In the wake of the death of George Floyd (and many others like him), and the ensuing Black Lives Matter marches and demonstrations, organizations nationwide are scrambling to increase their diversity and inclusivity.
Right now, the San Diego Repertory Theatre is taking bold steps to bring in new work by members of marginalized groups.
The 44-year-old company has diversity baked into its Mission Statement, which specifically mentions “inclusive theater,” and further specifies: “We promote an interconnected community through vivid works that nourish progressive political and social values and celebrate the multiple voices of our region.”
The Rep has done a considerable amount to further that goal, and yet, says literary manager Danielle Ward, “in the past few years, we’ve been evaluating our productions to see what underrepresented voices were missing.”
The company realized that they’ve had little or no representation of the viewpoints of Native Americans, Filipino-Americans, queer/transgender or Black Americans.
“Over the past few years,” says Rep artistic director Sam Woodhouse, “we’ve been maintaining an ongoing relationship with playwrights who speak in these voices. We asked these playwrights what they’d want to write about, what’s pertinent to them now, possibly centered around the local region.”
The result of those discussions is a new play commission series, “Here U.S. Now,” which features six playwrights and five different plays that will be developed with future Rep seasons in mind. All submissions are brand-new works, though some were already in the minds of the writers.
The Rep contacted them in March, says Woodhouse, “as soon as COVID started happening. We were trying to figure out what we could do to support artists.”
The Rep has tried to support its own as well. The company had some initial layoffs, but has retained more than 20 employees since the pandemic set in.
The deadline for “Here U.S. Now” submissions is Nov. 1 for an initial draft. The writers are contracted for three drafts, over a period of months. The plan is for some plays to be ready for the end of the current season, which would be around May of 2021, all things remaining equal.
Although the Rep reached out to both male and female playwrights, four of the the five plays chosen are by male-identifying writers. But Woodhouse and Ward note that Liliana Padilla is currently under commission for a full-length piece, thanks to funding from the National New Play Network.
“We also commissioned several short pieces from female playwrights who were already familiar to us and our audiences,” says Ward. ”We asked for short plays, under 15 minutes,”
These shorter works were written by: UCSD alum Caridad Svich, winner of an Obie Award for Lifetime Achievement (“In the Time of the Butterflies,” 2014; and more recently, at Moxie Theatre, “Red Bike”); Elizabeth Irwin (”My Mañana Comes,” an award-winner in 2015); and Colombian-born California playwright Diana Burbano, whose “Fabulous Monsters” was in the Rep’s first Latinx New Play Festival (2017). Her latest play, “Sapience,” will be in the upcoming Latinx New Play Festival in September.
“Because of the constraints of producing right now, and in the interest of obtaining more than just monologues,” explains Ward, “I asked if anyone might like to try writing for a sock puppet. And Elizabeth Irwin was interested.”
The plan is for these three shorts to be showcased some time between August and October.
Irwin’s (as yet-untitled) piece is based on a question she asked a group of her students about the best 30 seconds of their lives. She will perform it herself, with sock puppets.
Burbano’s online playlet, “Zoomerlandia,” explores the lives of three recent college graduates as they navigate the risks and joys of a 2020 summer.
Svich’s audio play, “The Sadness of Johnny Depp,” concerns a 20-something couple grappling with themselves and their love in this moment of uncertainty.
“These readings will be part of our current online programming,” says Woodhouse. “The full-length plays will be produced down the line in years to come. For the full-length plays, there will definitely be a development process, over time, with readings conducted either online, open to the public, or in-house, internally. These are typical steps in the play development process.”
The five full-length plays in the “Here U.S. Now” series include the following:
“Beyond the Crossroads,” by Idris Goodwin and K. Quinn Marchman, an online exploration of African American folklore that casts the audience as members of a band, as they follow the story of legendary bluesman Robert Johnson, who sold his soul to the devil in exchange for otherworldly guitar-playing skills. The play invites audience members to discover what they would be willing to give up in exchange for their wildest dreams. “It allows audiences to put themselves in the literal shoes of Black people,” says playwright Goodwin.
“The Butterfly of Chula Vista,” by Giovanni Ortega, Is a fast-paced screwball comedy that centers on Libertad Molina, Mexi-Pino (Mexican-Filipino) American, as he “embraces his many layers by performing drag at GG Island Grindz Bar & Grill in Chula Vista.” The play touches on themes such as familial duty, identity and acceptance. For Ortega, “during this time of disarray and confusion, our job as artists is to engage, enrage and entertain.”
“Duty Free,” by Boni B. Alvarez, explores the experiences of various immigrants trying to enter the U.S. Filipina journalist Merlina Rojas is seeking refuge in this country after having been named an “enemy of the republic” in her own. She meets other immigrants across time, in the same U.S. Customs Detention Room at LAX airport. “Xenophobia is baked into our culture,” says Alvarez. “This play looks at how we got here, and what it would take to break the cycle.”
“Mr. Transman,” by Kit Yan, based loosely on the writer’s own experience, explores the world of alternative pageantry, following five trans folx competing for the title of Mr. Transman. In his play, Yan, who identifies as a “queer and transgender Yellow-American,” asks the questions, ‘What makes a body? What is beautiful? Who gets to feel free?’”
“The Normal Force,” by Jason Grasl, concerns a brilliant Ph.D. student at UC San Diego, an up-and-coming particle physicist who is a member of a Native American tribe that is at risk of becoming extinct within three generations. A self-professed “sci-fi nerd,” Grasl has his protagonist face several challenges, including whether or not to support the use of artificial intelligence to help proliferate his tribe’s DNA.
“It’s a blessing and a joy to wrap our arms around this project, celebrating and nurturing other voices,” says the Rep’s Woodhouse. “There are a lot of difficult challenges in our business right now. This is a bright, shining star in our firmament. A bright light in a dark time.”
Pat Launer, a member of the American Theatre Critics Association, is a long-time San Diego arts writer and an Emmy Award-winning theater critic. An archive of her previews and reviews can be found at patlauner.com.