Sheldon Epps is a man of many titles, but his newest one is author.
The Broadway legend, who created the Tony-Award nominated productions “Play On!” and “Blues in the Night,” recently took to the blank page to tell his personal story, “My Own Directions: A Black Man’s Journey in the American Theatre,” which details his experience of diversity in the arts.
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“It really traces my career from very, very early days, meaning my birth in Los Angeles, California, through going to Teaneck, New Jersey, and discovering Broadway theatre and getting involved in drama clubs in junior high school and high school, which led me to studying acting in college and then moving into directing,” said Epps, whose directed the likes of Laurence Fishburne, Angela Bassett and the cast of “Friends,” among countless others.
It’s a career comprised of both triumph and tribulation, eventually leading him to the Broadway and Pasadena Playhouse stages, the latter of which he spent two decades in as artistic director.
“Because of my experiences and my knowledge of the experiences of other people, it just was very, very important to me to focus on diversity — on stage and off — and to broaden the scope of work for actors of color, and to broaden the scope of audiences,” Epps said. “You know, theatres where I’ve worked, I frequently was the only Black person in the audience. And I thought that was fundamentally wrong. Especially in communities like Pasadena and Los Angeles, which (are) so richly diverse. It was important to me, the theatre should reflect the community, and in fact, reflect what America is.”
Epps said as he was starting off, he and other artists of his generation, were fighting to get work outside what he calls the “Black box,” a brand of typecasting and whitewashing that limited the roles he was considered for.
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He said it’s important to operate outside of this to evolve as artists and audiences.
“Everybody wants to see stories that relate to their own life. Whether you’re a woman, whether you’re a young person, whether you’re a person of color — people want to see plays about people who are like themselves,” Epps said. “Once they’re hooked on the idea of going to the theatre, those kinds of plays, you realize that every play is about the human race. So then you become more willing to see plays about other ethnicities showing other age groups.”
He imbues this philosophy in his more recent work as senior artistic director at the historic Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C.
He added that while he’s been privy to conversations about diversity in the arts for decades, the more recent discussions happening in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement’s renaissance are louder than before.
“Sometimes people have said to me that there was a movement starting in 2020 in the theatre, in the entertainment business, and I say, ‘I hope that is true. I hope that it is a movement and not a moment. That it’s not a knee-jerk reaction to all of those protests,’” Epps said. “(I hope) that the positive motion forward that we have seen will be permanent motion forward.”
He said his book was born out of those thoughtful meditations on racism in the theatre and a need to tell fellow artists of color that they aren’t alone and that the challenges they face can be overcome.
It’s a message that local artists and organizations, like Central Florida Entertainment Advocacy, are also taking on in creating a movement, not a moment.
“We can all in a moment be moved by something. That is why we’re so against people just making a moment because the effort doesn’t go on,” CFEA’s founder and leader Meka King said. “There are always things to be done.”
She added that the prejudices ingrained in the industry still live on in casting, behind the table and on stage.
“We are seeing that people are not satisfied with the status quo and the way things are,” King said. “Because the way things are have been harmful and exclusive for many. We hope people will be a part of the change... We have to build more of the things that create that community and culture.”
The Central Florida-based arts group is just one of many working to create a more equitable, equal, diverse and inclusive arts and entertainment industry.
“There’s still a ways to go and we need more change and more people in positions of power, but we certainly have seen things evolve in a way that is very, very helpful,” Epps said.
Epps is getting ready to put on “Personality: The Lloyd Price Musical” in Chicago this May. You can follow him on Instagram to stay up-to-date on his latest projects.
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