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San Diego Play Puts Spotlight On Neighborhood Segregation
January 22, 2013 12:58 p.m.
Sam Woodhouse, co-founder and artistic director of the San Diego Repertory Theatre. Director of Clybourne Park
Claudia Thompson, retired teacher
Adrian Florido, KPBS Fronteras reporter
Related Story: San Diego Play Puts Spotlight On Neighborhood Segregation
CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. The play, a raisin in the sun, is a cultural touchstone of mid-century America. Move forward about 50 years, and you enter the world of Clybourne Park, a play new running at the San Diego rep. It uses the same setting to explain what's happened to race relations and neighborhoods through the year, and the production is also giving San Diego a chance to explore its own history of housing segregation. My guest, Sam Woodhouse is cofounder and artistic director of the San Diego repertory theatre and the director of Clybourne park. Welcome back to the show.
WOODHOUSE: Thank you, Maureen.
CAVANAUGH: Adrian Florido is KPBS fronteras reporter.
FLORIDO: Hi, Maureen.
CAVANAUGH: And Claudia Thompson with her own story to tell about housing segregation in San Diego. Thank you for coming in,
THOMPSON: Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: It won a Tony, a Pulitzer, but outside of its acclaim, why did you choose it?
WOODHOUSE: Well, as it likes to say, it's a comedy about race, class, and real estate in America. Three things that I'm very interested in, concerned about, and have spent much of my career doing plays about. And it's a fascinating examination of home ownership and how we define a neighborhood in America, and who has the right to live in a neighborhood in America. Somebody once said a person's home is one of the most emotional connections somebody has in their lifetime. This is a play that really builds on that connection.
CAVANAUGH: The story of the play goes back and forth in time, doesn't it?
WOODHOUSE: In brief. Both acts are set in the same house. The first act is in 1959. The younger family from a raisin in the sun, a black family, has just bought the house we're looking at, which is owned by a white family. And members of the community have come to the white family to protest the fact that they've sold it to a black family to try to stop them from selling it. Act 2, jump forward 50 years, the house has fallen in disarray, the neighborhood ultimately had become an African American neighborhood. Most of the people live in the neighborhood are African American, and now 50 years later in 2009, a white family wants to buy the house, tear it down and build a McMansion. And the black families are saying on, hang on, there's tradition here, there's memory, heritage, value, slow down, let's respect the past.
CAVANAUGH: Part of the production of this play is going to include some panel discussions about what housing segregation meant here in San Diego around the 1950s and San Diego. At that time, people of color were moving here hoping to escape the segregation back east. You did a series of articles that brought out the history of segregation here in San Diego what. Did the people who were coming here looking for something better than back east, what did they find?
FLORIDO: Back in the middle of the last century, a lot of African American families were moving here to take jobs for example in the aerospace industry, which is a big industry here in San Diego in the 50s and '60s. And I spoke to one woman who lives in the southeastern part of San Diego, and she told me a fascinating story about coming here with her sister and her sister's husband before her sister's husband got a job working for Convair. And they were driving up and down El Cajon boulevard looking for a hotel to stay at in the first few days, and they couldn't find any place that had any vacancies. And finally one hotel owner who had seen them driving up and down said I've seen you, I can tell you you're not going to find one here. Down where market street is? And they said yes. And he said, well, go south of market street and you'll find vacancies down there. So this was a big shock to them because a friend back in Washington DC where jewel Hooper was from had told her in San Diego, if you had the money, you could live or stay wherever you wanted to, and she just found out that wasn't true.
CAVANAUGH: A rude awakening. You found the racial leash restrictive language that was Bryn into deeds in some area the of the city.
FLORIDO: It's true. A lot of -- what are called racially restrictive covenant, which was basically the real estate tool used in the middle of the last century who restrict who could and couldn't live in the house. So there was one covenant they found in a La Jolla development that said in part "no part of said property or any buildings 31 should be used or occupied by any person not belonging to the Caucasian race, either his owner Elessee, licensee, are tenant or in any other capacity of that of servant or employee." So this is a surprising bit of history in San Diego that a lot of people aren't really aware of. And a lot of this language is still in deeds here for a lot of properties.
CAVANAUGH: Not enforceable, of course.
FLORIDO: Right. In the 1960s, there were criminal cases that made all of this illegal. But the language still exists in the deeds. So real state agents will say you may see this language in the deed telling you you can't sell it to a nonwhite family. Obviously know that is illegal to enforce.
CAVANAUGH: Did you hear of any stories in San Diego where white neighbors tried to intimidate people of color moving in?
FLORIDO: Yeah, I heard those stories pretty often. One that comes to mind is beneficiaryob George McKinney is a prominent pastor in southeastern San Diego, and I was talking to him about when he tried to move into the emerald hills neighborhood. His family was one of the first to move into that neighborhood in southeastern San Diego, and he said that white families often called the utility company poses as their black neighbors to get them to turn off the utilities, for example.
