A Tale of Two Theaters

In a city renowned for its progressive values and support of the arts, the Black Repertory Group struggles and the Berkeley Repertory Theatre thrives. It’s business as usual for Black theater.

mona vaughn scott ,seated, the black repertory group’s executive director and artistic director, and her son, sean vaughn scott, the theater company’s development director, are flanked by photos of their parents and grandparents, respectively, the organization’s founders
Dr. Mona Vaughn Scott (seated), the Black Repertory Group’s executive director and artistic director, and her son, Sean Vaughn Scott, the theater company’s development director, are flanked by photos of their parents and grandparents, respectively, the organization’s founders. The smaller photos behind them are of famous Black Americans who have appeared in or attended the Berkeley group’s productions.
Craig Lee

Last May, Berkeley city officials used a crowbar to enter the Black Repertory Group’s theater. With as much clumsiness as the Watergate burglars, they jimmied a side door to gain entry. “They told us that they were coming to evaluate whether or not we’ve been Americans with Disabilities Act–compliant, when the building was erected with that in mind,” says the Black Rep’s development director, Sean Vaughn Scott. “So that’s kind of ludicrous for them to come, to show up with eight people—the fire department, the economic development department, the aide to the city council member, Ben Bartlett. Finding none of us on the premises, [they] put a hit on us. They broke in!”

The Black Rep wants justice. It would like for the intruders to be charged with criminal trespassing. It filed a police report and has heard nothing. It hired an attorney to bring a civil suit, but he passed away. Instead, the theater group is left with a side door that can be closed only with, well, a crowbar.

I asked James Chang, Councilman Bartlett’s chief of staff, whether white theaters that have received aid from the city were ever entered without permission. He would only speak with me off the record—I declined. Bartlett denied my request for comment.

It’s a tragedy that just when America needs Black theater more than ever, the Black Rep—like other Black dramatic companies throughout our history—is being harassed and financially oppressed. Black theater has made important contributions by staging plays neglected by white theaters. Plays that differ from the one-dimensional portrayals of Blacks by the white-controlled film and theater industries. Seventy-four percent of Broadway ticket buyers are white, and nearly all producers and theater owners are also white. Black theater has been a theater on the run, staging plays wherever possible. In churches, schools, and any other place where space has been available. Which is why the survival of the Black Rep is remarkable. Indeed, it is the longest-running Black theater west of the Mississippi, and soon, as Black theaters in the East become extinct, it will hold that title east of the Mississippi as well.

This article appears in the Winter 2022 issue of Alta Journal.
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The May incident was not the first time that city officials had persecuted the Black Rep while expressing a groveling attitude toward the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, says Scott, who quit his NFL career to help the late Nora Vaughn, his grandmother, run the group. According to Scott and his mother, Dr. Mona Vaughn Scott, the city gives Berkeley Rep millions of dollars and other forms of aid but doesn’t support the Black Rep. Dr. Scott adds that 35 years ago, the city pledged to provide the Black Rep with $25,000 annually in funding, and yet the group has not received a payment since 1999.

In response to the Vaughns’ claims about Berkeley Rep—what I’ve called the White Rep—receiving generous assistance from the city, I filed a public records request asking: “How much money has the city given to The Berkeley Rep since its inception, and are there loans that haven’t been paid back or forgiven?”

Four days later, I received a reply: “The total amount the City of Berkeley has given to the Berkeley Rep. is $281,405. There are no loans. The sublease agreement will end on 10/1/29.”

There was no mention of the $4 million that the City of Berkeley contributed to building Berkeley Rep’s 600-seat, proscenium Roda Theatre in 2001. Or of a deferment the theater group received—for payments totaling $676,464.16 for the construction of its arts workforce housing and workshop space—owing to revenues lost during the COVID-19 shutdown. The debt covers the project’s “building permit, inspection, connection, and impact fees.” Such is the clout of the White Rep that the contact for information about this arrangement is the mayor of Berkeley, Jesse Arreguín. I called the mayor’s office about the deferment. He hasn’t replied.

Berkeley Rep stated to the city that local rents are too high for visiting artists and that space would be made available for guests of other Berkeley theaters. Interestingly, the Black Rep wasn’t included on the list of participating theaters.

THE KLAN AND THE PROGRESSIVES

The Vaughn family’s struggle to build and maintain a Black theater began when Nora Belle Singleton married Birel L. Vaughn in 1935, in Vicksburg, Mississippi.

