Theatre Philadelphia hosts a Diversity Town Hall at New Freedom Theatre

Freedom isn't free

Last night, Theatre Philadelphia hosted a “Diversity Town Hall Meeting” at New Freedom Theatre. Your reaction to the latter half of that sentence might range anywhere from, “That sounds nice,” to “Oh no, they didn’t.” Yes, they did. New Freedom is presently at the center of serious controversy, and for that reason, the event went about as well as could be expected, which is to say, not well at all.

The historic Edwin Forrest Mansion has housed Freedom Theatre since 1968. (Photo via Creative Commons/Wikimedia)

Why are you here tonight?

To clarify, the meeting itself was a hopeful and, I believe, successful first step toward addressing diversity on and behind Philadelphia’s many stages. New Freedom’s newly appointed artistic director, Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj, and Theatre Horizon artistic director Erin Reilly, led the event, Maharaj prompting the crowd with questions such as “Why are you here tonight?” Incidentally, a security guard posted outside the building asked the same question of all attendees.

Members of the theater community who attended were indeed diverse, and the discussion respectful, if occasionally frustrated. Elements of African culture were woven throughout, as speakers held a carved “talking stick" and the evening ended with all holding hands, jumping, and shouting, “Ashé,” a Yoruba word that indicates the power to make change. After all, Freedom, celebrating its 50th anniversary season, is one of the country’s foremost African-American institutions and the only major Philadelphia producing house with an African-American artistic director.

So what was the problem? For those who haven’t been following along, in July, producing director Sandra Haughton cancelled Freedom’s summer student program and fired three longtime staffers: Patricia Scott-Hobbs, director of the company’s Barrymore Award-winning Performance Arts Training Program (PATP); Diane Leslie, director of PATP’s acting and workshops; and Gail Leslie, director of operations. Both Leslies are daughters of Freedom’s co-founder, Bob Leslie. The Philadelphia Tribune reported that all three, who worked at Freedom for decades, were told to pick a day and a two-hour time slot to clear their offices. Haughton's car was vandalized, and there were rumors that Freedom staff was threatened. To make matters worse, the women's exodus drew a crowd of friends, family, and media, and someone from the theater called the cops.

Protests and progress

Ever since, Freedom events have met with protests organized by company or school alumni, and many members of Philly’s theater community have pledged not to attend this or any other event until Haughton and the board are held to account. So, news of the town hall was met with some cynicism and requests that it be moved to a friendlier location. However, plenty of people, maybe 50 or so — artistic directors, actors, playwrights, administrators — still showed up, convinced the event would serve the greater good, which it did. 

Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj with the Barrymore Award for his 2015 play 'Little Rock.' (Photo via Creative Commons/Wikimedia)
Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj with the Barrymore Award for his 2015 play 'Little Rock.' (Photo via Creative Commons/Wikimedia)

At the evening's start, Maharaj, who sits on Theatre Philadelphia’s board, noted, “kindness is the entry point,” and quoted Maya Angelou’s twist on Goethe’s three questions: “Do you see me? Did you hear me? And did what I say mean anything? That is what everybody is looking for.” Actor JaRon Battle explained diversity creates work for everyone by way of a rising tide lifting all boats. Theatre Exile producing artistic director Deborah Block admitted that for her, diversity means an expansion from her “point of origin.” Power Street Theatre Company founder Gabriela Sanchez bemoaned the tokenism she often experiences. Kash Goins, founder of GoKash Productions, issued a call for artists of color to canvas their own communities and help diversify audiences for shows wherever they work, so producing houses will be able to quantify the value of those audiences. Actor Lary Moten noted that at one major producing house, for one play, the entire cast was black, while every member of the theater’s staff was white.

It was a good conversation, one that ended with the promise of more to come. The crowd dispersed for wine, cheese, and some networking. And then, again, the cops arrived.

A threatened legacy

It’s shocking that anyone at this African-American company, knowing black people are far more likely to be arrested and imprisoned than other ethnic groups, on the same day another unarmed black man was filmed being shot dead in the road by an officer, would so cavalierly call in the police. But it’s even more shocking at a peaceful gathering to which the community was invited. With the wine and cheese still open for the taking, there was a commotion in the front hall, an unidentified man told everyone to leave, and those who went outside were barred from reentering. For reasons that are still unclear, Moten was handcuffed, and while he was ultimately released, it’s no exaggeration to say there was more than a little panic in the air.

For her part, Haughton says "Freedom is in the midst of change and some people aren't happy about it," and she "wanted the event to be as unproblematic as possible." She did not explain why the disturbance happened after the event or why Moten was targeted, saying only, "You'll have to trust me on this." 

Adenrele Ojo-Allen, the daughter of Freedom’s other founder, John E. Allen, alleged that Haughton also called the police during an alumni protest at Saturday’s New Freedom open house, and attempted to deny her mother, Allen’s widow (and Freedom board member) Joyce Ojo-Allen, access to the building. She says her mother also showed up for the diversity meeting, and was denied entry there as well.

