Cast of recent San Diego Rep production allege racism and misogyny
On Friday, two days after the San Diego Repertory Theatre announced it would be suspending all productions and laying off its entire staff, the cast of its recently closed show "The Great Khan" released a statement on social media alleging racism and misogyny at the 46-year-old theater.
The statement, written by actress Mikayla Bartholomew and director Jess McLeod, was posted on Instagram. It said the reported story was missing a chapter.
"It took more than COVID to close these doors for now,” said the letter, which was signed by Bartholomew and McLeod along with other members of the cast and crew, including: Brittney M. Caldwell, Jerome Beck, Molly Adea, Brian Rivera, Dylan John Seaton and Kira Vine.
The letter opened with a litany of complaints: “From poor financial decisions to rampant racism, misogyny, misogynoir, mismanagement, predatory efforts to take advantage of newly unionized BIPOC creatives, discrimination and disrespect, racial profiling of hired artists, physical intimidation, ill care following injury, lack of support for BIPOC artists and artmaking and the constant refusal to acknowledge that you were and are the root of the issues at hand; we see only...the tip of the iceberg."
McLeod said she and other members of “The Great Khan” cast and crew felt compelled to speak out as a counter to the narrative pushed by the Rep’s management that cash flow was the only crisis the theater was facing.
"After reading the circumstantial reasons cited for the Rep’s shutdown in the Tribune last week, we knew we needed to shine a light on the deep structural (and fixable) issues we experienced during the process and run of 'The Great Khan,'" McLeod said in an email to KPBS.
This was not the first time such allegations had been publicly made. At the final curtain call of "The Great Khan" on March 26, the six-person cast delivered a statement on stage written by Bartholomew. The statement said in part:
“We make this statement as a cast and crew that has been subject to mistreatment (much of it disproportionately impacting the Black team members on this show) over the last two months. And while it brought us all together, it exhausted us, depleted us. But we hope that it sparks a lasting change in this theatre. We say thank you to those who listened to us, who chose to course correct and find ways to support the needs to advocate for one another. For allowing us, even with resistance, to call the Rep in and find a better way to move forward. We hope that this doesn’t stop when we all fly away. And while this space may not be the safest at the moment for minorities both onstage, behind the scenes, in administration, in service, it is a tenant of transformational justice and abolitionist principle to believe in the change that can happen.”
In an email to KPBS, McLeod explained the company's decision to speak out at the end of the production run.
"The company hoped that delivering the speech at the end of the final performance to a large paying audience and attaching it to the performance report for the entire staff and leadership team to see would be enough to inspire conversation and change,” McLeod wrote.
The closing night statement followed other complaints raised by cast members just days earlier in March.
On March 21, Bartholomew, Caldwell and Beck spoke candidly about their experiences working at the Rep on the theater’s own “We Are Listening: A Live Salon About Black Artists' Experiences in the Theatre Industry” (archived on YouTube). The salon was hosted by Ahmed Kenyatta Dents, director of venue experience for the Rep and Jacole Kitchen, director of arts engagement at the La Jolla Playhouse, and produced by the Rep in partnership with the Playhouse and The Old Globe.
"Coming to San Diego to do this story felt like I was coming home to play with my roots while also doing a story about two young Black children in 2022 finding their way in a world that's not built for them and does not serve them," Bartholomew said during the salon. "It's been really hard because it feels like at San Diego Rep it's still a predominantly white-led institution. And I felt the foundations of white supremacy sneaking into our very process even though most of our team is from out of town.”
Caldwell, also speaking during the salon, said she had never had an experience where a cast had to stick up for each other so much before working on “The Great Khan.”
“Luckily, it’s a whole bunch of militant people in a space where they’re not used to having militant actors who are like, ’No, this is wrong. We’re not going to do it. What’s up? What can you do that’s different? Because this ain’t right,’” she said.
The Rep made no formal response to the issues raised in either the "We Are Listening" show or the closing night statement. However, on Sunday the theater’s artistic director, Sam Woodhouse, responded to the Instagram post after being asked by KPBS.