CAVANAUGH: I see. Let me go to Claudia. And you took part in the history of housing integration in San Diego even though you really weren't trying to do so, as I understand it. As an African American student, you and your roommate were basically kind of approached by a white realtor named king Milligan, and he asked you if you wanted to move in a certain place.
THOMPSON: Yes, we were two college students attending San Diego state at the time. And we were approached by a white realtor, king Milligan, and asked if we would be willing to integrate the housing around San Diego state. And we said yes, that we would. Now I'm wanting to write that story, tell that story to my family.
CAVANAUGH: Because apparently you and your roommate were not the only people of color who this white realtor, Milligan, urged to integrate various areas of San Diego.
THOMPSON: I am not certain, although I know that looking at the records, that there was a corporation called By Ray, it actually meant biracial, and he had wanted to integrate housing. And I'm sure he was familiar with the covenants that Adrian referred to. But because of his effort, he received death threats. And were many people who were angry with him, including realtors.
CAVANAUGH: Now, were you aware that you might be in danger or subject to some sort of intimidation if indeed you did integrate with your roommate?
THOMPSON: We were not aware of that. Although we know that that kind of thing existed. But we in that area for a year and did not experience that. But I think the important thing is that Mr. Milligan had courage and wanted justice related to housing for minorities in San Diego. And in our case, he focused on the area around San Diego state.
CAVANAUGH: It's interesting that there were places around San Diego state that were not integrated just in the 1960s. It seems like such a short time ago for something that drastic to have taken place. Adrian, before I get back to the play, Clybourne park, the San Diego neighborhoods are also going through changes right now through ethnic groups. Neighborhoods that were black are becoming Latino, when they are white -- Latino becoming white. That kind of what we call gentrification is taking place in certain parts of San Diego. Where is this happening?
FLORIDO: It's happening in various parts of San Diego. One of the things that I thought was interested about the play, the 2nd act deems with the same house 50 years later, where a white family is trying to move into what's essentially become a black neighborhood. So it's about the way that these neighborhoods kind of change cyclically. And stuff is happening just east of downtown, for example, in the neighborhood of Sherman heights, Logan Heights, which are immediately -- were earlier on suburbs for white families, they became black neighborhoods over time, and then Latino neighborhoods, which is what they currently are now. And they're in this transition right now where because of the redevelopment happening in the east village, a lot of the Latino neighborhoods that live in these homes just east of downtown are becoming white neighborhoods again as the homeowners come in and renovate the homes. They try to renovate them to younger white -- not necessarily white, but what's happening is a lot of white families are moving in. In the historically black part of San Diego because it was one of the few places black families could buy homes in the '40s and 50s and '60s, there's a transition to these neighborhoods becoming more Latino. African American families are moving into other parts of the county and even up into Temecula.
CAVANAUGH: Now, Sam, you mentioned this in your
I've read in reviews how funny the play is in parts. And it surprised me a little bit because raisin in the sun, not exactly a life riot! What makes this play funny?
WOODHOUSE: Well, the writer, Bruce norris, dares -- he puts into the mouths of the characters statements that we won't have the guts to say out load normally. So the characters are saying some outrageous statements. Many of which are prejudicial, which push buttons in terms of how we look at someone who's different than we are, and how we deal with the humor in race and ethnicity and class. He's almost a shameless kind of exposer of the hidden thoughts that we're afraid to speak. That's one reason it's funny. And the other reason it's funny is that, you know, in the 21st century, the line between tragedy and comedy I think has gotten even shorter. And they live side by side in the best art just like in the most interesting lives. So this is a very powerful play. The first act of the play the playwright describes as a tragedy, and yet it's enormously funny.
CAVANAUGH: The rep is having this panel discussion last weekend on the issues we've been talking about. Sam, why is it important to connect these productions to the community?
WOODHOUSE: Well, the work that we do on stage is about the world that we live in. And we are a San Diego theatre. We are in downtown. And for seven years now, we've hosted these -- surround events we call them, which are conversations with experts in the community that come up in the plays that we do, and invite people to come up and share and talk about them before the show. I think it just makes the experience richer and more potent and more interesting. And we're just trying to provoke conversation about things we think are important to talk about.
CAVANAUGH: Now, Claudia, you have not really been speaking publicly before now about your connection to integration or even Mr. King Milligan. This is something though you and his daughters are trying to pursue more to find out more about this untold story; is that right?
THOMPSON: Yes, very much so. And we're asking the people to assist you. If anybody knew Mr. Milligan, and the work and the efforts of integration during that time, this would have been around 1965. So this group which consists of two of his daughters, Nancy Milligan, Lynn Milligan Greer, also doctor Theresa Ford, Sharon Whitehurst Payne, and Barbara Smith, all of us are working together to tell this story.
CAVANAUGH: How can they get in touch with you?
THOMPSON: My home phone then, 619-263-4306, and my e-mail is CLT132002@yahoo.com.
CAVANAUGH: You might get a lot of phone calls.
THOMPSON: That's good! That's what we want!
[ LAUGHTER ]