Sightlines: Reflections On a Life in Twin Cities Theater

Article by James A. Williams

James A. Williams, or JayyDubb is a well-known and celebrated actor and director around town. He’s also a mentor, educator and advisor to so many others in the community. I don’t remember what show I was working on when we first spoke, or even what year it was (it was a while ago), but I do remember how it happened:

I knew who JayyDubb was, of course, but I hadn’t come up with the reason (read: courage) to speak to him. Then one day, while I was fiddling around at the Mixed Blood teaching myself how bench focusing worked, he walked in, walked right up, stood behind me and said, “You enjoying yourself?”

I’m honoured to have him write for us. - Wu Chen Khoo

Nearly 40 years ago I stepped on a stage on the West Bank of Minneapolis – The Firehouse – to be exact in Mixed Blood’s production of Horace Bond’s Mother April’s - beginning a journey that went from a vocation to a career.

Looking back at that inauspicious beginning, I think of the companies that came, thrived for a time, and then disappeared; of those that have managed to hang on despite the economic swings and turbulent financial times that rocked the funding world; of the legacy amendment and other changes in the theater landscape that I have not been privy to. One of the largest changes that I’ve seen is the idea that artists of color now come to the Twin Cities seeking employment opportunities.  This fact amazes me because in 1976, when I walked on that stage the idea of making a living doing this seemed as improbable an idea as a black man becoming President of the United States of America. At that time there was the Guthrie, Cricket, Old Log, Chanhassen Dinner Theatres complex, and Actor’s Theater of St. Paul with year round programing and fledgling companies like Illusion Theatre, Palace Theater, Juene Lune, At the Foot of the Mountain, Circle of the Witch, Powderhorn Puppet Theatre (In the Heart of the Beast), or Performers Ensemble (if I’ve left anyone out please understand I’m writing this from my memory which is not what it used to be).

What I recall most about that the time was the political nature of us new comers. Using art to convey an alternative perspective on the changing political landscape or gender or race was far more common than in most reflections I’ve read. While most of the more established institutions seemed concerned with providing entertainment for the establishment, or purposeful pursuit of a particular segment of the art (New Plays, Classical Theatre, Children’s Theater, etc.), There was also a thriving community theatre population, including the venerable TRP in Minneapolis and the now defunct Chimera in St. Paul. The majority of these institutions didn’t acknowledge the existence of the black artist, let alone any other ethnicities, with one of the notable exception being the Shoestring Players: Bob Sample’s group dedicated to black theater, or the occasional TRP production.

By and large, companies searched for their audiences through their artistic mission. Some strove to increase awareness of environmental issues, some strove to build awareness of our community through sharing our stories while others sought to explore the complexities of our perceptions of gender in society. However, the overall view was, for a variety of reasons, white.

Into this mix led by Lou Bellamy came Penumbra Theatre Company with the mission of telling our stories, our way. In those early days we were an interracial group with varying levels of experience. I had one foot still in school and was looking for guidance to decide if I even wanted to be an artist. I’d come to attend college and was completely unaware of the community around me. Through contact with artists such Lou, Claude Purdy, the aforementioned Dr. Horace Bond, Phillip Blackwell, Mazi Johnson, Greg Williams, Jay Patterson, Abdul Salaam El Razzac, Tia Mann, Laura Drake, Estelene Bell, Gordon Cronce, Faye Price and Ruth Lassila I learned about building community through art.

Memories that linger are our open rehearsal policy: that because we were in a community center, young people would run inside the building to get a drink of water from the fountain across from the theater hear our rehearsals and sit mesmerized, watching us work, and the joy of working years later with several of those young people who chose the arts because that contact planted the seed of a life on the stage as a possibility. As the organization grew youth came into contact with artists who were born in St. Paul and grew up the neighborhood. Terry Bellamy, Marion McClinton, and numerous others were artists their parents knew. They were living, breathing heroes for them to emulate. In those early days, before the pressures of grant writing, brand positioning and corporate sponsors, there was a different type of contact with the community we represented, we ate in their businesses, shopped in their corner stores, drank in their taverns. They got first glances at the works of Carlyle Brown, Charles Smith, and August Wilson, the art and the artists belonged to the neighborhood or ones like them. It was that contact inside the community itself that shaped my artistic growth.

Something has transpired in the time since then. The stores and shops are long gone replaced by coffee shops, boutiques wine bars.  While artists and theatres are being praised and funded as saviors of communities or lauded as the advanced guard of financial recovery of neighborhoods, that community that I loved so deeply has grown to feel left out, uninvited to their stories. Reading stories of the two twin cities, one thriving, and white, leading the nation in economic growth, job recovery and graduation rates and another, brown, underemployed and has astronomical incarceration rates.

While in conferences and university we argue about what diversity in art - especially theater - looks like, I find myself walking in spaces where ideologically I feel less welcome than I did 38 years ago, spaces where I fight the same battles, have the same conversations. Conversations about points of view of the narrative, colorblind casting and/or my favorite, “How can we reach out to the ________ (Fill in the blank) community?” Don’t get me wrong, I love my career here, I love this community, worked with some great artists. Jack Reuler, Michael Robbins, Bonnie Morris, Stephen Yoakam, Michael Brindisi, Garland Wright, Ben Krywosz, Richard Cook, Noel Raymond to name a few.  What excites me now is working with Jeremy Cohen and the Staff at PWC and Full Circle Theatre, a company I’ve helped start with Rick Shiomi, Martha Johnson, Laura Trujillo, and Stephanie Lein Walseth. To borrow a line from our upcoming show Theater: A Sacred Passage: “Let the adventure begin.”