Partner Spotlight | African-American Shakespeare Company

Image courtesy African-American Shakespeare Company for the production of "Othello" in 2019.
 
Like it has for everyone, the ongoing pandemic has challenged all of us at BARTable, changing the course of our focus as it has for our Bay Area partners. Many BARTable partners are members of the art community who depend on holding events with visitors to sustain their individual organizations, as well as their industry. With the inability to do that, resilience has become a big lesson and sign of a "new normal".  Here at BARTable, we’d like to take time to focus on some of those resilient BARTable partners and give them a shout-out with a segment called “Partner Spotlight”. 
 
Sherri Young, Executive Director and Founder of African-American Shakespeare Company.
 
The first in the “Partner Spotlight” series comes to us from the African-American Shakespeare Company (“AASC”). Our chat here is with Sherri Young, Executive Director and Founder of AASC. She has a dynamic background with a M.F.A. from the American Conservatory Theatre. She served as the former Commissioner for the San Francisco Arts Commission, proudly working alongside SF’s former Mayor and now Governor of California, Gavin Newsom. In 2018, she was awarded a Bay Area Jefferson Award honoring her acheivements and contributions for creating a theater where people of color can shine. Sherri has directed 20 productions; produced and executed four programs for the organization; and speaks at various colleges, universities, and conferences across the nation. She manages approximately 60 company members and volunteers for the organization’s programs. Some career highlights include creating the company’s signature holiday performance "Cinderella", effectively building and stabilizing the organization, increasing audience attendance by 30%, and increasing new funding support by foundations and individual donors. 
 
While the theaters may currently be empty, we caught up with Sherri and had the chance to ask her some questions about how the pandemic has affected AASC. Here’s what she had to say:
 
A little bit about the company, some history, involvement and, how she came to AASC 
"AASC started 25 years ago, when the theater industry made one of their earlier attempts to diversify the field. While the movement was well-intended, the process of “Color Blind” casting was limited in several aspects. It asked the audience to look past the person’s racial identity and to remain in disbelief. In some of our theatrical shows, race is a key element and integral to the storyline so it must be part of the production concept. The other problem was the show, while diverse, lacked vision of cultural identity. This rarely attracted diverse communities. AASC was created to bring equity to the industry by combining classic works with an African-American cultural aesthetic. We take Shakespeare, Ibsen, Chekhov, and alter the setting, change the music, and find parallels in iconic characters that tend to identify with the community, allowing for the cultural aesthetic to become intertwined.

AASC was making a bold move by moving our performances to other venues. These venues, while gorgeous and centrally located, also came with a larger seating capacity to fill. In order to be successful, we knew that visibility would be the key. I went on the BART website to inquire about a marketing sponsorship. This is where I met Jill Buschini and Dave Martindale."*
 
The African-American Shakespeare Company performance theaters.  From upper left; Marines' Memorial, Herbst and, Taube Atrium.
 
AASC’s relationship to SF and the Bay Area
"AASC was founded in San Francisco. When the choice came for me to make a career decision as an artist, I wanted AASC to have a home base that was diverse in the people and setting. The Bay Area offers everything anyone could want; great weather, panoramic views, lively arts and cultural events, and diversity everywhere you turn. Everyone wants to be in the Bay Area. We have beautiful redwood trees up north, iconic landmarks throughout the region, and quaint & lively cities, towns, and neighborhoods. BART can take you to different micro-climates of 'sweater weather' and 'summer shorts' on the same day with a 10-minute ride."
 
How this pandemic has affected the company
"We were making plans to take one of our performances to a special presentation in Africa. We were also just on the cusp of rehearsing a new production of Noel Coward’s "Private Lives". Amid finalizing our 25th Anniversary celebration, all of it was scrapped. Our artists were displaced and had to find other sources of income; we had several youth employees that were not able to complete their roles with us. The pandemic has turned everything upside down. But artists are resilient. They are used to adapting and being flexible amidst uncontrollable changes. For artists, nothing is ever guaranteed, it can be a short duration, so we’re trained to always be looking for the next project. AASC is no different, we decided the best thing was not to gather until it can be done safely. Like everyone else we’ve had to find a new way of doing business. We decided to take this time to work on and execute some of our long-term projects and strengthen the organization’s process. And we’re using this time to reach out to our communities and build relationships, locally and nationally, by creating an online programming and arts education platform. This should be rolled out mid-September."
 
