BWW Interview: Aldo Billingslea of POLAR BEARS, BLACK BOYS AND PRAIRIE FRINGED ORCHIDS LIVESTREAM at Juneteenth Theatre Justice Project Hopes to Create Meaningful Change
More than 30 Bay Area theatres are joining forces to present a reading on Juneteenth, encouraging donations to support a bold Go Fund Me Campaign that aims to fundraise one million dollars for Black theatre projects in America. Spearheaded by PlayGround, Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, and Planet Earth Arts, these Bay Area theatres (including TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, Berkeley Rep, A.C.T, Cal Shakes, and many more) are co-presenting a livestreamed Zoom reading of Vincent Terrell Durham's Polar Bears, Black Boys & Prairie Fringed Orchids at 7pm PT on June 19 as part of the Juneteenth Theatre Justice Project, a national theatre movement to produce this reading of Durham's play to commemorate anniversary of the freeing of enslaved Black people.
BroadwayWorld spoke this week with Aldo Billingslea, the longstanding pillar of the Bay Area theatre community who is producing the livestream and also leads the Juneteenth Theatre Justice Project. Billingslea is well-loved throughout the Bay Area as a man of many talents, including actor, professor, producer, collaborator and mentor. In conversation, Billingslea is warm and engaging, even when clearly expressing anger and sadness at the state of the world. He also combines a wry sense of humor with a lifelong theater nerd's command of historical detail and love for the artform. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Performing arts organizations everywhere are struggling with how to address racism in a meaningful way at this particular moment in time, while simultaneously being severely challenged by the Covid pandemic. How was the idea for the Juneteenth Theatre Justice Project conceived?
I think that being in essence locked out of the theater, just like the Elizabethans at a point, and not having that access has confounded a lot of us. What's the best way to try to create some art that can reach a number of people and still do some of the things that art does as it entertains and edifies and helps us to relate and become community? It makes it really, really tough when the theater is closed.
One of the places that's been doing it really well anyway has been PlayGround, the incubator in San Francisco. Their ZoomFest had a huge number of actors get paid and they were doing a lot of stuff [online]. I was involved with one of their productions and after it was over, Artistic Director Jim Kleinmann called me about a statement he was making for Black Lives Matter. I thought he was calling me about this play. It's a topical piece, you're going to think about it forever, every time an African American is shot by a police officer - may it never happen again (unfortunately it's going to happen again). And so I thought "Oh, he's calling thinking about this play" and he says "Well, actually I wasn't."
And I said "This is what we do. The nation's trying to figure out how to wrestle with this moment, and theaters are trying to figure out how to wrestle with this moment. What we do is we collaborate, we work together." Sometimes even when we don't like each other, we still work together because we're working for a higher purpose. That goal keeps all the oars moving in the same direction and it helps us move forward. I think it's an opportunity for us to model for the nation how this can work.
We initially were thinking since I'm on the board of Lorraine Hansberry and I'm an Associate Producer for PlayGround [to involve them]. PlayGround [originally] did the piece in collaboration with Planet Earth Arts, and then we're like, you know, we can ask some other theaters. So Cal Shakes and Eric Ting immediately said "yes," Aurora Theatre and Josh Costello immediately said "yes." Some theaters took a day or so to think about it and then came back and said "yes." And then people were wanting to make sure that the playwright got compensated and then they wanted to make sure the actors got compensated. Everybody is being rewarded financially for their efforts, and not in a small way, but with a decent-sized, Bay Area standard for hourly work being met. And so it started to grow.
Did anyone turn you down?
In the Bay Area, not a single theater has said "no." Some people haven't responded still, and there are smaller theaters that we still haven't been able to reach out to, but the people that I've sent emails to have responded have responded affirmatively in the Bay Area. Now outside the Bay Area there's some interesting stuff. The Old Globe [in San Diego] said we have a theater outreach thing, thank you, and so we can't do this at this time. And it was someone I had actually worked with when I was at the Globe, one of the places where I started my career, in 1990 and 1991. So they're doing their own thing as they're absolutely entitled to.
But, let me reel back a little bit and say when this play was read as a part of its initial development, in its initial commission, I wasn't around. My dear, dear friend Annie Stuart and Jim Kleinmann said "Aldo, you really need to check this piece out. It is a wonderful piece." So my wife and myself and some friends were traveling to South Dakota and to get to South Dakota it's easier to fly to Nebraska and so when we finished our trip, I thought on the way back as we drive from South Dakota through Nebraska, I will read this play. It's a couple hours' drive and so that was the plan. About six pages into the play, I said "Forget that. Everybody, turn off the radio! Listen, I'm gonna read you this play for the next two hours" and we laughed and hooted and signified and gasped and moaned our way through the whole thing. My friends in the car, Dr. Barbara Means Fraser and her husband Dr. Bob Fraser, are former professors of mine from my undergrad, and Barbara's now a colleague of mine from Santa Clara [University]. All we did, the four of us, was talk about this play and what was going on and how badly I wanted to do the play.
