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Common Ground Theatre looks to Black love

Common Ground Theatre has been around since the civil rights era. Now it starts a new era as the theatre in residence at La Jolla Playhouse.

La Jolla Playhouse’s theater-in-residence program offers smaller companies an opportunity to benefit from the resources of the Playhouse. The biggest benefit is use of the Playhouse's rehearsal and performance spaces.

Jacole Kitchen, director of arts engagement and in-house casting for the Playhouse, is always on the lookout for companies worthy of consideration.

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"We really look for companies who are showing a record of longevity, that they already have made a mark on this community," Kitchen said.

The latest beneficiary of the Playhouse’s program could not fit the bill better since it’s been serving the San Diego theater community since the 1960s.

"Common Ground Theater is known in the United States of America as one of the three longest running African American theater companies," Yolanda Franklin, artistic director for Common Ground Theatre, said.

Franklin stepped into the role just before the pandemic hit. But the company was formed during the civil rights era.

"Back then, there weren't many places that were producing our plays," Franklin said. "So, they created it so that we could have a place where we could teach people the art of acting and also some of the behind the scenes. So you'd help people become stage managers, directors and producers, lighting designers. All of that was done at Common Ground Theater and continues to be."

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Kitchen was impressed by Common Ground’s mission to support and lift up artists of African descent, and by how the company is deeply embedded in the community.

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Beth Accomando
Yolanda Franklin, seen here at a rehearsal, is both artistic director of Common Ground Theatre and director of its upcoming production of "Sense of Love." Sept. 29, 2022

"We were really taken by all of the work that Common Ground is doing within the community," Kitchen said. "Just seeing the way that Yolanda Franklin and the team over at Common Ground have been hustling and getting things done and just at the most grassroots level."

She hopes the residency can help Common Ground reach a wider audience in ways that previous theaters-in-residence have not.

"Most theater-in-residence come in and they have one production that they're planning to do in the space that's available," Kitchen explained. "Common Ground is utilizing this year in residence to spread out their productions because they have so many different types of events and it's not just theater. There's poetry events, there's music events, and there's so many things that they want to do that we are able to spread out the resources of the residency really fully throughout their full season."

Franklin is excited about the collaboration.

"It's like a yearlong master class that you keep going to every Tuesday with Christopher Ashley [The Playhouse's artistic director who started the residency program], Jacole Kitchen, and the whole staff and then the board. I couldn't be more thankful as an individual. I couldn't be more grateful as an artist and as an advocate and now community leader. I am really excited about what it's going to do for the future of both our companies."

Common Ground's first production under the residency program in July combined poetry, music, and the theme of Black struggle.

Franklin said the poetry and music depicted Black struggles in an engaging way that opened up the audience to the experience and to seeing those struggles as something they could identify with.

"We all have something that has oppressed us and kept us down, that we need to say, I'm going to still rise above that," Franklin said. "And the audience feedback was, we were all in it together. And starting there together, we could go on the journey and then we could open them up to different things that they didn't necessarily focus on about us. And we could speak to them then from a common ground."

During the pandemic, finding common ground was more challenging as the company wanted to address outrage in the Black community over the murder of George Floyd.

"So what we wanted to do was make a space during this time where these playwrights could have a voice and they could get it off their chest and kind of like a healing process for the community, for us," Franklin said.

"And for us to start a conversation because everyone was like, where do we go from here?"

And where Franklin wanted to go was on a journey to extend that conversation to different facets of being Black, which led to her Black love series.

"So there is a local playwright. Her name is Sheryl Mallory-Johnson, and she has five novels. And they're all about love," Franklin said. "This is something we need."

Franklin is directing "Sense of Love," and has had her eyes on the story ever since she met Mallory-Johnson. But "Sense of Love" was not always a play. It began as a screenplay, then became a book and is now Common Ground’s next production.

"I see stories that too often deal with the oppression of Black people and us overcoming impressions and our struggles," Mallory-Johnson said. "And I think this is very refreshing story to deal with a story that's just about Black love."

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Carlos Castillo
Yolanda Franklin (right) directing a scene from Common Ground Theatre's latest production "Sense of Love." Sept. 29, 2022

Her "Sense of Love" is about a widowed dad and a single mom who come together at pivotal points in their lives.

"They both are haunted by a painful past, and they must overcome it in order to have a second chance at love," Mallory-Johnson said.

Franklin hopes this story has something everyone can identify with as Common Ground enters a performance space from the Playhouse that is twice the size of its old venue. The company is looking to fill 400 seats at each show.

"We're ready for it. It's exciting," she said. "It's stretching and it's challenging."

Common Ground has been meeting challenges for decades but now it has an opportunity to stretch beyond its core community to reach a wider audience.

"Sense of Love" will have four performances Oct. 14 through 16 at the Mandell Weiss Forum Theatre as part of its theatre in residency at the Playhouse.

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