Birel, Mona Vaughn Scott’s father, attended Tuskegee Institute and taught masonry. Nora, whom Birel described as a “Creole Georgia Peach,” taught Black history in schools. By bringing knowledge to Blacks, they angered the Klan, which attacked their home three times. Infant Mona was nearly killed during one of these incidents. In the 1940s, the Vaughns left Mississippi and migrated to California, settling in Berkeley. There, they operated a theater out of the Downs Memorial United Methodist Church, where they performed Easter and Christmas pageants and plays like Black Nativity, by one of the 20th century’s great writers, Langston Hughes.

Mona and her two siblings grew up in the church, where one of their mentors was the Reverend Cecil Williams, later the pastor at Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco. Feeling confined artistically by church sponsorship, the Vaughns eventually moved the Black Rep to a storefront.

Meanwhile, Mona grew up, earned a PhD from Stanford University, and served on the faculties at George Washington University, the University of San Francisco, the UCSF School of Dentistry, and Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science. In 1981, on behalf of her parents, she wrote a grant proposal for the construction of a new theater and submitted it to the City of Berkeley. The proposal was accepted, and six years later, construction was completed on the Black Rep’s 250-seat theater. After her mother died in 1994, Mona Vaughn Scott assumed the leadership of the Black Rep as executive director and artistic director.

Over the years, the Black Rep has attracted such performers as Whoopi Goldberg, Danny Glover, Paul Mooney, and Dick Gregory. In 2009, it received the Theatre Longevity Award from the National Black Theatre Festival in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

WHAT WOULD JESUS DO?

I was introduced to the Black Rep when Adrienne Kennedy, recipient of the Dramatists Guild’s 2021 Lifetime Achievement Award, forwarded a request from the late Nora Vaughn that I write a play about the Oakland crack crisis, which I was witnessing from my front porch on 53rd Street. The result was Hubba City, which premiered there in 1989.

Since Nora Vaughn’s death, I have worked with her daughter and grandson. A highlight of my collaboration with the Black Rep occurred in April 1998. The San Francisco Opera had commissioned me to write the book for an opera. Its music was to be scored by a famous pop composer, but that fell through. With help from a generous grant that I’d received at the time, I hired New York composer Carman Moore to write the score. I hired gospel and classically trained Black singers, who seldom have an opportunity to perform their specialty. The result was Gethsemane Park, in which the spirit of Jesus of Nazareth appears in an Oakland park frequented by homeless people. I called it a “gospera,” and during its run it attracted both secular and church audiences.

ayanna harrison , 16, plays dorothy, and caleb crayton, 13, plays the scarecrow during a rehearsal of the wiz, a production by the black repertory group’s summer camp in berkeley in 2011
Ayanna Harrison (left), 16, plays Dorothy, and Caleb Crayton, 13, plays the Scarecrow during a rehearsal of “The Wiz,” a production by the Black Repertory Group’s summer camp in Berkeley in 2011. The program attracts up to 150 children each year.
Doug Oakley

Gethsemane Park included roles filled by two children from the Black Rep’s summer program, one of its most impressive undertakings. Each year it serves up to 150 children. During the summer of 2011, my daughter Tennessee and I volunteered to conduct a poetry workshop at the Black Rep and were able to watch the children rehearse for six weeks, at the end of which they did a production of The Wiz that, in my opinion, was superior to the film version starring Diana Ross. Some of the children in the Black Rep’s summer program are from excessively dysfunctional households; some of the participants would be classified as “incorrigible,” considered throwaways by society. One night, I even noticed a bus from a youth detention center pull up.

The Black Rep’s summer program included lunches for the children provided by the City of Berkeley. Inexplicably, the lunches were terminated in 2014. The City of Berkeley, says Sean Vaughn Scott, “told us that they cut the lunch program because they based their funding on the census, which hadn’t been taken because that’s taken every 10 years.… They said we didn’t have enough low-income families.”

Considering that the Oakland Police Department reports an uptick in crime during the summer, when children are idle, one would think that an effort to steer them in a creative direction would be applauded instead of subverted. Especially if it meant also feeding them healthy meals.

What will happen to these children if the Black Rep goes under? What will happen to playwrights like Cecil Brown, Aishah Rahman, and Marie Evans, whose plays might offend 74 percent of those who buy tickets to commercial theater, patrons who are only comfortable with musicals featuring Black actors belting out show tunes or blame-the-victim dramas? It was because of my workshopping plays at the Black Rep, which were later performed off Broadway, that I received the AUDELCO Special Pioneer Award, the highest award in Black theater, which was presented to me in 2017 before a who’s who of the Black New York theatrical world. A glittering audience filled with Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winners. It was the Black Rep that brought me there.

