BY JACOB G. PADRÓN
She was born in June of 1951, and I have to believe that the moment she entered the world, the gods smiled some of their brightest smiles. She was an actress, playwright, director, producer, teacher and for me, she was a mentor, healer, and amplifier. A native Californian, and more specifically an Angeleno, she had profound love for her state and her city. She worked tirelessly to put Los Angeles on the map as a place where theatre mattered. She never stopped, she never gave up, and she just kept doing the work: blazing trails and shattering glass barriers. She was a spirit like no other: innovative, joyful, determined, unbelievably stylish, and unapologetic in her commitment to advancing the work of artists of color within the American theatre.
She passed on Good Friday, and as the pandemic raged on, I remember that day so vividly. When I received the news, I called my dear friend Stephanie in tears, with just enough breath to say one thing: I wish I had done more to honor her. To honor her is to celebrate all the ways her leadership changed lives and created ripples across America’s four cardinal directions: east, west, north, and south. Diane Rodriguez is a name more people must know. I think about her every day. I miss her laugh.
And so, on this miraculous morning where we are gathered in community, in a virtual space, to launch Long Wharf Theatre’s inaugural Artistic Congress, let us begin by honoring the brilliance and light of Diane.
This is a miraculous morning, my friends. It is not lost on me how lucky I am to be here with all of you; to have a platform to share what’s stirring in my heart as we try to make sense of this complicated time. Given all the suffering that is happening in the world, mustering the strength to get ourselves out of bed, to brush our teeth, splash cool water on our face, and be in relationship with other humans, albeit through a screen, is a tiny miracle. Hold onto the tiny miracles because when counted together they add up to a lot. Diane would call them bright spots, and she would be so proud that we’re gathered today, making space to conjure and cocreate a new American theatre that centers joy, abundance, equity, and innovation. We also need healing, and as Beyoncé says: “If we are going to heal, let it be glorious.”
This Artistic Congress is our invitation to all of you:
Let us take the best parts of our past and illuminate our shared future.
Let us bring restoration and healing to our communities. Let us center the stories that speak to our own lived experiences and visions for the world. Let us feel beautiful as we wear the cloaks of resilience that we have made for ourselves. Let us model the just, equitable, and inclusive world we all want to live in.
The theatre can show us the way; the theatre can be our sacred ground where we reclaim and rejoice in our shared humanity. I’m mindful that you could be elsewhere—at work, with family or friends, but that you chose to say yes to our invitation. We are living through history and we must do everything we can to meet this moment. As Long Wharf Theatre ensemble member Bryce Pinkham said to me the other day: We need space to process and we need theatre to create meaning.
We are asking all of you to create meaning with us. The world is changing; be on the journey with us, even if you may not fully understand where we’re going. Because as I say time and time again: Let us make the path together.
The term “congress” carries the weight of formality, but today we are gathering without the formality. We are not here to pick sides or litigate our positions. And we are not here from any one particular discipline. Instead, we are here to be a community—to be united, to be inspired, to be nourished, to be surprised, to be generous, and—if nothing else—to leave with more questions. As Rilke says: “Live in the questions.” I have said many, many times that the theatre is a space that can hold all of us. Let me say that again: the theatre is a space that can hold all of us. It can hold the people who have been coming for years and it can hold the people who never felt welcomed. The word I like to use to capture this idea is “kaleidoscope.” More colors, more shapes, more possibilities.
In many ways all roads lead back to Diane, even the genesis for this Artistic Congress. You see, what connected us from the beginning was our love for a theatre company, El Teatro Campesino (The Theatre of the Farmworker). This company gave us a front row seat to the transformative power of storytelling, animated by the value of social justice. Two names you may not know but should, are Dolores Huerta and César Chávez, two of the most important activists of the 20th century. They founded the United Farm Workers as a way to bring human dignity to the men and women working in the fields. It was there, in 1965, that a young Chicano by the name of Luis Valdez pitched the idea of a theatre of, for, and by farmworkers. You may know Luis from his landmark play Zoot Suit, or his Ritchie Valens biopic, La Bamba. But it was the work of justice that led Luis to Hollywood and the Winter Garden Theatre in New York City.
When his company finally settled in the small town of San Juan Bautista, California, Diane and I were able to partake in a theatre practice that celebrated our brown skin while amplifying the struggle of our people. It was theatre with a mission; it was theatre that was in conversation with the world.