James Ijames has a few words about Freedom. (Photo via Facebook)
James Ijames has a few words about Freedom. (Photo via Facebook)

Outsider in, insider out

Though I’ve covered Freedom productions for the past 20 years, as an arts writer, I’m an outsider. So, I’ll let an insider explain why this was all so troubling. Here’s how playwright, director, actor, Villanova professor, and Barrymore and Haas Award winner James Ijames expressed his feelings in an open letter to New Freedom’s management and board:

“'You can’t come back into my theater.' Hearing that rang so false to me, so wrong…. That is not your theater. You may posess that building at present, but that theater belongs to the people. [It] belongs to black people and black stories and black history. [It is] proof of how far we’ve come and how far we have to go. That building is actually a National Historic Landmark…. Which is to say [it] belongs to everyone in attendance last night…. Its name is Freedom. You can’t own freedom. Freedom is inalienable. Freedom is open.”

Yes, freedom is open, but if the company continues to treat those who cherish its legacy so carelessly, I fear New Freedom Theatre won't be open much longer.

Our readers respond

Anonymous

of Philadelphia, PA on September 21, 2016

Everything in this article is pretty close to the truth; however, what is strange to me is that no blame is being put on Rajendra. Managing directors and artistic directors naturally work very close together, yet he is getting none of the blame.

Editor's Response

From what I could tell, Rajendra was as shocked about what was happening as everyone else. In fact, when he came outside to calm the situation and speak to the officers, he too was locked out of the building. He held this meeting in a spirit of openness and welcoming, and it sure looked to me like he was blindsided about what went down that evening.

Anonymous

of Philadelphia , PA on September 21, 2016

Rajendra is a liar...he was acting like he didn't know what happened.

Editor's Response

Here is Theatre Philadelphia's statement:

Dear Philadelphia theater community,

Several months ago, Theatre Philadelphia formed a Diversity Committee. On Monday evening, we held an event at New Freedom theatre. The goal of the night was to begin a community-wide conversation about equity, diversity and inclusion for the purposes of understanding how Theatre Philadelphia can help theaters build new audiences by making their work more inclusive.

We think it's a great sign that dozens of people showed up for this meeting. The room was packed, and the 70-minute discussion was spirited and positive. Towards the end of the night, unbeknownst to Theatre Philadelphia Board members, New Freedom staff contacted the local police department. It was later made known that several people had been prevented by New Freedom security from entering the building at all. Police arrived and escorted several attendees out of the building. 

Not a single board member of Theatre Philadelphia was aware that New Freedom intended to prevent some people from entering the building. We organized an event about inclusion, and therefore the Board deeply regrets that some people were excluded from participating in the event, while others were removed from the event. 

As an organization that seeks to serve many theaters and artists, it is inappropriate for Theatre Philadelphia's Board to comment on disputes within any one theater organization. However, because we value the incredible history of this landmark theater, we urge New Freedom's board, staff and those in New Freedom's extended family to work quickly to find a path forward together.

The equity, diversity and inclusion conversation in Philadelphia's theater community includes, but extends beyond New Freedom Theatre. While we must address this most recent event, our imperative is to consider ALL the ways various people are excluded from participating in theater in Philadelphia. This is the work we set out to do when we created the Diversity Committee. The goal is to increase inclusion, embrace a diversity of voices, and build audiences for theater. 

In pursuit of that goal, Theatre Philadelphia will continue to find forums for these critical community-wide conversations.

Thank you for the work you do,

The Board of Theatre Philadelphia
Erin Reilly, President
Terry Nolen, Vice President
Grace Grillet, Treasurer
Steve Pacek, Secretary
Deborah Block
Akeem Davis
Ryanne Domingues
Kevin Glaccum
Leonard Haas
James Ijames
Matthew Lewandowski II
Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj
Anne Shuff
Anneliese VanArsdale
Thom Weaver

Dan Rottenberg

of Center City/ Philadelphia, PA on September 22, 2016

I'm glad you were on hand to cover this incident, although it's unclear to me whether this was a bizarre fluke or indicative of some larger systemic flaw within New Freedom — or, for that matter, within the theatrical community itself. In the past I have observed that some theater people seem to believe that their right to free speech trumps that of others, including their audiences. Here's hoping some clarity emerges from the dialogue you've launched.

Demetrious

of Philadelphia, PA on September 26, 2016

I love how the executive director, Ms. Haughton, isn't even on the letter: You know, the person who has kept the theater open for the past five-plus years by raising millions of dollars for it to operate, managed all of the shows, and kept new patrons coming while making the correct changes to leadership within the building. All of these protests, but not one of them is thankful the theater has been open under her watch for so long. Where have all of these protesters been when some of the shows barely had 20 people in them? It is actually embarrassing. Don't say you support black theater, then only show up in anger. I've been to at least five New Fredom productions over the last year, and some of them were packed and some of them were damn near empty. I don't recognize any of the names on the bottom of the letter, either, nor how they got there.

Something seems fishy about this. Everyone wants their 15 minutes, I suppose.

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