Che’Rae Adams, a theatrical advocate for new work focusing on women, people of color, and contemporary social and cultural issues, has been named the next artistic director for PlayPenn, Philadelphia’s new-play incubator.
The selection of Adams, a dramaturge, director, and writer from Los Angeles, to guide PlayPenn is the most recent piece in the rebuilding puzzle for the 17-year-old organization hit hard by the resignation of its founder and longtime director Paul Meshejian in July of 2020, amid allegations of racism and inappropriate sexual behavior and the firing of his colleague, associate artistic director Michele Volansky.
The firing, resignation, and subsequent cancellation of the PlayPenn theatrical workshop season, known as its annual conference, came as a result of a major outpouring of anger and dismay on social media at PlayPenn’s hiring practices, new-play selection process, and professional interactions. Virtually every aspect of PlayPenn’s operations was scrutinized by a passionate theater community and found wanting. .
In a separate set of allegations from multiple former PlayPenn staffers, one of the organization’s former board members was accused of making unwanted sexual advances. The board member, Victor Keen, had left the board in 2016 but was still a major donor. As criticism mounted, he apologized in a public statement in July of 2020 “to those who found my behavior to be inappropriate.”
The intense social media criticism sent the organization reeling, leading to the departure of its all-white leadership.
Adams, who is white, is more than aware of the controversy.
“It’s just very important that we immerse ourselves in the Philadelphia community,” she said in a phone interview. “So we’re interested in the works of the of the playwrights that live there, and also work that reflects the community that we live in. Part of that is hiring people who will be in leadership positions — people of color, a more a more diverse leadership. I mean, at this point, we’re female-led because we have an operations director, Shawna Bean, who came on recently. Sabrina [Profitt] is still working with us [as acting executive director,] and then my new appointment. So that’s a big change in the organization already, and it’s just important to me to reach out into the community and bring it into the organization as much as possible not only as artists but also as audiences.”
Nancy Boykin, named board chair in the wake of the 2020 controversy, said that the racial makeup of candidates did not guide the selection of Adams. But the diversity of Philadelphia “absolutely is” reflected at PlayPenn now, she said.
“We weren’t looking at the faces of people, we weren’t making a judgment that way,” Boykin said. “We got the person who is going to make the changes. I’m telling you this person will make the changes in Philadelphia, that answer to that question. And so it doesn’t matter what the person looks like. This is the person who is going to take the initiative and was 100% committed to our values and to making the changes that will eventually answer to our critics.”
“We’re coming into this community, we’re coming to Philadelphia,” Boykin continued. “It’s going to be a Philadelphia-centric conference. That’s where she’s gonna start and good for her. Because that’s who needs to accept her first.”
Playwright Jacqueline Goldfinger, a prominent critic of PlayPenn during the 2020 criticism, said the selection of Adams is a definite positive.
“I’m thrilled to see that the PlayPenn board has selected Che’Rae Adams as their next artistic director,” Goldfinger said. “She has a sterling reputation as both a great new work dramaturg and a savvy leader. I cannot wait to see how her vision and artistry take shape at PlayPenn, leading the organization into a brighter future.”
In addition to Adams and Boykin, in the last year or so PlayPenn has brought on several new board members, artists, and staff members, most of them people of color, and lead artists for The Foundry, PlayPenn’s emerging-writers program.
Adams founded the LA Writers Center in 2006, where she is now producing artistic director, developing new work with local writers. She was the director of operations and programming for the Moss Theater in Santa Monica for seven years and has been the development executive for Playhouse Pictures Studios, co-artistic director of the Road Theatre Company, and managing producer for the LA Women’s Theatre Festival.
She spent the last two years of the pandemic producing diverse online programming with HowlRound TV in response to issues revolving around social inequity. Recently, she curated “Breathe: A BIPOC Reading Series” in response to George Floyd’s murder; “Home: Asian Voices Reading Series” to amplify Asian American stories; and “The Voices of Afghanistan,” a project where monologues were constructed from interviews with Afghan artists in hiding.
“Certainly a lot of institutions have been going through this and making big changes,” Adams said referring to the PlayPenn upheavals. “And I do definitely have a history of equity, diversity and inclusion, and I think that’s part of why it’s a good fit.”
Boykin said Adams has been asked to “bring us back into the community, to illuminate the voices of people who hadn’t been heard, to find communities underrepresented here — which I believe she’s going to do.”
“These are things that I’ve been doing for years ... and that are part of my of my artistic life already,” Adams said. “The last two years, we really dove into what I would call ‘reaction theater’ where, the world was falling apart and there’s a lot of problems and we wanted to react to it. So with George Floyd, it’s murder. We started Breathe, which was a BIPOC reading series. We partnered with HowlRound TV on all of these initiatives, so that we could reach a broader audience …
“And then with all of the Asian hate, we wanted to do something about it. So we did an Asian voices reading series. And then finally, the ‘Voices of Afghanistan,’ which was probably the hardest project I’ve ever worked on in my life because I interviewed artists in hiding. It was a very difficult process, but one of the most challenging but also most fulfilling. So that’s the kind of work I’m used to doing and, and that interests me and that I feel is important for the for the American Theater to start to dive into and to address.
Said Boykin: “One of the things that caught our eye was that she was interested in the community of older women. Women over 50. Well, I certainly connected to that. As well as the Afghan community. These voices are important, too. It is the Black community. It is our LGBTQ-plus community. It is our Hispanic community, our Asian community. And our new Afghan community. So this is one person who I think is going to speak to all the broader underserved communities. And it is for that reason, I am 100% supportive of her.”