when they're going to give the lead character his comeuppance and have him go to the forest and the forest comes alive and there are all these spirits that haunt the lead character. She wanted some kind of marching in or something and one of the actors said, "Why not have it be a stomp routine?” She wasn't sure what the stomp routine was but that's a very black collegiate Greek society [tradition] and it’s very popular in larger universities and colleges. So they did it and when that part of the play came in several people audibly would laugh hysterically and point out, "Look at that, they're doing Stomp the Yard,” which is a movie about that traditional African-American movement. It was just something our culture recognized. But in the paper one of the reviewers called it an unrecognizable choreographed routine because he didn't know where it came from. He didn't recognize it, you know… And that's just one of the cultural differences that is difficult for another culture to understand because it's like internal dialogue and internal understanding and internal identification that you just can't teach. You have to be there, you have to know it, you have to be in it. And even watching things on TV is what I would call, not a skewed representation, but let's just say it is a Hollywood-ized representation many times. NEA: Your mission statement says that the knowledge of the classics has great potential to empower communities of color. Can you explain what you mean by that? YOUNG: Well, our theory is that there's nothing new under the sun and, of course, the classics speak on all central points of human emotion—love, anger, jealousy, bitterness, revenge, lust, pain, jubilation. They're all experiences that happen in Shakespeare's classics that speak to everyone. So when we have that statement what we're trying to say is that we're sharing a human emotion…. Somewhere someone is going to relate to it and because of that we're all bounded together so that even though we're doing Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, we're expanding the mind and vision of the community that we're serving. [If] we talk about Shakespeare to your regular Joe, they don't even have to be a person of color, 90 percent of the time you might get a reaction like, "Oh, no thank you. You know, that's a little bit over my head. No thank you." But we like to have the Shakespeare plays be a start of conversation, of exploring a larger world. For instance, when we did Julius Caesar, the director set it in West Africa and we talked about the tribal warlords and how that all happened. We have free student matinee performances for all of our shows throughout the season. It's a dedicated Thursday 10 a.m. performance and what we do is we open up a bigger thought process from what they see on stage. Now, everyone's heard about the tribal war and gangs that have been happening but sometimes when you're learning in school, you hear about things but you don't understand how it started or where it came from and these plays kind of open up the world of what's happening globally because a lot of the kids we meet they're thinking about their world, which could be a five-block radius. Some of them have never been to the beach or have an understanding of, you know, what a tempest is but by exposing them to these words and these worlds it brings the world to their door literally. NEA: As you well know, many people are daunted by classical theater because the language can be difficult and they think that work that’s hundreds of years old can’t resonate with 21st-century life. Can you share any tips for audience members who want to engage with these older works? YOUNG: My first suggestion is that they should always see a play. Plays were never meant to be read. You are supposed to see a play. Whether it is a live stage play or a production that is televised, it should be seen. Then the second suggestion is to go and read it. A lot of words or situations you might not pick up [immediately], but it's just like any good book, you start to pick up things that you might have missed the first time around. That's why I never get bored of reading Shakespeare because there are things I'm still learning like, "Oh, that's what that part means that I didn't get 10 years ago?" NEA: You received NEA support for a production of Antigone by Nambi Kelley. Why is that play a good fit for the company? YOUNG: Well, this was a passion that Peter [Callender] and I wanted. Peter is the artistic director, so he makes a lot of decisions with my input. He's been with us for five years but he's worked as a classically trained actor from Juilliard for the past 30, maybe 35, years…. One of the things that we've said is it’s okay for us to do other classics besides Shakespeare. This is our first time doing a re-imagined version of a Greek classic….When we decided to do this show it was four years ago. We had it on our roster slated to be done in our spring 2012 season, but we scratched it because it wasn't the right cast, it wasn't the right director, it wasn't the right time. We scratched it off our list because the things weren't aligned and they were already in the first rehearsal when Peter took it off the plate. Now we're at a time where in the neighborhood where we're showing this performance there were four homicides within a block and a half from where we're located. You know, the whole play is centered around two warring gangs and gun violence and how that affects not only the community but the children in the neighborhoods they were living in. It's a very hot political topic. I know in Chicago it's an even more pressing topic that is deadly. I think last year they had [so many] killings within a 24 hour period where they called it Bloody Sunday and the mayor shut down the city. You know, they had a curfew [because] there were so many retaliation killings and that's where it was coming from for Nambi [who is a Chicago artist]. Even though we're in San Francisco and… we have all this tech industry gentrification happening, still you have communities of individuals within a five-block radius that are living a different kind of lifestyle…. [Those] young men were not killed at 1:00 or 2:00 a.m. in the morning or 3:00 a.m. These four young men who I think were between the ages of 