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Arts & Culture

San Diego theater leader and playwright, Dea Hurston, dies at age 73

San Diego’s theater community is mourning the loss of Dea Hurston — a playwright, philanthropist, and advocate for people of color in the theater space. Hurston died Sunday, 15 years after being diagnosed with cancer. She was 73.

"One of my earliest memories is wanting to take tap dancing lessons. I thought I should be the little girl that's tap dancing next to Bojangles and not Shirley Temple," Hurston told KPBS in an interview two years ago. "They told my mother that they just couldn't allow little colored girls to come to the dance school. It was the first time I'd ever seen my mother cry because she couldn't overcome that and make my dream come true of learning how to tap dance. And that experience never left me. It's something that I have dedicated my life to is access for children and for people of color to the arts on all levels."

"Dea Hurston was one of the most incredible women I've ever had the fortune to know," said Kristianne Kurner, the founder and executive artistic director of New Village Arts in Carlsbad."She was talented. She was focused. She was driven, and she was funny."

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The center underwent a renovation two years ago, and when thinking of a new name, Kurner’s first thoughts turned to Hurston.

"We really wanted to take a moment and acknowledge who we thought in San Diego was most deserving of the honor, who had had the biggest impact in the arts in San Diego. And without question, that was Dea," Kurner said.

The Dea Hurston New Village Arts Center is believed to be the first arts center in the United States, outside of New York City, to be named for a Black woman in the past 50 years.

"Dea has served most theater organizations in San Diego. She was often the only, and or first, Black person in the room, and she paved the way for everybody else who came after her," Kurner said.

New Village Arts theater in Carlsbad Village as pictured on Oct. 27, 2023.
New Village Arts theater in Carlsbad Village as pictured on Oct. 27, 2023.

Hurston never planned on becoming a writer. She discovered her talent after her cancer diagnosis and an accident which left her immobile.

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"I could not comprehend information and I could not retain information. But I realized that I could still write. And so when I tried to get my life back, I took a class at Playwright's Project and something happened in that class and it clicked with me ... I knew at that point I was a playwright," Hurston told KPBS in 2022.

Her musical, “1222 Oceanfront: A Black Family Christmas” debuted in 2021.

"Most of my characters are Black people, and I try to write them so that they are in normal, everyday situations. I do not write trauma plays. I want to write about Black people doing normal things and having normal struggles and normal joys," Hurston said.  

"Miss Dea was very unapologetic to be who she was. To be a Black woman in this space — taking up space. And I'm very grateful for that," said Kiara Hudlin, the education and fellowship manager at New Village Arts. "As a young Black woman in the arts, she has taught me to be unapologetically myself. 'Get your spot at the table.' And that is something Miss Dea taught me."

Hudlin oversees the Dea Hurston Fellowship Program, created to address the lack of paid opportunities for women, people of color, and underrepresented theater artists in San Diego.

"Miss Dea left very big shoes to fill in San Diego County, here at the Dea Hurston New Village Arts Center. But I have no doubt that we will fill those shoes. It may take some time, but we are going to do it," Hudlin said.

A memorial service is planned at the Dea Hurston New Village Arts Center in Carlsbad on Aug.18 from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.

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