Sheldon Epps is finally putting his story center stage. As one of the most influential African American leaders in theater, his new book, My Own Directions: A Black Man’s Journey in the American Theatre, is a personal retrospect of his illustrious career.
Along with his many Broadway, TV and film credits, Epps revisits his 20-year stint as artistic director at the renowned Pasadena Playhouse in California. He took on the role when the company was mainly white. He is widely credited with the rejuvenation and rebirth of the famous theater company and brought a healthy dose of diversity along the way.
Epps, whose latest directorial stint, Christmas Party Crashers, comes to BET+ this November, shares his thoughts on diversity on and behind the stage and recalls his greatest moment at Pasadena Playhouse.
EBONY: What inspired you to write your memoir?
Sheldon Epps: It's all about my life in the theater and how the theater in some way, gave me a new vision of life when I moved from coast to coast. But also because I've had some unique experiences as a Black man in the theater, facing certain challenges and frustrations that are still going on. When I left Pasadena Playhouse in 2017, people started to ask me, “When are you going to write a book about your time at Pasadena Playhouse?” I started to think about it over the next couple of years and was busy, fortunately, doing other things. In 2020, when we were in COVID and isolation, I had no reason not to sit down and write it. Through the Black Lives Matter movement, conversations really came to the forefront about racism in American theater.
You spent nearly two decades as the artistic director of the Pasadena Playhouse in California. Is there a most memorable moment of your time there?
I did a play called Blue, by Charles Randolph-Wright. Phylicia Rashad played the leading role at Arena Stage in Washington and on Broadway in New York City, which was wonderful, of course. Then I brought it to Pasadena Playhouse and through blessings from God and luck and timing, Diahann Carroll had another role in the play. To be in the rehearsal room with Carol and Rashad at the same time was, for me, like being in heaven with these two glorious creatures, these icons, these enormous talents. The only downside was it was a little hard to rehearse because they both had such great stories to share.
What are some of the biggest hurdles you've encountered at the start of your career, and even being at the top as an artistic director?
It's not that people think of you for certain projects and reject you, it’s that they just don't think of you. In many American theaters, they think of you in February during Black History Month. But then they literally don't think of you for the rest of the year and for other kinds of material. It's an unconscious bias that rejects you before you even thought of and what you're capable of doing, both as an artist and as an artistic leader. Until recently, there were very few people of color who ran major theater companies. The few of us who did in those early years have had to break down the doors and make sure we've been successful so that wasn't used as a reason not to continue the policy.
Do you think things have changed?
I think things are changing, that's probably the best way to say it. Because of George Floyd's murder, people are raising their voices much more loudly and directly. The dark, little secret of American theater is that it was a field that was patting itself on the back for its liberalism. And suddenly, in 2020, people started saying, “That’s not true, you need to take a real look at this” I think that has brought about quite a lot of change. There are certainly a number of major theaters now being run by people of color and more opportunities for Black actors, but also directors, designers and people behind the scenes and in management positions. Like all change, it's a little slower than we might want it to be. But it’s happening now and that's gratifying.
When it comes to productions, how do we get more people to support Black theater?
One is marketing efforts. The theater is not an industry where you can say, if you build it, they will come. You got to let the folks know that it's there. That goes beyond the age-old methods that have been used to market theaters. And frankly, a big impediment for Black audiences is the same for everyone: it's so expensive now to buy Broadway tickets, in particular. But what you have to let people know is there are other ways to get there, like discount tickets. There are ways they can reduce the economic burden.
What advice do you give to young Black artists looking to carve out a career in theater, whether it be on stage or behind the scenes?
First of all, I would tell young people to examine all the possibilities for working in theater and entertainment that are not on stage or on screen. For any film or play that you see, there are a whole lot of people behind the scenes. There are careers in directing, producing, marketing, audience development, fundraising and design, all of those things, so be aware of all the possibilities for careers in entertainment beyond acting. The theater is magical, but it's not made by magic. It's made by knowledge and technique. You have to study and be prepared and learn the technique and craft. And then just go anywhere you can to keep working because it's definitely on-the-job training.