Standing in Our Grandfathers' Shoes
Sarah Bellamy and Jamil Jude in Conversation
Sarah Bellamy: You’ve just been announced as incoming artistic director of Kenny Leon’s True Colors Theatre Company. How you doing?
Jamil Jude: It’s been a full forty-eight hours. A lot of press, but it’s part of the work that we’re in right now so I can’t say I mind it. It’s a good thing. Just trying to get my rhetoric together so I can continue to say these things as concise as needed.
Sarah: There’s a lot of history that you have to sum up, and then talk about the future.
Jamil: What about you?
Sarah: We had a really good run of For Colored Girls at Penumbra Theatre. Then, six days after we closed, we learned that Ntozake Shange passed. And I’m producing her sister’s play this winter. So I’ve been having a lot of conversations with the family at a difficult time for them.
Jamil: It’s also an awesome opportunity for you to step into that void, right? To say: “Here’s the way in which we want to take care of this treasure in our community.” And what better place to do it than your theatre, where you’re the artistic director?
Sarah: She was one of the giants. I’m very grateful to have a relationship with her sister, Ifa, who wrote The Ballad of Emmett Till, which we produced here in 2014; and now we’re doing Ifa’s second piece of that trilogy, Benevolence. We’re also wrapping up our last strategic plan and moving into the next life cycle for the organization so that’s exciting, even though it’s nascent.
But I find it an energizing process. It needs a lot of space and time, which I’m not so sure we theatre producers are great at giving ourselves. I feel a little bit like a ping-pong ball sometimes.
Jamil: One thing we’ve been focusing on is how to slow down in this moment, because I think everyone is going to push us to go as fast as we can. I’m trying to bring as much energy to this transition as I can, saying: “Here are the things I’m excited by. I want do to this and I want to do that.” And I think everyone’s like: “Yeah, yeah. And you could do this and you should do this.” Because our theatre is so small—we’re $1.5 million dollars, seven full-time employees, a couple of part-time employees, some of those seasonal—everyone’s already doing so much. What I don’t want to do is come in and overburden people with a whole bunch of new ideas, and mess up the things we’ve been doing well by having too many programs.
Sarah: Are you working with any evaluative consultants on trying to decipher what the efficacy or impact of those programs are, or are you using your own discernment?
Jamil: We’re trying to set up our own standard. But I don’t think bringing in outside eye would hurt. I’m going to take that and store it away. Is that something you did?
Sarah: Yeah. For some of our programs it was essential. When I program design, sometimes, because I’m so close to it, I don’t speak about it in ways that help the people who have no idea what it’s intended to do. Sometimes going through the paces with an evaluative team helps you really home in on what you’re actually intending to do. And then it helps with fundraising, right? Cause you’ve got very clear-cut criteria against which to measure the programs.
I think it’s a good investment. It’s something we did for the big programs, and with our plays we just do audience surveys, and things like that, to make sure we’re giving people a feedback loop.
Jamil: We do the audience survey piece. When speaking about the work or having the work evaluated, do you feel like you need people in certain cultural contexts in order to better understand it? I feel like whenever I’m talking about True Colors, there’s an immediate lane some people want to put the work into. They want to talk about it in ways that may not always jive with how we see it. Have you run into those same types of misunderstandings or assumptions about the work, which you’ve then had to try to correct?
Sarah: Oh sure. But I think it is really just trusting your instincts. And as the artistic director, people rely on you to have that compass.
Have you started thinking about the things you feel are foundational to True Colors and what you might want to bring online?
Jamil: I think what’s foundational is producing world-class theatre and trying to maintain the standard around production value, around speaking to an Atlanta community, while also staking claim to a national conversation. One of the things I’ve loved and that attracted me to the company was that True Colors was mentioned in the national dialogue around the best plays being produced and the best theatre companies producing those plays.
Our relationship with Lydia R. Diamond and putting shows of hers up before they went to Broadway; August Wilson helping us launch the company back in 2002. Kenny’s national profile has always kept the spotlight on True Colors. So I think for us it’s foundational to make sure people still think of the company as synonymous with artistic excellence and excellence in production. The way we do that is doing three shows a year as opposed to doing five or six. If the budget isn’t moving past 1.5 at any really crazy rate, we’re not going to get to 2.5 million dollars in a year. So how can we still make sure that we’re dedicating the resources we have to our productions? Because the art leads the way.
Sarah: I so appreciate your discernment around doing fewer plays at the best level you can. There is a lot of pressure on new artistic directors to come in with a bang and show something really different or exciting. I think part of the reason we had a really successful transition from our founder to the next generation of leadership here at Penumbra—and that’s always really difficult because organizations become built around founders to a certain degree—is because I was really intentional about slow change with our programming. And helping people baby step their way into understanding the vision.
