PlayPenn, Philadelphia’s prominent new-play development organization, is “in a crisis,” as founder and now-departed artistic director Paul Meshejian acknowledged over a week ago in a Facebook post.
The crisis reached all the way to the top Sunday when Meshejian resigned from the organization and his long-time colleague, associate artistic director Michele Volansky, was fired by PlayPenn’s board of directors.
The resignations followed weeks of social media outcry prompted by allegations of racist behavior at PlayPenn. Dozens of artists have called the organization out for everything from its all-white staff to its devaluation of Black speech. Allegations of sexual harassment also surfaced.
On Sunday, the board moved to cut ties with its leaders because “we have heard from members of the artistic community that PlayPenn was not meeting community members’ expectations for racial and cultural competence.”
Put another way, a world of hurt had been peeled open.
“They’ve been told so many times,” said the playwright, performer, and director Alexandra Espinoza. “I think that is what feels a little bit unusual. They really have no plausible deniability.”
Espinoza quit the coveted PlayPenn writers’ program, the Foundry, last year over what she saw as long-running racial inequities and insensitivities. “I told them that my priority as a theater artist in Philadelphia is to combat white supremacy culture, and I didn’t think PlayPenn or the Foundry were a place I could do that, and that I thought they had, as an institution, a problem with white supremacy culture.
“I got a response from Michele, and she said, ‘Good luck with your endeavors.' And I never heard from anyone else.”
In a time of nationwide protests against racial injustices, the cultural world is also finding itself in the spotlight for institutional racism — in museums, orchestras, art schools, libraries, and the theater world, where PlayPenn is the part that describes the whole, according to dozens of interviews conducted over the last week.
In American theater, those interviewed agreed, the white man rules, and rules the way he’s always ruled — by making the rules and enforcing them; by controlling the organizations, the money, and the hiring; and by determining what voices will be heard.
“To quote one of my favorite playwrights and colleagues, Dominique Morisseau, she calls it ‘Jim Crow theater,’ and that’s what it is,” said the Philadelphia-born African American playwright and actor Lee Edward Colston II, who now makes his living on the West Coast. “Black artists are forced into a second-class citizenship in the artistic community.”
Adrienne Mackey, the white founder and artistic director of Swim Pony Performing Arts in Philadelphia, laid out the problem succinctly.
“If you’re not in the room, you don’t get to play,” she said. In other words, a racist system can be perpetuated by the networks of friends and colleagues and schoolmates who serve as a talent pool while people of color rarely get through the door.
“I think PlayPenn is indicative of a lot of regional American theater,” Mackey said. “Whiteness is so centered in the culture.”
‘The toll it takes on your spirit’
In the era after the death of George Floyd, the transgressions of PlayPenn and white-dominated theater may seem of minor consequence. But that would be a misguided conclusion.
Gabriela Sanchez, co-founder of Power Street Theatre, a North Philadelphia company that in 2012 became the first to focus on the region’s Latinx community, said she often feels that the struggle to counter the racism embedded in her chosen field “may kill me.”
“This work actually feels like every day I’m making an active choice to stay alive and do this work because of the toll on mental health, the toll it takes on your spirit, the toll it takes on every part of me,” she said.
Sanchez, who has no direct connection to PlayPenn, said she has been taught that her body is unacceptable in theater; her hair texture is unacceptable; her language and accent are both unacceptable. One of her theater professors at Temple University told her she ought to go to California, where Mexican theater would be more accommodating.
“I was taught to strip every part of me,” said Sanchez, who is not Mexican. “I was told to strip my dialect down. I’m in debt right now for study at a university that taught me to be more white, taught me to act, to talk proper, that my speech needed to be like this, and even to be skinnier, to starve myself.
“In no way was my full self enough. I was taught that I was never enough.”
The stripping away and manipulation of Blackness — and brownness and any other measure of difference — led to the PlayPenn eruption.
‘A slap in the face’
A few weeks ago, African American performer Terrell Green became incensed by photos accompanying a story about PlayPenn in Philadelphia Metro. Green has had no direct connection with PlayPenn, but knew that photos depicting Black performers and writers everywhere gave a false impression of the organization. The photos showed one Black production from last year — Dave Harris’ Incendiary.
Green later said that the photos amounted to “a slap in the face” at the precise time PlayPenn was preparing its almost all-white 2020 conference lineup.
He decided “enough is enough” and mounted a social media campaign calling for Meshejian’s resignation. The stories began to pour out.
Many artists of color took PlayPenn to task for failing to know the landscape of actors in Philadelphia. When playwrights wanted performers of color, they were told by Dan O’Neil, a prominent casting director, and Meshejian that such actors were difficult to find.