How the BLM movement has affected the company
"Before the BLM movement, I had been numb to the atrocities towards the Black community. There have been too many days and nights when the same images would repeatedly show on TV or social media. And with each image or videotape, I became despondent. The reality was no one was listening. In an odd way, I thank Donald Trump for bringing this issue to the forefront. Think about it. If there was different leadership at the top, the pandemic would not have devastated our country to this degree. But because we were all sheltering in place, and watching TV, and seeing Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, then George Floyd, and on – that pressure cooker exposed what was happening for years. And like everyone else who has continuously witnessed and viewed these atrocities – the back-to-back killings was a wake-up call heard around the world. The spotlight is now on the challenges we face as individuals, as a community, and even as a business. Inequities that are small, such as the inability to have access to resources and being penalized for it – are now being acknowledged. We received a number of donations from our community and our allies, with people wanting to know more and do better. But for this to be a movement and not just a moment, I would encourage everyone to find ways to support Black organizations and businesses with actions that will have real change. Sit on a board, recommend our organization to your friends and associates, meet people from different socio-economic lifestyles in a meaningful way. And by doing so, learn and ask questions rather than make assumptions. America can be a dysfunctional family, but like family we must work through our problems because what we ignore today will magnify and come out in other ways ten times stronger. Let’s handle it now."
 
Where has this pandemic provided silver linings for the organization;
  • Best lessons learned
    "Nothing is promised. Appreciate what you have and enjoy life. A colleague and I had a conversation about Anne Frank. She lived with seven people and stayed in the attic for two years with the inability to go outside or be seen by others. If this young teenager managed that level of trauma on a daily basis to stay alive, I can surely wear a mask and practice social distancing."

  • Best practices adopted that will remain once things return to a post-pandemic “new normal”
    "Because I have to intentionally plan any outings, I’ve become an outside exerciser. I found a scenic trail that has become my routine. The people on the trail in the morning have become a new community where we acknowledge each other as we pass. There are no conversations because of COVD-19 and wearing masks, but it’s so nice to just see people out enjoying nature."

Image courtesy African-American Shakespeare Company for the annual holiday spectacular "Cinderella".
 
How are company actors spending their time & how are they doing?
"Right now our company actors are finding different ways to keep projects going. Many are participating in staged readings with us. We’re bringing them back to do other projects such as interview sessions and arts education programming. Once we get through, I want to give them and everyone I know a big hug."
 
Personal experience and perspective during this pandemic
"I’ve always had such a busy schedule and preferred to be at home snuggled in warmth and comfort. Now, I look forward to going out and experiencing nightlife, meeting and greeting other people someday."
 
How do you feel this pandemic will affect theater for the long term?
"Theater might be changed forever. It will be exciting to see what the industry has coming up and what new groups will emerge from this event in time."
 
How can/has BART Marketing best support/ed your organization?
"BART has always been a wonderful partnership to AASC. At a time when we had a challenge to increase our visibility, BART’s marketing team gave us the leverage we needed to communicate with our audience. One of our current Board members discovered our organization because of the banners at BART. We would love to find more ways for this long-term relationship to be mutually beneficial.  Perhaps someone with BART marketing can serve on our board or marketing committee."
 
Hopes for 2021
"In 2021, I want all of us to “be better”; better... people, neighbors, communities, businesses, etc. We are all in this pandemic together. No one is immune and to get through this crisis, we really need to put people first. Our country, society, business, and economy can never survive without the well-being of all."
 
While theater season typically begins in Fall, this year look for new online and streaming offerings on the AASC website beginning in September.
 
 
*Jill Buschini and Dave Martindale are members of the BART Marketing Team.  For partnering information, visit bart.gov/partners or email: partners@bart.gov.

 

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