Of course a lot of it has yet to be rolled out but, really, I say this a lot, I didn’t have any interest in burning the fields. I think our legacy institutions are so important; so many of the Black theatres that were borne out of the time that Penumbra was created are no longer with us. So that feels to me like the scariest thing about coming on as the artistic director and taking the organization in what I feel is it’s organic direction. I don’t want to break anything. It is very precious to me—the company’s founder, Lou, is my father, and I am steeped in what this organization is.
There is a lot of pressure on new artistic directors to come in with a bang and show something really different or exciting.
As I have imagined the next life cycle for this organization, I have continually asked myself three questions. The first one is: I know what Penumbra meant in 1976, why it was founded. Why is it necessary in 2018? The second one is: What are my unique gifts and interests that I can bring to this organization? I’m always considering when that’s in alignment and when it’s not. And the third is: How do I illuminate the singularity of our brand? Penumbra has a specific niche that it serves.
So I have been thinking about how we can define our brand and what our unique thing is that we offer our community—being able to really articulate our value proposition. I think we’ve always been pretty good at that, but it feels important now that we’re able to do that in a way that says, “This organization is special. It’s unique and it deserves support.” Because, as you know, there’s such incredible disparity between predominantly white institutions and theatres of color in terms of funding. And, ironically, as philanthropists found out about those discrepancies—that 2 percent of arts organizations got 58 percent of all funding—the disparities got worse.
It’s a really interesting time for the field. And I think it’s going to be incumbent upon arts organizations of color—especially those with ten-plus years behind them—to really be able to own space and not be afraid to say “This is who we are.” And we’re showing up authentically. This is a way that we serve this community, and it’s something only we can do.
Jamil: I love that three-pronged approach. I think you helped crystallize a path forward that I have been trying to put together. The founding of the organization in 2002, for Kenny and his co-founder Jane Bishop, and Kenny’s work at the Alliance Theatre before that, was really about bringing primarily Black people to the theatre, though we can be broader and say people of color. More people of color attended the Alliance under his leadership than before. But the Alliance was still very much centered around a white narrative, and then diversified on the fringes, right?
When Kenny and Jane started True Colors, the idea was to center the Black classic and then use the specificity of a Black storytelling tradition to also inspire diversity and tell a multiplicity of stories. As I look at the company now, in 2018, those disparities that you just talked about in funding still exist, and when we look at the directors who are constantly working… Who’s telling those stories? Why is it that—especially in New York City—more white women are directing plays by women of color than Black women? What does True Colors need to do in 2018 in its efforts to rebalance the American theatre and center a different narrative? How can we be part of shifting the narrative in 2018?
That’s definitely something I’ve been taking a look at. And now I’m thinking about what my specific gifts are. What can I bring? How can I show up in that space? I think the last one, forgive me if I’m hacking up what you said so beautifully, but what is it that Penumbra can offer uniquely? Similarly, what can True Colors offer uniquely? That provides so much clarity in how to speak about it. What is our unique audience base and patron base, and what are the effects that can have on artists? How can we utilize and shift the field with those resources?
There’s the conversation for public consumption and the conversation for private consumption. You know what I mean? I’m very aware of that. But that’s one of the issues plaguing the field.
You and I both, as we move through the world, show up as leaders and present a different face than what people have known the companies to be. I think a lot about that, about what it means to show up as a different face for True Colors Theatre Company. Or Kenny Leon’s True Colors Theatre Company. I’m not Kenny, right?
Jamil: And I don’t move through the world like he does. And you, while you share the last name of Penumbra’s founder, show up in space differently than Lou did. I guess the question inside that is instead of focusing on the challenges, what have you found the opportunities to be, showing up differently but bringing a brand with you?
Sarah: Wow. That’s a really cool question. When my dad and I first began this transition, he said, “One opportunity you have is that you don’t have any baggage with people yet.” So I got to take the good. I got to take the legacy and the organization but also enter into it without being burdened by some of the histories that were more difficult.
I think also being fairly young—amongst the youngest artistic directors—people are willing to nurture you and offer guidance. Sometimes you don’t necessarily need or want it, but there are that people who value the institution and they want to see it thrive, and they want to see you succeed, so they’re willing to offer advice.
Jamil: I feel that.
