In late June, Pride Films and Plays faced a wave of allegations on social media about the behavior of founder and executive director David Zak, leading to Zak’s resignation and the appointment of Donterrio Johnson as artistic director. In early November, Johnson resigned, charging that Zak was still in a hands-on role with the company (which, under Johnson, did rebrand itself as PrideArts).
In an interview with the Tribune’s Chris Jones, Johnson said, “I really thought I was being brought on to change the outside view of this company . . . But I have found out that is not what this theater really wants to do.”
Johnson told me that Zak was involved with Zoom board meetings and playing an active role in fundraising. According to Johnson, he didn’t realize that Zak would continue to be involved in Pride at that level.
Says Johnson, “I called a board meeting just to figure out for myself where we were in the process. I had no power to fire anybody in a meeting, so I brought it to the board just to figure out ‘Is he leaving? Is he staying? Is he going to be working? What is he doing?’ Just so we can have clarification because I’m meeting with new donors and of course people are asking ‘Where’s David? How are things going?’ And I didn’t want to lie to anyone and say, ‘Oh, he’s gone, it’s different,’ when it wasn’t. So I called the board meeting and it was very apparent to me that they were not speaking of having him leave, and that was kind of said in that meeting.”
According to Pride’s board president Cheri Tatar, Johnson was informed before he took the role of artistic director that Zak would still be involved behind the scenes. Tatar told me, “It was abundantly clear when I talked to [Johnson] that we had described the role that David would play and that we knew David wouldn’t be front of house anymore, nor would David be part of the artistic team. But David had a great deal of knowledge and a lot of people within our organization who were very positive about David and didn’t feel that his being pushed aside would have been correct.”
Johnson came on board at PrideArts with a mission to “Rebrand. Restructure. Reignite.” He started up the “Closet Play” series of Zoom readings of older works given a contemporary spin. (That series continues December 9 and 10 with A Pair of Lunatics by 19th-century comedic playwright W.R. Walkes.) But, he says, the changes in programming he wanted to seek, particularly in terms of greater inclusivity, weren’t necessarily supported by the board either.
“They weren’t too interested in what I was doing. But there’s no harm there, because everyone’s not going to like everything. We only had a few resources. That wasn’t too big of a deal for me. But they were not 100 percent on board, I should say.” He maintains the larger issue was, “I didn’t want to change the company and get it going in the right direction and then get mixed up in this whole idea that I was in cahoots with everyone, that I allowed [Zak] to stay. It’s so easy for people to be canceled nowadays, and I didn’t want to be on the top of that heap for something that I had no hand in.”
Right now, Tatar says that the board isn’t looking to replace Johnson. The company is locked into their lease at the two-venue PrideArts Center until June of 2021; whether they will be able to (or want to) continue with the expense of maintaining those venues post-COVID remains to be seen. Says Tatar, “There are no long-term plans at the moment. We decided that since the first answer didn’t come out the way we had anticipated, we’re going to step back and between COVID and all of the other things that have happened in the last seven months, we’re going to take the time as a board to look at all of the things available to us and look at what we want to do and how we want to do them.”
Second City hires Jon Carr
Before the Pride controversy erupted, Second City was in the spotlight for long-standing allegations from former BIPOC cast members about its failure to address institutional racism. In early June, as the George Floyd protests were taking place across the country, Second City’s longtime owner, CEO, and executive producer Andrew Alexander announced that he was leaving, and the organization brought in Anthony LeBlanc as interim executive producer.
Now LeBlanc is moving on (returning, in fact, to his previous role as an acting coach with Nickelodeon in Los Angeles), and Jon Carr will be filling the executive producer’s role permanently, starting on December 15. Carr, whose roots are in Atlanta theater, has served as audience development manager at the flagship regional Alliance Theatre as well as artistic director of the acclaimed improv and new-works company Dad’s Garage.
As with Johnson (and almost every other new artistic leader this year), Carr is stepping into an uncertain future at Second City; the company (which is commercial, not nonprofit) announced in early October that it is going on the market for only the second time in its 60-year history. It’s not hard to notice that an influx of new leaders of color at institutions large and small is happening just as the financial future of some of those institutions is in some doubt. But Carr’s background with both larger institutional theaters and smaller improv-oriented companies (he also started United Atlanta Improv to help companies there collaborate) is promising.
The lost Frontier and the missing Understudy
Maintaining physical performance spaces during a pandemic shutdown is challenging, and some companies have decided to cut their losses. Prop Thtr announced earlier this year that they were giving up their longtime home in Avondale; Steep Theatre is losing their space in Edgewater; and now Jackalope Theatre is closing up their first shop: the Frontier storefront on Thorndale.
The company still has a mainstage performance venue around the corner in the Broadway Armory, and their commitment to new work has moved online with the “New Frontier” series of digital plays in development. (The “Rough Cut” readings, part of that process, will be online free through their YouTube channel in December.) But the Frontier’s closing is a loss for the itinerant companies that rented there over the years.
In a similar vein, Underscore Theatre announced that they have vacated their storefront, the Understudy, in Uptown. In the press release, artistic director Whitney Rhodes said, “Our wonderful little storefront was simply not built in a way that would allow for fully-realized COVID-19 safety protocols to be in place and our health and safety of our artists, audiences, and staff must remain our top priority.” The company’s “Underscore Develops” program will continue its mission of fostering new voices in musical theater—for now, that’s happening online.
Kristiana Rae Colón wins first Roberson Fellowship
The death of playwright and director Samuel G. Roberson Jr. in 2017 from pneumonia was a hard loss for the theater community. But his legacy lives on through the Samuel G. Roberson Jr. Resident Fellowship, awarded through the League of Chicago Theatres and funded through the McMullen and Kime Charitable Trust. The fellowship funds a local mid-career Black theater artist in residence for a year at a local company, with a focus on a different discipline in theater each year. The artist receives $20,000, while the theater receives $7,500 toward supporting the development of new work.
The focus for the first year is on playwrights, and the inaugural recipients are Kristiana Rae Colón and Congo Square Theatre—which is where Roberson served as artistic director for the last years of his too-short life. Colón, whose allegorical play Tilikum with Sideshow Theatre won three Jeff Awards in 2019 (including best new play), is a poet, playwright, and activist; she codirects the #LetUsBreatheCollective, which is dedicated to police abolition and racial justice. (Tilikum used the story of an orca in captivity from the 2013 documentary Blackfish as a symbolic lens to examine the carceral state and its impact on Black lives.)
In the press release, Colón noted, “This opportunity to collaborate with Congo is a meaningful personal milestone because Sam Roberson and I dreamed of many collaborations that we didn’t have time to see to fruition, but those that we did achieve changed the course of my life. Both on stage and in the streets, my work is rooted in nurturing and galvanizing the radical imagination. We are living in urgent and unprecedented political times and it’s my life work to creatively refract my unique frontline experience and illuminate the possibilities engendered by uprising.”
Colón plans to create a new work with Congo Square focused on her interests in abolitionist theater, with the hope that public readings can be held in spring of 2021. v