You know what else happened in 1965? Some unused space in an active food terminal, along the New Haven Harbor, was converted into a theatre that launched with a two-week run of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. The founders wanted to engage their new community with, to use their words, “challenging work,” and because theatre always exists in a particular context, Long Wharf Theatre’s first production was in fact a political act. Jon Jory, the theatre’s first artistic director, said this in his program note: “If the stage isn’t the place for excitement, stimulation, contention and joy, then to hell with it.” Yes Jon! I like to think that our founders, whether they knew it or not, had planted seeds of activism within our theatre from the very beginning.
I want to acknowledge that we wouldn’t be here without the vision and tenacity of our founders and all those who have made Long Wharf Theatre a part of their lives for years. We are building on that commitment.
As Teatro Campesino and Long Wharf Theatre were finding its legs, the world was on fire. MLK was leading the march from Selma to Montgomery, while on the other side of the country, the Watts Uprising had protesters marching the streets with their demands for racial justice. And now, some fifty-five years later, the world is still on fire—maybe even more so. The disease of racism is still destroying all of us. We need the healing power of our art more than ever. As theatremaker nicHi Douglas said recently: “Everyone will have to lose something. Everyone. And that clinging, that holding on to the past, that fear of loss is going to sink us all. Or it’s going to keep us sunk right here. What are you prepared to lose for my freedom?”
When it came time to put together my inaugural season for Long Wharf Theatre, which would take place during one of the most important presidential elections of our lifetime, I took a page from Diane and El Teatro Campesino—I knew we had to come together as agents of radical change to see the miraculous in each other and blaze a new path forward.
My friends, let us write a new chapter, together, in the book of this flawed and glorious country. It is not time to rebuild but rather time to transform.
Like most theatres in America, when COVID-19 hit, Long Wharf Theatre had to pivot and pivot quickly. Overnight the world changed how we worked, tossing away our established methods of gathering. But we’ve also been given the opportunity to do more and be more. By moving us away from the known scripts of our stage to the unknown corners of connection, we are expanding what theatremaking is and who it is for. We are now a couple months into an emergent, responsive, and adaptive season that centers stories of resilience by BIPOC artists called One City, Many Stages. We are making theatre as one city, united across a multiplicity of colors, shapes, and possibilities.
From our home in New Haven, to the world–with One City, Many Stages, there’s truly a front row seat for everyone.
In her game-changing book, Emergent Strategy, adrienne maree brown gives us a whole new way of seeing the world. So much of Artistic Congress is shaped by adrienne’s lessons and, as I think about our future, I am deeply grateful to adrienne for giving us a new lens for forging the path together. I’d like to offer some nuggets here as we collectively launch into this Congress:
One—let us center our relationships—“critical connections over critical mass”—if we are to survive this moment, and thrive into the future, we need each other. Great art comes from great relationships. As adrienne says: We would understand that the strength of our movement is in the strength of our relationships, which could only be measured by their depth. Scaling up would mean going deeper, being more vulnerable, and more empathetic.
Two—let us educate ourselves before we start educating others—the work doesn’t end here. It begins after you leave this virtual space. Read books, have conversations, get uncomfortable, and know that discomfort signals growth. As Sterling Toles says, “It’s okay (for you) to feel beautiful in the process of creating justice.” Sterling goes on to say that we can create “a dressing room where people can try on their most authentic selves”—what dressing rooms do you need so you can move towards justice and shared liberation?
Three—this is hard work and heart work. As we travel together, please, I beg of you—move from your mind, to your heart, to your gut. If you stay up here, in your mind, nothing will change. Building a more just and inclusive world, through theatre, requires that the work lives in our full body.
And finally—let us anchor our deepest truths in love.
Love for the possibilities.
Love for the struggle.
Love for the emergence.
Love for the people who said “no” because they gave us the strength to keep saying “YES.”
Love for our community.
Love for our beautiful black and brown skin.
Love for our brokenness.
Love for ourselves.
Love for the next generation who we are doing all of this for.
As our ancestors taught us, including the great Diane Rodriguez, there can be no revolution without love.
We are on our way, dear friends.
Here’s to a boundary-breaking Artistic Congress!
Let us begin.
Jacob G. Padrón is Artistic Director of Long Wharf Theatre. He is also the founder and Artistic Director of The Sol Project, a national theater initiative that works in partnership with leading theater companies to amplify the voices of Latinx playwrights and build artistic homes for artists of color in New York City and beyond.