O’Neil has subsequently resigned from the PlayPenn staff and posted an apology on Facebook. It was the allegations of sexual harassment leveled against donor and former board member Victor Keen, he said, that finally led to his resignation.
In a statement published by WHYY.org last week, Keen apologized but did not deny the allegations. “I am truly sorry and apologize to those who found my behavior to be inappropriate and will be more aware of my interactions with others going forward,” he wrote.
Earlier this month, Meshejian posted a Facebook statement that repeatedly said, “We’ve failed, and it’s on all of us,” which prompted a wave of social media comments on the order of “the buck does not stop here.”
For young playwrights to be told their plays cannot be cast because the talent isn’t there in Philadelphia is devastating — and inaccurate, according to many performers.
‘Constant pushback’ against casts of color
The playwright Jacqueline Goldfinger, who is white and was on the PlayPenn staff in the education department several years ago, heard the same from Meshejian and Volansky. She recalled telling them that her diverse group of adult students was producing a wide variety of works, even bilingual plays — Spanish and English, and Spanish and Korean.
Meshejian and Volansky were dubious, she said.
“They were saying that there simply were not enough BIPOC [Black, Indiginous, People of Color] performers at a professional level to perform these plays,” Goldfinger said. “I knew, as someone who was out there and taught around the community, in every neighborhood possible, that there were plenty of performers to do these plays.
“But it was this constant pushback that any time we brought a play to them for a public reading that required an actor of color, or the student wanted a director or a dramaturg of color, there was a huge pushback by Paul and Michele. I was like, ‘Look, you’re just not going to the places where these actors perform.’ And what I got back was, ‘Well, those places aren’t very professional.’”
Other artists have said PlayPenn staff members were unwilling to acknowledge the power of Black speech or the theatrical importance of gesture in Black domestic life. Readings involving Black performers and material were deemed histrionic or unrealistic.
Meshejian defended himself in a statement, arguing that “playwrights of color” have accounted for 16% to 50% of PlayPenn playwrights “over the past several years” of annual conferences. Artists dismiss such statistics.
A demeaning deflection
“It’s very clever,” said the playwright Erlina Ortiz, a co-founder of Power Street Theatre. Speaking generally of the region’s theaters, Ortiz said, “What they do is, they trip you by putting some Black people on stage, and then you’re like, ‘Oh, this company’s diverse, look at that — them putting these Black people on stage. Oh, look at them having that one Black playwright or two Black playwrights.'
“And that’s great. But what you don’t realize is that they’re still hiring a white director to direct that play. They still have almost all white designers behind the scenes designing the play. They still have an entirely white staff that’s producing the play and getting salaries.”
Espinoza, the performer and playwright who quit the Foundry last year, said that over two years of association with PlayPenn, she saw many instances of at best racially insensitive behavior. For instance, on one evening a white guest speaker spoke to the Foundry writers about the difficulties of casting plays with nonwhite or nonstraight characters.
“It was a very alienating experience,” Espinoza recalled. I would say that I was looking around the table and people looked really injured. I talked to people afterwards and they all said that they had felt like s— during that conversation.”
Why? Because it was “ultimately telling nonwhite playwrights that ... getting produced means not writing culturally specific characters.”
‘A really big misstep’
Espinoza quit PlayPenn last fall when Quinn D. Eli, the only Black playwright leading Foundry workshops, departed to begin Jouska Playworks, a writers’ group for playwrights of the African diaspora. PlayPenn hired a white replacement.
Espinoza believed that hiring was “a really big misstep,” she said.
Two artists joined Espinoza in requesting a meeting with the PlayPenn staff to discuss the issue. That never happened, and at a smaller meeting held instead, Meshejian told them that “bringing in nonwhite, non-cis, and queer artists that we had suggested as guest mentors wouldn’t be able to help us get produced.”
Espinoza resigned. “I feel like I lost in leaving,” she said. “I lost a community. I lost access to resources. ... People of color are constantly having to negotiate that math — what am I giving up? What do I have if I don’t have this?”
Is any of this really unusual?
“I think that the nonprofit theater structure in my experience remains predominantly white,” said Amrita Ramanan, director of literary development and dramaturgy at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, citing among other problems white-dominated “funding structures.”
Ramanan, a woman of color, was on a reviewing panel at PlayPenn a few years ago. She and two other reviewers of color objected to a play under consideration for the annual conference that all three agreed was misguided in its treatment of racial subject matter. They recommended the play be rejected.
Their recommendation was ignored. Ramanan never heard why. Indeed, she never heard anything more from PlayPenn. “The thing that is seared in my mind from that experience was, why did it happen? What was the motivation?” she said.
Colston, the Philadelphia-born playwright who now lives in Los Angeles, put it this way: “I have to ask myself the question, ‘What are Black people, specifically Black artists in the art community, both locally and nationally, what are we being asked to become?‘”