Interview with MacArthur “Genius” Tommie Lindsey and Three-Time Tony Award-Winner Jhett Tolentino

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Tommie Lindsey Jr.

Tommie Lindsey Jr. has been a teacher for thirty-eight years, primarily coaching Forensics, a competition in speech, debate, and dramatic presentation. For the past twenty-seven years, he’s been Director of Forensics at James Logan High School in Union City, California, where he has established himself as one of the nation’s leading public speaking coaches. Logan, which is predominately working class, is ranked one of the top ten teams in the National Forensic League and has been recognized by Oprah. In a high school where 40 percent of students go on to four-year colleges, about 90 percent of his forensics students go to universities like Harvard, Yale, and Berkeley. In 2004, he was awarded the MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship. He was also my high school teacher, and taught me the power of identifying and cultivating possibility in others.

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Jhett Tolentino.

Jhett Tolentino was born, raised, and educated in Iloilo City, Philippines. Based on his humble beginnings, he says could he could have easily surrendered to drugs and alcohol. When he graduated college on a full scholarship, and with six jobs, he insisted his parents retire. He moved to the United States in 2002 and produced his first Broadway show in 2013. He's now a three-time Tony Award-winner, producing diverse works such as Here Lies Love, A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder, A Raisin in the Sun, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, and the upcoming Clever Little Lies. Mr. Tolentino is shifting the power center in commercial producing and building a bridge for others.

The questions below are inspired by the A.C.T./Wellesley Centers for Women study on gender equity.

Victor Maog: How did you get to your current position?

Tommie Lindsey: I had excellent mentors: my grandmother, and my neighbor Mrs. Dukes. My grandmother took on our family at a very young age. My mother died when I was fifteen years old and my father died when I was seventeen, so my grandmother was there. She worked hard and she tried to instill in us a value system that would allow us to be proud of who we are and what we represented and have a work ethic that allowed us to move forward. And then Mrs. Dukes was this incredible woman who was honored by Ebony Magazine. She took the time and energy to teach me to read, to write, and understand how to navigate the turbulence life presented.

Succeeding takes a belief in yourself despite all the obstacles. It takes a lot of endurance. I feel it's tough in the professional field for people to believe in you, especially when you’re successful. Rather than applauding, people become envious in a very ironic way.

Jhett Tolentino: I grew up very poor—no running water—in a shanty, squatter’s area in Iloilo City. I became self-sufficient and self-reliant at age thirteen.

Funny, I don't think that I am incredibly successful. For me, it's not always champagne and roses. Nobody on Broadway or in any arts industry has cracked the code to make their shows an ultimate success. All of my colleagues have bombed a few shows as well. 

In 2010, I went to my first Tony Awards as just a spectator, by myself. Not long after that, my business partner Joan Raffe and I joined a theatre investment group. A year later, we were independently producing. We debuted on Broadway in March 2013, and won our first Tony that June.

VM: Why are there so few people of color in leadership positions? What can done to achieve greater diversity in leadership?

TL: I think many people are intimidated by people of color and the thought of them taking over. It’s centered around racism. People just don’t give the people of color the opportunities. We have a lot of nepotism, but they don’t see it as such. People need to be willing to take a chance.

JT: I ask myself the same question. All I can point to is seniority and experience, regardless of race. I am sure there had been a few producers of color ahead of me. I can't speak on their behalf, but for myself, I intend to stay and make sure to represent leadership diversity.

VM: Where are people of color having opportunities and where are people of color being held up?

TL: It seems that in every place, people of color are being held up. Even in professional sports, you find a number of athletes who know the game, the lingo, and everything else, but they’re not given opportunities to be commentators—they’re not given opportunities to do the interviews.

JT: Opportunities are everywhere. It's really up to the individual to find them. And you cannot have a pre-conceived notion that you are a certain way. You have to approach it in a business perspective, not by the color of your skin.

VM: What's wrong with the system that's not letting people of color through to the top?

TL: The system is based on pretending opportunities exist where they don't. A lot of people think that with the election of President Obama, now everyone has equal opportunities, but that's not how it works.

JT: As a producer, I see it as a continuing education issue, and nothing wrong with the system. If I think as a performer, certainly there are a lot of issues there—not too many roles are written for people of color. If there is one, there is a lot of competition amongst extremely talented actors of color.

You need to have an inner circle of people who can provide you encouragement because if you’re successful you’re going to be questioned, you’re going to be challenged, but you have to have that inner circle to be able to help to recharge you when you’re down.

VM: In your own work, how are you addressing expectations around leadership and diversity?

TL: Sometimes, I want to throw in the towel, but I think about the soldiers like Mrs. Dukes who lived to be one hundred and five years old—what they had to put up with. And I always find that there is a faith within me that allows me to never quit and never give up.

You need to have an inner circle of people who can provide you encouragement because if you’re successful you’re going to be questioned, you’re going to be challenged, but you have to have that inner circle to be able to help to recharge you when you’re down.

JT: I’m going home to the Philippines for three months in November to make a platform there. I want to establish the Asia Pacific Theatre League. I’m trying to build something because it pains me every time I get a message saying, “As a Filipino producer, what can you do for us? What can you do for the Asian actor?” I just want the opportunity to be presented to other people, especially to our people back home. They needed someone to bridge the gap.

Again, I approach any opportunity in a business sense, not by the color of my skin. I don't set expectations for myself—I would just end up frustrated. In this business, you have to take things one step at a time. You have to keep an open mind and keep your cool, as it often can be a ferocious bloodbath. 

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Thoughts from the curators

In this series, ten rising leaders from TCG's SPARK Leadership Program examine leadership, vision, diversity, inclusion, and equity, as well exciting trends and trend makers in our field. 

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