Sheldon Epps became the first black person to direct a major theater in Southern California when the Pasadena Playhouse named him artistic director in 1997. At the time, he was one of a handful of black artists in the country to hold such a position. The award, says Epps, was an honor that came with great difficulties.
“I felt obliged and challenged to be successful. Not just for me. I had to deliver in every way I could to prove that it was possible for a person of color to successfully direct such an institution,” Epps writes in his recently published memoir, My Own Directions: A Black Man’s Journey in the American Theater “. .” “It was a tremendous added burden in a position that was already fraught with its own challenges and obstacles.”
More than 26 years later, Epps’ feelings reflect the tense conversations the theater world is currently locked in. Following the assassination of George Floyd, the resulting waves of mass protests swept the art world in 2020, and theater makers began speaking loudly about a lack of diversity and racial parity on and off the stage and in the executive ranks.
In June 2020, a collective of BIPOC theater practitioners demanding accountability and changes in the art form issued a call to action: “We See You White American Theatre”. The initiative had over 300 signatories, including prominent names such as Lin-Manuel Miranda, Cynthia Erivo and Billy Porter. That number has since grown to over 100,000 signers, and work on cultivating anti-racist theatrical systems continues.
Epps is encouraged to see this activism — in fact, the modern movement is part of what inspired him to write his memoir in the first place. He wanted to let young black artists know that they are not alone and can have success. Still, he says it’s frustrating to realize that his struggle is being reflected in the experiences of so many people more than a quarter-century later.
Why has enduring, systemic change proved so elusive in theater — a field that touts its enlightened liberal credentials but consistently falls short of the values it purports to uphold?
Epps attempted to analyze that question in an interview on the sun-drenched terrace of the Pasadena Playhouse, near a bench where he sat many years ago, watching patrons enter the theater and wondering why he had the only black face underneath was them – and how he could change that dynamic.
“Let’s face it, these conversations started in 2020, they didn’t,” says Epps, his voice precise and authoritative—an actor’s voice, with the balance and posture to match. “Active, loud or covert, I’ve been talking about these for decades.”
Tremendous strides have been made, he says, but the art form still challenges “a long tradition of American theater as a white institution and the power in American theater, both commercially and in the nonprofit world, in the hands of the white establishment.”
Epps says he’s a little nervous about the way the situation has evolved since 2020. He’s encouraged to see an increase in the number of Leaders of Color as artistic directors and executive directors, but he worries that “it’s a moment, not a movement.”
Epps was privy to far too many of these moments. And now, as the theater faces one of its biggest challenges of all time – regaining its financial footing and attracting new audiences after the devastating COVID closures – he fears many houses will cut staff or close altogether. If that happens, he says he’s concerned some BIPOC leaders would pay the price.
People will say, ‘Well, you see, they can’t do the job. You know, we tried, but they really weren’t up to it,” says Epps. “And they will forget about COVID. They’ll forget that lumber costs more, union fees and all that, and just point the finger and use that as an excuse to undo some of the progress made. I pray that won’t be true. But I have a real concern about it.”
Epps speaks from experience. When he first arrived at the Pasadena Playhouse, an alternative weekly called the City Paper ran a inflammatory op-ed entitled “Theatre of the Absurd,” which began with the line, “Sheldon Epps might be just the man to bring Pasadena new flavors.” to rent. a city best known for its vanilla.”
The story, which praised the decision to hire Epps but questioned his chances of success at such a white institution, continued by asking, “Is Epps the man to please the geeks, mobilize the hipsters, placate the board and the closet keeps? Racists at bay? If so, this black artist leader in a racially complicated community cut his work out for him.” In his memoir, Epps recounts how his mother “bowed her head and wept softly” as she read the article, which was based on a caricature of Epps, who was immersed in a boiling kettle of oil, flanked by WASPy whites.
Epps was born at Compton Hospital in 1952 and grew up in the neighborhood through middle school. Epps recalls being part of a generation of young black people who were told they could be absolutely anything they set their minds to be. His father was a minister of the Presbyterian Church and had started the first black congregation of that denomination in the West in the 1940s.
The church engaged the congregation both artistically and spiritually, and Epps recalls a pivotal afternoon when he was about 10 years old and taking a bus on a church-organized trip to attend a matinee of Carson McCullers’ The Member of the to see Wedding’. with Ethel Waters. The experience caused Epps to fall in love with the theater. In a twist of fate, this show happened to be held at the Pasadena Playhouse.
Epps’ father was later asked to join the church administration, which was based in New York City, and when Epps was in middle school the family moved to Teaneck, NJ. Uprooted from the Compton community, Epps soon learned what it felt like to be one of the only black faces in the school — a sentiment that would last as he moved into the realm of theater for his career.
The decision to pursue the art form came when he was immersed in the magic of Broadway during high school — when he wasn’t acting in school plays, he would regularly catch the bus to Manhattan to see as many shows as possible. He was later accepted into the elite theater program at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
From there he became a freelance director, eventually ending up as Associate Artistic Director at the Old Globe Theater in San Diego before making the leap to the helm of the Pasadena Playhouse, where he would remain for the next 20 years programming an eclectic line of shows that Crowds gathered from all over the city and region.
Epps writes passionately about his artistic journey in his memoir, noting that it was important to him not to be seen as a “black director”.
“The manner in which this term is used and interpreted in our field is intentionally or not demeaning and intended to diminish one’s capabilities,” writes Epps. “In fact, I’ve never heard my peers describe the lighter shade as white directors.”
Some of the proudest accomplishments of his tenure at the Pasadena Playhouse include: a 2006 production of August Wilson’s Fences, directed by Epps, starring Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett; the premiere of Sister Act: The Musical that same year; a 2011 production of Blues for an Alabama Sky starring Robin Givens; 2012 directing Lynn Nottage’s Intimate Apparel; and a production of Twelve Angry Men, tweaked to feature six black and six white characters, and produced shortly after George Zimmerman was found not guilty of the murder of Trayvon Martin.
Epps, against tremendous odds, managed to bring diversity to the stage and audience at the Pasadena Playhouse. We are proud of his achievement, but it came at a high personal and emotional cost. He writes about not being invited to dinners and holiday parties from board members and big donors, and about patrons canceling subscriptions because he was programming too many black plays.
When Epps stepped down from his role in 2017, the Pasadena Playhouse was already transformed. But that work in the theater continues, Epps says, and is as necessary now as ever.
“There were years when I screamed to the wind and nobody really listened,” he says, adding that despite many setbacks, real progress has been made. “There are more voices now. They were louder voices. They were voices of great repute, and they were definitely more honest.”
In his memoirs, Epps writes about “the dark mystery of American theater” and describes the “ghettoization of colorists in our supposedly sophisticated, liberal, and cosmopolitan field.”
That secret, he says, is no longer “a hidden secret — we haven’t solved the problem — but at least it’s no longer a secret.”