New theater coalition in early stages

Five theater companies attempt to lay the groundwork for a more culturally conscious local theater scene.

Joe Kellen

In October of last year, the musical “Miss Saigon” opened at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts to protests.

A theatrical sensation that debuted in London in 1989, “Miss Saigon” depicts the relationship between a Vietnamese prostitute and an American soldier near the end of the Vietnam War.

Some 200 people protested the Ordway opening, donning shirts that read “Miss Saigon Lies,” accusing the piece of perpetuating racist stereotypes. Even more joined the conversation on the Internet and in public talks facilitated by the Ordway.

One person present throughout the continuing controversy was Sarah Bellamy, co-artistic director at Penumbra Theatre.

She was close with many of the protesters and decided it was time to finally do something about the issues the play raised. Bellamy initiated contact with other theaters centered on representing people of color and set up a time for their artistic directors to meet.

“The general momentum of these protests sparked the idea of a coalition,” Bellamy said. “We realized that these productions can’t happen at the expense of theaters of color.”

This coalition met for the first time in March and included the artistic directors of Mu Performing Arts, the Pangea World Theater, Teatro del Pueblo and the New Native Theatre.

Rhiana Yazzie, the artistic director of the New Native Theatre, feels the alliance is especially crucial for the success of her company. The support of a coalition, Yazzie said, can help give Native Americans a larger voice in conversations about their representation.

“I can’t imagine the non-Native community getting the Native story right,” she said. “It still gets couched in the mechanism of the mainstream point of view, which is completely different from the indigenous perspective.”

In its nascent stages, the group’s goal is coming up with financial strategies. Bellamy said it was imperative for the coalition to educate the funding community on the needs of theaters that have become centers for culture. Her own theater, Penumbra, faced financial devastation in 2012 but was able to recover thanks to a strong donation drive.

“With the changing demographics of our country, regional theaters are starting to diversify their programming,” Bellamy said. “This is a good thing, but we can’t allow this to perpetuate an idea that we don’t need theaters of color anymore.”

Yazzie said that while the diversification of programming is good, it’s not realistic to think there will be drastic change nationwide.

“Maybe miracles can happen and a regional theater would say, ‘Yes! We’ll produce one Native play a year,’” Yazzie said. “But there’s such a basic non-understanding of our history that it cannot happen without our voices.”

Along with education on funding, the group hopes to educate artists, including themselves, about their cultural practices, histories and viewpoints. Yazzie said the coalition won’t attempt to equalize the experiences of the cultures it brings together but rather insist that the unique communities have to learn about one another and continue to engage in discussion.

Bellamy said the coalition will, in the future, act as a collaborative artistic arena to create pieces that speak to the experiences of their audiences.

“We want the community to see this resource group as valuable — collaboration is better, right?” she said.

Speaking to the “Miss Saigon” controversy, the coalition also hopes to become a forum and safe haven for communities that feel misrepresented in the theater scene.

Though their work is just beginning, Bellamy feels confident that they could create a group that will make the Twin Cities a more culturally conscious artistic locale.

“We’re the only group like this here,” she said. “It’s going to be a long road, but I feel it will be extremely rewarding.”