Sarah: One of the really important things I had to do when I was taking over was meet with the elders of the company. Sit and listen to them and hear about their concerns and their hopes for the organization. I spent a lot of time what I call “sitting at the feet” of the people who made this place real. That was very empowering for me and for them to be able to feel like, this next leader, while she’s not Lou, she knows what we put into this place. She’s not going to burn the fields.
Jamil: And our colleagues don’t have to have that same experience. The sitting-at-the-feet that feels both part of a cultural tradition that you and I both were raised in but feels so integral to the ways in which our companies have worked. I don’t feel like that’s a burden other leaders have had to pay. And maybe they have and I’m just being ignorant of it, but when I’m out in the world…
I just had the opportunity to be in Brooklyn, True Colors took a show up there. And getting an opportunity to be in that community with so many Black theatre greats… Sitting with Woodie King Jr., sitting with Rome Neal. Sitting with contemporary leaders like Charles Randolph-Wright. Listening to what they understood the company to be and what their visions are and all these other things. I don’t feel like, had I taken over a “mainstream theatre company,” I would need to do that or want to do that. It’s not a chore, really, it’s an opportunity, a responsibility to learn what came before me so that I feel more emboldened to move forward.
Sarah: It goes back to that idea of these being our legacy institutions, right? A sense of communal ownership. We have a different sense of relationship to our legacy institutions, our educational institutions, our arts organizations, our faith institutions, because they’re the things that knit and bind Black communities together in ways that are nourishing and can be really lifesaving. And they’re places where we can be ourselves.
We have a different sense of relationship to our legacy institutions, our educational institutions, our arts organizations, our faith institutions, because they’re the things that knit and bind Black communities together.
I think that when you find those sanctuary spaces, for those people who created them and who enriched them and who protected them, you have to pay homage. There might be some aspects of that truth for certain predominantly white institutions, but it’s sometimes around different criteria. There’s a culturally specific element that we’re talking about, and it’s part of running a business. We have the same thing, right? We have donors we’ve inherited, and we need to continue to cultivate those relationships, as well as those with foundations and corporations. We want the organization to be healthy and sustainable. So we’re bound, as the leaders, to meet those challenges. But I think, as people of color in this country, there’s a sense of, as August Wilson put it, standing in our grandfathers’ shoes and walking down that path. And we’re not just carrying ourselves. We’re carrying what was and we’re making them feel what could be.
Jamil: Kenny and I have had a couple of months of overlap, and it’s been really nice to sit and talk to him more purposefully than we have before, passing ideas back and forth. You and your father had a transition that was over a year or two or something like that?
Sarah: Four years.
Jamil: Four years, wow! I don’t think I knew that. What value did you get out of that long runway for the transition?
Sarah: First off, I think it’s really rare. Not a lot of people could or want to do that. But I think it helped my father feel good about going, which was important. Founders have a lot bound up in organizations that they’ve led for a long time, so they need to feel like they have a really strong sense of what’s going to happen next. And they have to be honored, so we had a big gala, and we had time to fundraise for that. It also gave me time to evolve the organization really incrementally, so I could start putting things out that I knew were elemental to my curation, which were different from his, but so it wouldn’t feel like the organization took a hard turn. Lastly, my dad’s got incredible expertise and experience, so being able to learn from him, to have him support me, was really valuable.
Jamil: That’s great. For me, it really is just trying to find opportunities to sit and talk to Kenny, to gain insight from him about his leadership journey and also get to know him better. He’s been a mentor for me the entirety of my theatre career, which has shifted so many times. It started as, What does it mean to be a young Black man in theatre? And then it was like, What does it mean to be a young Black man as a director? And now it’s very much, What does it mean to be young and Black and in a leadership position?
I also think I was putting unnecessary pressure on myself, thinking, What do audiences need to hear from me and True Colors in my first season, 2019–20? And I’ve tried to give myself enough grace, to say Well, really you should think about it as the first three seasons and what you are going to do over that timeline. Which, for us, leads into our twentieth anniversary season. So, it’s like, Okay, what is the story that we are going to tell that leads us to our twentieth anniversary?
I’m really excited by the grace period that shifting my focus has allowed, but we also have Kenny in this emeritus position. So that’s one of the ways we can work together, in terms of how we present the company in its twentieth season, with sixteen under his leadership and then the remainder under mine. I’m really excited about what that can look like.
Sarah: I think it’s interesting to have the two of us have a conversation because while the organizations we run are specific to their own geography, they do share some really interesting commonalities and they are challenged by some of the same field-wide things that other organizations aren’t. And I think those big anniversaries are such wonderful moments. If they’re planned well and you have enough of a runway, they can be really, really monumental for an organization. I’m excited for that for you.