As Harvey Young was preparing to move from Chicago to Boston a couple of years ago to become dean of Boston University’s College of Fine Arts, several friends sent him links to the Globe’s Spotlight series on racism in the city, published not long before.
A leading theater historian who has done extensive research on “the performance and experience of race,” Young was already aware of Boston’s longstanding reputation as a place not welcoming to people of color.
When he arrived in January 2018, one of the first people Young met was Emerson College president Lee Pelton, who is Black and a pivotal figure in Boston theater, since Emerson College owns three major downtown venues: the Emerson Colonial, the Paramount Center, and the Cutler Majestic. Moreover, Pelton’s support of the presenting organization ArtsEmerson has created much more visibility for international and multicultural works on big local stages.
That same month in 2018, Young attended a production by the small Company One Theatre of Idris Goodwin’s “Hype Man: a break beat play,” a searing examination of racial injustice set in the hip-hop milieu and galvanized by a police shooting of an unarmed Black teenager. Young recalls thinking, as he watched the performance with a diverse Company One audience, that “there’s really something going on here in the city with respect to diversity and inclusion” — an impression that has been fortified since then.
“The Boston theater scene is significantly more dynamic and more complex than I thought it would be when I was living in Chicago,” said Young.
Boston obviously still has a very long way to go. Neither Young nor any other knowledgeable observer believes that area theater companies, much less the city itself, have solved the kind of racial inequities that have long bedeviled Boston. More diversity is needed on the city’s stages, at numerous levels behind the scenes, and, importantly, among the largely white audiences. Systemic racism remains a powerful and pernicious force in theater, as it is elsewhere.
But one measurable and heartening sign of progress in the last few years has been the growth in the ranks of Black theater leadership in the Boston area, with multiple appointments to top decision-making positions at formerly white-led institutions. The impact and insight of these leaders may be especially crucial now, as Boston theaters attempt to respond to the urgent issues brought to the fore by Black Lives Matter and the demands for sweeping reform by national coalitions like We See You, White American Theater and Black Theatre United.
At this fraught historical/cultural moment, the emergence of Black leaders could have positive ramifications in terms of audiences that better reflect the city’s diversity, the opportunities that open up for Black actors and other theater professionals, the plays that Bostonians see and the voices they hear, the message sent to the many college students of color preparing here for careers in theater — and, possibly, for Boston’s overall sense of itself.
“If the top arts organizations of Boston are run by white people, then that’s what the personality of the Boston arts scene looks like,” said Michael J. Bobbitt, who last year became the first Black artistic director of Watertown’s New Repertory Theatre after more than a decade as head of Adventure Theatre-MTC, based near Washington, D.C. “We see it in how funding happens; we see it in who gets special treatment. That changes when there are more brown and Black people. Then the whole community will benefit.”
Added Dawn M. Simmons, artistic director of the Front Porch Arts Collective since 2016 and executive director of StageSource since 2018: “There’s all this new leadership, much of it leadership of color. It was part of organizations understanding that they have a deeper responsibility now, that if they want to tell the stories of a diverse community, if they want to authentically represent those voices, then the leadership has to change.”
“Also, the right people were coming along,” Simmons said. “The talent is real. The pedigrees here are formidable, and you could put any of us up against any of our counterparts nationally.”
“There’s been a ripple for years, but now there’s a wave,” said Lyndsay Allyn Cox, who became part of that wave when she was appointed director of theater arts at the Boston Center for the Arts in 2018. “Hopefully it will change the way we do things in Boston.”
Young thinks it will. He said he has had one-on-one meetings with many of the newer Black theater leaders in Boston, and has found that “they’re all committed to diversifying audiences and allowing the average person to see themselves onstage.”
“That’s something most people take for granted, but it’s few and far between if you are an African-American theatergoer to see your stories and experiences reflected onstage,” said Young.
It’s not as if there were no Black theater leaders in Boston until now. Summer L. Williams, for instance, has long played a consequential role as one of the founders and senior leaders of Company One Theatre. But the move toward Black theater leadership began to accelerate in 2015, when David C. Howse was named managing director (later executive director) of ArtsEmerson. Front Porch Arts Collective, a Black theater company, was founded a year later, with Maurice Emmanuel Parent as executive director, co-leading with Simmons. Front Porch quickly had a pronounced impact, teaming up with established local theaters for coproductions of plays like “Pass Over” and “black odyssey boston.”
In 2017, Christopher V. Edwards was named artistic director of Actors' Shakespeare Project. A year later, Simmons became head of StageSource, a theater service organization with more than 1,500 members throughout New England. Holding frequent informational and idea-swapping conversations among theater professionals online since the pandemic-forced shutdown began in March, Simmons has been credited in Boston theater circles with being a steadying, unifying force at an uncertain time.
Last year, Harold Steward was named producing co-executive director of The Theater Offensive, where Tonasia Jones is the interim director of programs. And then there’s Young, the dean at BU. Both the BU School of Theatre and the Wheelock Family Theatre report to him (the latter due to the 2018 merger of BU and Wheelock College).
A crucial next step is for more doors to open for Black women to be artistic or executive directors, said the BCA’s Cox, adding that she aspires to such a top leadership post herself.
To a certain extent, the growth of Black theater leadership in Boston is a reflection of the more inclusive picture nationally. Washington Post theater critic Peter Marks noted on Sept. 17 that “theater professionals of color — many of them women” have recently been appointed to leadership positions at “some of the most important theater companies in the nation.”
“I would love to say that Boston is leading [but] I would say that we’re mirroring,” said Simmons. “We’re poised to be leaders in what sharing power, inclusion, and diversity look like. It’s not that we don’t have a long way to go. But so does everybody else.”
Bobbitt, of New Rep, has emerged as a forceful proponent of change in his relatively short time in the region. He has argued that programming and all other theater operations must be viewed through “a race-equity lens,” and he has urged race- and class-conscious changes in the ways nonprofit theaters do business. Bobbitt maintains that season subscriptions should be eliminated because they inherently favor people with money and often work against people of fewer means, including people of color and young patrons.
“I love challenges,” said Bobbitt. “I have chosen to work at predominantly white institutions so I can build anti-racism structures. I took the job because I was aware of Boston’s racism. Being a person of color will help you see inequities that people who don’t have to see inequities don’t see.”
Many theaters, in Boston and across the nation, have vowed to use the pandemic-imposed downtime to focus on building anti-racist theater. But some Black theater professionals worry that those commitments might not be fully put into practice as theaters struggle to stay afloat amid economic upheaval.
Still, most of the leaders I interviewed said they believe there’s no turning back in terms of the broader push for diversity. “I don’t think you get to be a predominantly white institution anymore,” said Bobbitt. “I don’t think that’s allowed. I think any organization that pushes back against being multicultural is not going to survive.”
Cox, of the BCA, arrived in Boston from North Carolina in 2007 and began crafting a career in acting that has now expanded to management. “I’ve seen Boston change dramatically in 13 years," she said. "So I can only imagine 13 years from now, my goodness, if we keep on the same trajectory, how amazing of a place this will be. But the work can’t stop. We can’t go back to doing things the same old way.”