ACROSS THE AISLE

Susie Medak, who’s been the managing director of Berkeley Rep for more than 30 years, says, “The Black Repertory Group serves their community. The fact that they have been able to do this over multiple generations is commendable.” She informs me that other Berkeley performance spaces—Freight and Salvage, Shotgun Players, and Aurora Theatre Company—have received grants from the city. All white-directed! Medak also says, “We pay a dollar a year, but the building and the land under which we sit is still owned by the city until the financing for that initial $4 million is paid off, and the city has chosen to refinance their property.”

Medak disputes the notion that the City of Berkeley favors Berkeley Rep over the Black Rep. “We had to raise money to build our first theater, while the city built the Black Rep,” she points out.

The Black Rep, however, claims that its building was poorly constructed. “Partnering with the City of Berkeley proved a nightmare,” writes historian Kerry L. Goldmann in a recent article for California History. For instance, city contractors improperly installed the theater’s heating system; sink fixtures that had not been connected to water supply lines protruded from walls. One year after the theater opened, water pooled in the first two rows, submerging the seats.

When my partner, Carla Blank, and I produced Wajahat Ali’s The Domestic Crusaders (a play about a Muslim Pakistani American family living in the suburbs that originated in my class at UC Berkeley) at Berkeley Rep in 2005, our treatment by the organization was professional. Blank, who served as the dramaturge and director, recalls mounting a summer weekend of performances there and being “treated with complete professionalism and given access to materials and personnel that, as one of the nation’s top regional theaters, was a rare pleasure we thoroughly enjoyed.

“The performances were sold out over the weekend, warmly received by very diverse audiences: white, Muslim, South Asian, Arab, Black, Asian American. Interestingly, the comments from Berkeley Rep’s faithful supporters during the after-show Q&A indicated that they assumed we were part of the Rep’s season, rather than short-term guests.”

Nonetheless, Berkeley Rep rejected the work for its next season. Blank says, “The play was vetted by their young white women readers, who likely knew nothing of Pakistani American culture and the effects 9/11 had had on America’s Muslim communities or how such a play could attract new audiences beyond their traditional subscription base.”

Medak explains that since 2004, 33 percent of Berkeley Rep’s productions have been by BIPOC playwrights; 54 percent of those have been Black writers, including Brian Freeman, Zora Neale Hurston, Mbongeni Ngema, and Anna Deavere Smith. Many years ago, however, I was racially profiled inside Berkeley Rep’s theater, and in 2015, so was Judy Juanita, winner of a 2021 American Book Award for her poetry collection, Manhattan My Ass, You’re in Oakland.

The Domestic Crusaders went on to enjoy successful productions off Broadway; at the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage in Washington, D.C.; and abroad. In 2011, 10 years after the Al Qaeda terrorist attacks, the drama was included in the New York Times’ “9/11 in the Arts: An Anniversary Guide,” and this past September, the newspaper included it in an article about artistic responses to the terrorist attacks.

the black rep feels it’s being treated poorly by berkeley
The Black Rep feels it’s being treated poorly by Berkeley. According to Sean Vaughn Scott, 35 years ago, the city pledged to provide the group with $25,000 annually in funding, yet the group has not received a payment since 1999. And 7 years ago, the city cut the children’s lunch program at the group’s summer camp.
Craig Lee

LIVE THEATER

I have spent thousands of dollars to support plays that provide Black actors and those from other ethnic groups with roles that challenge their talents instead of demeaning them. I’ve found the performing arts to be the most difficult of the arts. Poetry, prose, and even painting are solitary endeavors. With theater, which is collaborative, mishaps are likely to happen, and I’ve had my share. During the production of my full-length debut, Hubba City, the lead actress had to be rushed to the hospital, and the late Vern Henderson, the director, was arrested for possession of guns that were being used in the play. The police considered the stage money in his possession to be drug money. He couldn’t convince them that the guns and money were props.

Since 2019, the Black Rep has received $200,000 in grants from the San Francisco Foundation and $69,000 from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s Black Seed program. Money is tight. Mona Vaughn Scott pays bills with some of her Social Security checks. (Somehow, she made a modest donation toward the production of my new play, The Slave Who Loved Caviar, which opened in New York in December.)

“We all work in putting in our own money, the chicken dinners and sweet potato pies and, you know, sales,” Sean Vaughn Scott tells me. “I’m working two jobs; Mom put her own money in. We’ve basically been feeding the Group.”

According to Scott, the City of Berkeley and the Black Repertory Group are 34 years into both a 99-year lease on the land the theater sits on and a 55-year lease on the building. Scott would like for the City of Berkeley to sell the Black Rep its theater building, for which they’re currently paying $1 a year in rent. We have an agreement, he maintains, “that says, if you’re there and you’re operating within the lease, you have the first rights to be able to purchase it. So that opportunity exists and is going to happen. It just has to happen.”•

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