In the midst of a very chaotic 2020, there were glimmering moments of hope—and the announcement last September that director Margo Hall would be taking the reins at Lorraine Hansberry Theatre is one of them. An award-winning performer, director, playwright, and educator, Hall has been a leading artist in the Bay Area theatre community for over 30 years, and is the first female artistic director at LHT.
Now, the first production under her reign is beginning this weekend: Erika Dickerson-Despenza's [hieroglyph]. The digital presentation, a co-production with San Francisco Playhouse, runs March 13 through April 3.
On the phone with Playbill shortly after assuming the role of LHT's artistic director, Hall chatted about her career path, what advice she has for up-and-coming artists, and what she hopes is the future of Black theatre.
On landing the gig...
You have conversations, it wasn't the lottery. I’ve been working in the Bay Area for over 30 years with the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, so I’ve had a relationship with them for a while. I’ve performed, and worked to support this theatre. So when the two original artistic directors passed away [Stanley E. Williams and Quentin Easter both died in 2010], I was doing Fabulation, or the Re-Education of Undine by Lynn Nottage at LHT. I was approached then about doing AD and I wasn’t ready yet. I was still freelancing and pretty young in my career and didn’t feel I was the right person at the time. Then, [Steven Anthony] Jones took over, and I directed a musical during that time. Then Stephen and I did a show and he said he was thinking of stepping down, and I said I still didn’t think I was ready; I had more things to do on stage and in the community.
On why she took the role now...
This time around, with COVID and the killing of George Floyd and WeSeeYou White American Theatre... I had a moment of clarity to commit myself to my Black community and move all of my energies in that direction. I wasn’t hesitant at all and that’s why I felt it was the right time. It’s also the right time in the world because of COVID. I’m going into a job that I’ve never done before and I have time to settle in. There’s nothing opening next week. I can go in and get my mission together and raise funds and get us ready for the next phase. I can approach it in a way that’s not rushed. I’m thinking about our strategic plan and what we want to be.
On her role as a mentor...
I’ve worked in so many theatres, I know what it feels like where you feel safe, creative, and at home. Depending on what space you’re in, it can be challenging, so I’m really interested in making the space a room that I want to be in. For the last 10 years of my career, I’ve had the opportunity to work with new Black artists from festivals, educating at UCBerkeley and community colleges in Hayward, and I’ve developed a lot of relationships with mentees. And I’m just overwhelmed and overjoyed with the work by these new playwrights. It’s not just writers—actors, designers, people who don’t get enough exposure, I’ve always found ways to connect with people. Like a lighting designer, I feel it’s my mission to give them opportunities even if it’s not something I’m working on. So when I was thinking about my missions for LHT, it’s in order to do that, we need funding, and a way to use my platform in my position now as a producer to create a space for all these new black voices.
On the challenges productions of color often face...
Most of the productions I commit to as a director deal directly with Black and Brown folks, where I feel most comfortable. When you’re directing a piece like that, it’s important to have a production team that also reflects what is happening in the play. It’s sometimes challenging when you go into certain institutions that have people they work with that aren’t people of color; and you’re explaining things that are culturally relevant and they don’t get it. It’s not a matter of them not trying to understand, but they’ve never been exposed to it, like lighting a black person’s skin. It becomes a challenge explaining, like “We need amber gel!” Since we have a multitude of skin tones, you can’t just do one color—it doesn’t work. People who light productions with white people, you don’t have that challenge. The shades of Black and Brown people are varying, and that’s a challenge and it’s really hard.
I was working on Red Velvet, and the play was set in London during the 1800s with Ira Aldridge, one of the first Black men to play Othello, as the main character. So talking about the sound design, and the designer wanted to bring in music influenced by the orchestras of the U.K.—I understand why that’d be the aesthetic, but the main character is African. So I asked him to dig deeper and figure out the African element. And he was great, he said “Oh my god, you’re absolutely right.” There would not have been that instinct. I have to be really clear about my vision and guide people. Some people are receptive and other people are not.
In the Bay Area, I haven’t had a lot of issues, I’ve had them here and there. Most of the time, folks are willing, and it could be because of my reputation. I worry about younger directors; I’ve been vocal, I come in with 100% of myself, and my job is to really create a space where they can gain that confidence.
On what she advises younger folks to do...
The first thing I would say is to try and get control over who your design team is going to be. Try to get as many people of color on the design team; if that’s not possible, make sure you’re really clear in your vision so you can say exactly what you need and what you want, so you can convey that to the designer who may or may not be familiar with what you’re trying to present.
I would also say form relationships with designers of color, and the job of the director is to have the best team. You need to build and find those folks who think like you and understand culturally what you’re trying to do. A lot of theatres will just say “I don’t know...” and you can have a list of people to recommend. And if they are nervous, say “Well, you have a relationship with me, and I’m vouching for this person.”
On what theatre looks like when it comes back...
I think it’s time for theatre to focus back on the community; I feel like this idea of community theatre has been given the wrong narrative like it’s some non-professional aspect and it’s totally wrong. It’s about engaging in conversation, not just talking about the play. Having panels, bringing people for dinners in a room—that continues the conversation. Currently, it’s all about producing a play and then it’s gone. There’s no follow-through or conversation about what we just witnessed. And if theatre is really doing the work for social change...I’d like to see when theatre is an opportunity to use our platform and find ways to have some really hard conversations.
I also think it’s time, especially for Black plays and plays by people of color, to reflect our joy. We’ve had several years of our trauma being put on stage and a lot of that has been in order to educate a white audience or just plays that are being written for the white gaze. I want us as a Black community to reflect our joy and magic and have the space —not just the theatre—but the community to do that.
I would also really like to see people, before they decide to produce a play, especially a predominately white institution, and sit down and see how they can support that play and the artist and if they feel like they can’t do that adequately, support another theatre that can and provide resources in the form of a co-production. Really being honest about “is my company in a position to do this safely?” Also, what type of audience engagement are you doing so that you have a balanced audience? It’s hard for a Black artist in a work about slavery and it’s a white audience looking back at you, who have no idea what they're going through or they're apathetic. So, people are learning and communicating with each other. That’s what theatres are supposed to do—not just putting the black play on the stage but having the audience and community talk and learn about each other and the world. Anti-blackness comes from the lack of understanding of the humanity of Black folks.
On what’s next for LHT...
One of my bigger missions is to get us a theatre. And also in the meantime, do some co-productions to continue to tell our stories. We have a few things in the works. We need money and we’ve been nomadic ever since LHT lost its San Fransisco space. Getting the resources necessary to do productions is something we’re focusing on. Financially, we’ve not really gotten back to a place from many years ago—campaigns like the East Bay Community Fund and The Lorraine Hansberry Theatre Fund for New Black Voices will help.
A lot of Black theatres are not funded the same way as the ones that have legacy funds and things like that. So part of our goal is to do a January 2021 production with another San Francisco theatre that has the resources to do it. We’d come in as co-producers and it would be a filmed production. We’re not doing Zoom productions, we’re trying to find other ways.
Longer-term things are in the works, too, maybe a big musical? I have a lot of connections with people all over the world and because of this new position, people are offering support. I’m looking at things now, and most of them will be once we can congregate even if it’s outdoors.
[Quotes have been edited for clarity.]