The contribution of African Americans to the arts is immeasurable. From music, to theatre and film, to literature and beyond, Black creatives have forged paths and opened up new avenues in nearly every art form known to man. And though many have not received their flowers, last week San Diego-based playwright, arts activist and philanthropist Dea Hurston received hers. After 30-plus years of dedication to the Southern California arts community, the New Village Arts Center celebrated the groundbreaking and renaming of the newly-appointed Dea Hurston New Village Arts Center (DHNVA)—making it the first arts center in the country to be named after a Black woman in the past 50 years.
“Ms. Hurston is not only an important playwright—we were proud to produce the world premiere holiday musical, 1222 Oceanfront: A Black Family Christmas in 2022, but she has been a leader in the San Diego arts community for over 30 years,” says Kristianne Kurner, founder and executive artistic director of the New Village Arts Center. “She has often been the first, and only, Black woman in the room and on the Board of Directors for many companies in our area and has made innumerable opportunities available for younger BIPOC artists and administrators. All of us at New Village Arts are so very proud to have our building named in Dea Hurston’s honor.”
The decision to rename the center came as New Village Arts was preparing for both its 20th Anniversary and the major renovation of its facility. Kurner insists that a lot of thought went into what it means to have someone’s name on a building and considered which person in San Diego had done the most to support the arts, both as a patron and an artist. She says the overwhelming choice was Dea Hurston.
“It is incredible to feel the embrace from the artistic community in such a significant way, given that Black people, especially women, weren’t always welcomed into these spaces,” Hurston tells EBONY of the honor. “Through my work with the center and creating the fellowship with NVA, I’m able to take on an integral role in shaping the narrative for BIPOC women in the creative space by increasing representation in all capacities of theatre: set designers, lighting technicians, costumers.”
NVA’s groundbreaking kicks off a series of major renovations, including a one-of-a-kind live performance center, a vibrant, new exterior, and an expanded lobby that will, according to a spokesperson, allow for an increase of patron attendance by 35 percent. In addition to the groundbreaking, NVA created a fellowship in honor of Ms. Hurston to create opportunities for BIPOC female artists with programming focused on high school girls, female college students and professional-level BIPOC female artists.
Hurston believes that the renaming of the NVA, and the institution of the fellowship, will help younger BIPOC women see that the possibilities are limitless no matter how many obstacles one may face. She also holds that creatives thrive when surrounded by others who share their zeal for the arts, and hopes that the center will serve as a place for artists to inspire one another through coming together.
Growing up in small-town Ohio, Hurston says she didn’t have access to arts venues because Black people weren’t allowed in those spaces. For her, exploring a career in the arts always felt like more of a dream than a reality. When she was a little girl, her mother attempted to enroll her in tap school, but was denied. That has driven her to create spaces for Black artists to feel seen and know their talent is valued. “It is imperative that the BIPOC community have access to the arts at every level, and I’ve made it my life’s mission to ensure that future generations aren’t ostracized from the theatre community because of their race or sex.”
In many ways Hurston feels that as a Black woman, it’s her duty to pave the way for other Black female artists and use the hurdles she’s encountered to guide aspiring students on their journey to discover themselves through the arts.
One of those hurdles presented itself fifteen years ago when an accident left the celebrated playwright immobile and unable to read. She shares that the injury made her feel despondent about life and her relationship with the arts. “However, beauty grew from tragedy because it was during that period that I discovered writing—a skill set that I never imagined would become such a significant focus for me,” says Hurston. “I used writing to help cope with my feelings regarding my health and came into a new season of my life as a playwright. The arts brought a new direction to my life and allowed me to express my emotions through storytelling and highlight the stories of Black people without overtly focusing on trauma. At that point in my life, I no longer needed to focus on the traumatic moments, I wanted to focus on the simpler joyful sides of life, and the arts helped me tap into that joy.”
Some of that joy now comes from knowing that the Dea Hurston fellowship will allow Black student artists to have opportunities they may have otherwise been sidelined from due to finances. “Knowing that a young Black girl will now have the chance to follow her dream of dancing center stage warms my heart,” shares Hurston. “I’m grateful that I could transition into writing and explore the arts, but so many Black creatives were denied that experience— this fellowship is for them.”
With a building in her name and the opportunity to leave a lasting legacy Hurston is quite content. “I am thrilled to be able to open the doors that were closed to so many Black artists before,” she says. “And even with all the accolades I’ve received, that by far is the most rewarding part of my life.”