Loy A. Webb’s His Shadow: A Parable, enjoyed an enviable premiere run at Berwyn’s 16th Street Theater this fall. The play, about a Black football player torn between his own ambition and a call to social activism, won strong reviews for the story, the three-member cast, the direction, and every other element of the production. It wasn’t until October 20, a day after closing, that the show’s behind-the-scenes drama erupted on social media.
That’s when director Wardell Julius Clark, posting on Facebook and Twitter (at #TalesfromHisShadowat16thStreet), began describing a litany of difficulties encountered at the tiny suburban venue, using a familiar rhetorical setup: “Have you ever had a yt artistic director flash the black power fist to an all black cast, while co-opting language from a poc in the audience, filled with excitement, with no awareness to how uncomfortable they are making the cast? I have.”
Clark was joined by the production’s dramaturg, Regina Victor, and associate director, Sydney Charles, both of whom are also Black (“I have never been so depleted and disrespected as an artist during a process,” Charles wrote). And on October 23, they in turn were joined by another supporter: 16th Street’s managing director, Marissa McKown, who had this to say: “Please know these artists are professional, compassionate truth-tellers, who tried for months to find another solution.”
McKown, who’s white, added: “It’s not just this one show . . . not just black artists . . . “
The complaints were aimed primarily at artistic director Ann Filmer, who cofounded 16th Street in 2007 as a program of the North Berwyn Park District that would bring Equity theater at a bargain price to the park district’s 49-seat cultural center theater. In line with its mission of “inclusivity and affordability,” 16th Street has produced 63 plays by Illinois playwrights, 54 plays by women, 36 plays by writers of color, and 25 world premieres. With a top ticket price of $22 (less for Berwyn residents) and its location in a historically blue-collar, now mainly Latinx community, 16th Street has built a reputation as a gritty professional theater of the people.
What happened? “Mismanagement wrapped in institutional racism” is how Clark summed it up when I reached him by phone last week.
The problems he and Victor cite include disagreement about an industry night (they say Filmer scheduled it for the convenience of a critic, then arranged to fill the house with high school students); an extension announced in a press release before anyone working on the play had been informed; hiring Victor at half the theater’s usual dramaturg’s rate; programs that, among other problems, misspelled Clark’s name (and an unwillingness to reprint them, even when Victor offered to foot the bill); and, after the team complained about these and other issues, being “pawned off” to an artistic associate, Esteban Cruz, who was brought in to take over Filmer’s role as His Shadow‘s producer. When Clark protested that it was racist to hand off an all-Black cast to a Brown person, he says Filmer responded that he should take his issues to Joseph Vallez, the North Berwyn Park District executive director.
The last straw came on the final weekend, Clark said, when, although there was no problem at the theater, “someone inside was calling the cops.” The irony was inescapable: Berwyn police showed up three times that weekend, Clark noted, “and this is a show about police brutality.” On Facebook, he wrote, “This is what intimidation looks like.”
“This kind of racism can be relatively common,” Victor told me, adding that “had the mismanagement not been so egregious”—and the cops not been called—they might have let it go, although they felt “undervalued from the beginning.” Through it all, Victor adds, McKown “was trying to help.”
A lot of these complaints—minus the racism—strike a familiar chord for Josh Sobel, who directed Koalas at 16th Street a year ago and is now in graduate school at California Institute of the Arts. Sobel, who isn’t Black, told me he encountered “sheer unprofessionalism, willful ignorance, and an unwillingness to listen or engage” from the 16th Street administration. McKown, he added, was “the one person I could go to there and be heard.”
But he thinks the situation is far from uncommon.
“Theater companies can get away with a lot because of the storefront nostalgia” we have, especially in Chicago, Sobel said. “You get so enamored with the idea, it allows people to accept ‘this is the way of things.’ But there’s a cultural reckoning now—a conversation to be had about what we let slide. Things that were taken for granted aren’t anymore. And racism through arrogance and ignorance is still racism.”
Cruz, via e-mail, and from a “personal perspective” only, makes this argument: “Call-out culture and the good work of groups like Not in Our House have brought a great deal of accountability. . . . But when these tactics are applied to folks who are not deserving of such severe consequence, it will eat away at us. [Filmer] has been walking the walk for 12 years at this theater. . . . We need to know who our real enemies are because if [in the demand for perfection] we discard those who are really our allies, there may be no one left. It is my hope that we live in a culture where missteps and failures can be used as a learning opportunity.”
That’s a sentiment echoed by Webb. “I wasn’t there. My team was on the ground, and I totally stand with them,” the playwright said on the phone from the west coast, where she’s writing for television. “Institutional racism exists all over the country, and in bigger theaters too,” Webb said. “We must call it out. But I’m solution-based. What do we do once we call it out? To eradicate racism on an industry-wide level? If someone has really taken accountability for their actions, and wants to learn how to be better, I feel we should come to the table and tell them, ‘Hey, this is what you need to do.’ ”
Filmer says she can’t comment. Vallez says the North Berwyn Park District is conducting an investigation. v