I was already slated to take an alumni group up to Ashland, Oregon and so I coordinated with people up there to have some actors read the play and have the people from the literary development team at Ashland be in the room to hear it. There were some constructive comments that were made, but they weren't really doing back flips for it and saying what I thought - that this is a powerful play and needs some shaping still, but already the story is there. That was last August, and I'd been thinking "Where could this thing go?" Then these shootings happened and I thought, "It's time."
While the livestream will raise funds for an important cause, it will also hopefully provide a worthwhile artistic experience, too so -
Without a doubt.
- for you as a theater artist, what do you particularly love about this play?
When I was the Interim Artistic Director of the Hansberry, we had a playwrighting competition to see if we could find the next great Black comedy. When there is so much strife that is woven into every day of your history as a people, it's easy to see where the drama comes from, but there's also a whole lot of comedy that comes out of there, too. The nation's best comedians and entertainers use that pain and make something positive from it. So I kept thinking "There's gotta be a great comedy out there."
I'm also a person who believes in bridges, and not in gates. And partly cause I teach at Santa Clara University and it's a great place to bring new work for our students, I kept thinking "Where's a play where I can put some of my Black students onstage with some of my white students, and I can bring in other ethnicities, you know some of our Latinx and Asian students? Where is that play?" This play was race-specific, culture-specific, but it addresses SO many things and I thought "This is fabulous! I just want to try to find a way to do it."
The money raised will go to funding Black theatre projects in America. Can you talk a little about some specific ways you imagine the funds might get used?
Yes, we just put together a steering committee for the distribution of those funds. On that steering committee is Lamont Thompson, who Bay Area audiences will remember from Marcus Gardley's Black Odyssey at Cal Shakes. He's on a series now in LA [68 Whiskey]. Along with Robert Shoffner who is president of the board at Lorraine Hansberry and his wife, Stephanie Shoffner, who is the managing director of the Hansberry. They're both bankers. Sherri Young, Executive Director of the African-American Shakespeare Company in San Francisco, is also on the committee. Then there's Patrick E. Stewart, an arts advocate consultant in the southern part of the state. And the indomitable Margo Hall will also be on our steering committee. As well as being a consummate actress, Margo is also a teacher at Cal Berkeley and she's on the Theatre Bay Area board that just went through a process of helping theater artists get money through a fund for Covid relief.
Those people are all trying to help us come up with a means of distribution for whatever funds we raise, and do so in a way that doesn't replicate some of the inherent biases in the systems of distribution when it comes to arts funding. So - trying to do it in a way that allows those Black theaters not to be penalized for being small, or for having their target audience be a smaller portion of the local population, or for whatever reason. To have it be a process that's a little less taxing to apply for the funds, and then asking them to use it to keep the theaters alive. It's always a tragic moment when a theater that shuts its doors. San Jose Rep closing its doors was like a death in our family.
Also then hopefully those theaters will try to create some sort of a project, some nurturing of a script, that might allow us to be back here again a year from now, reading another script and having some other playwright or playwrights coming together to read more scripts next Juneteenth. Right now this one script is so on-point for this moment that it's about 60 theaters that are looking to read this piece. Maybe next year there's three plays that are read by 20 different theaters or organizations. So, we'll see.
Finally, I just wanted to take a step back and look at the big picture of this historic moment in time that we're in. How optimistic are you feeling, or not, that we'll finally see meaningful, sustained progress in the fight against racism?
That is the big question. I'm an optimistic guy, but I'm also one of those people that don't want to have to watch someone do a tap dance on my heart. We've been down those places before where we think that there's progress, we think that things are getting better, and then President Trump is elected so... Yeah, sometimes it's two steps forward and one step back, but when it feels like you're taking several steps back, it's really, really painful. This moment I would love to say is different. I would love to say maybe this is the time where we start to actually get it and I think it could be. Maybe this will be it, maybe it will stop now. I can't realistically say I think that's the case.
I think some things can get better, it will definitely bring people off the fence, and more people will land on the side of the fence where the camp of correct is, the camp of just is, the camp of fair and godly or spiritual or humanistic values are. I think that's gonna happen. But I think that there are enough people in our country who still feel less-than and threatened and want desperately for a clock to turn back to a time where they were able to act with impunity and focus on self blatantly, and feel justified in doing so. Denial is not just a river. It's amazing how committed some people can be to it. Those are the people who I hope can find their way into a theater. There's a whole lot of work that's yet to be done.
Juneteenth Theatre Justice Project's livestream reading of Vincent Terrell Durham's Polar Bears, Black Boys and Prairie Fringed Orchids takes place on Friday, June 19th, 2020 at 7pm PDT. For further information and to make donations, please visit the website of any of the participating theater companies.