"First of all, we're very proud of the production of 'The Great Khan,' particularly of the work of the company, (it) was a first rate production,” Woodhouse said in a prepared statement. “I can say we remain committed to our mission to create work that promotes an interconnected community, nourishes progressive values, and celebrates diverse voices. Our goal remains, and we have much work to do towards this goal, to become a fully inclusive, equitable, anti-racist, multicultural organization."
Rep on hiatus
In February, Woodhouse announced that in September he would be retiring from the theater he co-founded in 1976. That left him plenty of time to celebrate his legacy and the work of the Rep.
But things did not go as planned. Last Wednesday, the Rep announced its drastic plan to address a serious cash-flow crisis and canceled all its shows including Woodhouse's final directorial effort.
"The theater is suspending operations, which means that we are laying off our entire staff as of June 19, regrettably, and we are canceling the remaining three productions in our 2022 subscription season for multiple reasons. But that is what's happening, and we have already formed a brain trust, if you will, to think about how we might be reborn and rise again as a more fiscally stable organization that does the art that we remain committed to," Woodhouse said following the announcement.
The Rep, which Woodhouse co-founded with Douglas Jacobs in 1976, has produced more than 300 plays to date.
"Forty-six years ago, no one was producing plays by writers who were alive, and there was very little work being done by writers who were writing plays about the world that we lived in at that time," Woodhouse said. "Most of the plays were about a different time and many of the plays were about New Yorkers and their issues. We wanted to make a theater for the people of San Diego, make plays about the community that we live in. We wanted to embrace and nurture the multiple voices of diversity in our community. And with an ongoing commitment for radical inclusion.”
The Rep in recent years launched the Latinx New Play Festival as well as the Black Voices Play Reading Series. One of the works that emerged from the latter was Michael Gene Sullivan's "The Great Khan." The Rep decided to stage a full production of the play in March. But while the Rep was publicly nurturing diverse voices, the cast and crew of "The Great Khan" criticized it for privately not listening to the Black voices in its show.
Bartholomew said in her email to KPBS: "I just want change for the artists coming up after me. I want artists to be able to tell stories safely. I want people to understand that if a theatre wants to rely on its use of diverse voices for diverse narratives, you have to be willing to ensure there are policies and protections in place to protect the most marginalized. And to understand that the most directly impacted by a problem are often the closest to a solution. We are already operating with the shorter end of the stick, faced with inequitable, racist policies that disproportionately cause us harm and rely on our labor to change. I hope it will inspire action."
The Rep will continue to hold its lease on the Lyceum Theatres.
Woodhouse said: "We will be presenting activity in the Lyceum periodically, limited activity, based around the construction schedule, which is quite extensive given that there are exterior renovations and interior renovations on the docket."
But the future of the Rep is uncertain. Not only is it facing a financial crisis that threatens its return to being a vibrant part of the San Diego theater scene but it also faces a tarnishing of its legacy and reputation as an arts organization that has always presented itself as a place for diversity where community voices can be heard.
One of the people losing their job because of the Rep’s suspension of operations is Ahmed Kenyatta Dents. The “We Are Listening” salon he co-hosts with the Playhouse's Jacole Kitchen is being cancelled. The last of the bi-weekly salons was held Monday night. Created by the Rep in response to the murder of George Floyd, its goal was to take an uncensored look at the experiences of Black performing arts creatives, artists and workers.
In the final episode, Dents acknowledged all those who will no longer be employed by the Rep after June 19 and referenced an event the theater will be holding on June 20.
“I noticed invitations sent out about a toast and to celebrate the whatever to whatever to wherever, and all the artists and colleagues come through here. I get it. I understand it. It should be some type of celebration. I feel you," Dents said. "Have a drink for me. Cannot be there, I can't be there in good conscience. Too many people working hard right now. Too many people this is affecting going out the door. It's the day after we're getting laid off and it's Juneteenth. Can't be there.”
“The leadership of San Diego Repertory Theatre acknowledge that we made numerous errors throughout the production process of ‘The Great Khan,’ and we hold ourselves accountable,” Woodhouse wrote. ”We are thankful for the bravery of those who voiced their concerns and offered honest feedback over the course of this production. We are regretful that their willingness to engage with us on issues required additional emotional labor on their part, especially recognizing that much of this learning occurred at the expense of BIPOC artists. To all of those who were affected during the making of ‘The Great Khan,’ we offer our sincere apologies.”