21 and 17, these four young men were killed like at 5:00 in the afternoon or 7:00 primetime, you know. It was done right in a neighborhood that is a bustling restaurant area, shopping area, a very eclectic street called Hayes Valley. It was right in that neighborhood and some of the residents said they didn't know what a gunshot was, they'd never heard one. But it shut down the neighborhood and the city and the Board of Supervisors in San Francisco addressed this, you know. It's real for a lot of people. And our cast, most of them cannot afford to live in San Francisco, so 90 percent of our cast are in Oakland and Oakland has a high gun violence rate as well. And some of our cast members have made comments that this is their life. This play is talking about their life experience…. NEA: Can you share the story of the original Antigone and then talk more about how you're adapting it for your community? YOUNG: Creon is the ruler of the land and there are two brothers who are on opposite sides. They both die but one of the brothers gets the proper burial while the other brother is deemed to not be buried at all. Antigone, these are her brothers, and her uncle is Creon, who made this law. But she believes that her brothers both should have a burial. So against her uncle's wishes she goes out and she buries the other brother who was deemed not to have a burial at all and for that she's put to death. NEA: Okay, and in the adaptation? YOUNG: The way it works in the adaptation is the same. Uncle Marcellus, he's her uncle but he's the mayor of the city and Tigs—instead of Antigone, it's Tigs—her brothers, one is Ernesto, he's the leader of the Latin Kings. The other one is E-Mem. E-Mem is the leader of the Disciples. They are killed by a drive-by and the mayor, Uncle Marcellus, tells the city he's tired of these guns. He wants to get rid of this problem and his law is the word and they are to be buried at the next sunrise. And Antigone doesn't want that to happen. She wants to unbury the truth. She wants them to react. She wants the city to do something about it and question where all these guns are coming from [and ending up with people who] don't have the resources to have these weapons. How are they getting it? What Tigs does is she takes the dirt off of them… so that they fester right there on the steps of City Hall. That’s our version and actually there's a twist at the end. In our version she does not die but people do die. NEA: You’re targeting a younger demographic for this production than we traditionally think of as a theater audience. What are some of the ways that you plan to engage young people with this production and with the company in general? YOUNG: As I mentioned we have a free student matinee so we are already booked up for each Thursday at 10 a.m. Two hundred students come from varying neighborhoods as far away as Santa Rosa up to Sacramento and locally in San Francisco and the larger Bay Area. We do that for the run of the show… and we invite [the students] to see the show for free and afterwards we have a talk back. This production is full of young people [, which] means that 45 percent of the cast is between the ages of 26 to 12 years old. We have one nine year old in the cast and this is his first production. We're using a lot of language and music in the show by a well-known hip-hop artist named Tommy Shepherd. Emcee Soulati is his stage name and he has a strong following. The play’s director Rhodessa Jones is nationally known, and probably internationally known, for working with women in prison. She has a strong following. So Rhodessa drives a lot of interest anyway in the work that she does with The Medea Project: Theater for Incarcerated Women and what she does in life. Nambi [Kelley] has written the dialogue in a spoken word,hip-hop vernacular so you have to really listen and pay attention because what the characters say is done 90 percent rhythmically, and it has such meaning and potency that, you know, I think any young person—and by young I mean that hard-to-reach age between 13 to 25, that's what attracts them NEA: What do you want the young people that come see the production learn about theater in general beyond the message of this particular production? YOUNG: I really want them to learn that theater is a chance for them to express themselves. You know, when they're watching the play, it's a different experience when they're being in it and this was a chance, this production was an opportunity for us to get those young people in the play and really learn how to express [themselves] and work as a team. There is a different community that is being grown and built so that when you see someone from a different neighborhood that you've actually had a relationship with on the stage, there is not that same kind of hostility of you know, "What are you doing in my neighborhood?" And you know, "You talking crazy to my cousin so-and-so last week at a party." It's not that hostile engagement. It's a different family that you're building that's going to change some of the family dynamics on the street that they're used to. And when they're watching the show as an audience member, what we want for them to take away with is what do they think. Theater's there to challenge ideas and to question and it's a safe place to think differently because sometimes you don't get that space in time or place to really have that moment to reflect. The kids that we're used to in our community and our neighborhood, you know, they've grown up in a world where they react. You react immediately, that's how things get heated and hot so fast and I've heard young ladies say things like, "I didn't like the way that she was looking at me. I just don't like her." And things can just jump off immediately just from such a reaction. So theater gives you time to just sit back and think and learn [without] you having to do it learn what those consequences can be not only for you but for other people, and that's how theater starts to change lives. NEA: How would you finish the following sentence: The arts matter because…. YOUNG: It's our life. The reason why I say, "It's our life," is because a lot of people, we do a job to make money, to have food on the table, but the arts, it feeds our soul and it's the soul that keeps us going on.