Murder for Two (copy)

Eric Shorey (center) performs with Eric Van Tielen (seated) in the Lyric Repertory Company’s 2019 production of the musical mystery farce “Murder for Two.”

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After canceling 2020’s performances due to the coronavirus, the Lyric Repertory Company used the past year to come up with a reimagined summer season and implement numerous changes to highlight diversity within the theater industry.

The changes include hiring more diverse directors and performers and a new slate of productions dealing with issues like immigration, civil rights and cultural holidays.

“This season … gives us the chance to highlight stories and advocate for voices that have not been heard as much as they should, to challenge our view of our place in the world,” Paul Mitri, the new artistic producer for the Lyric Rep, wrote in a message on the theater’s website.

This year’s performances include: “All The Way” which is about President Lyndon B. Johnson’s fight for congressional approval of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (the production was adapted into a HBO movie starring “Breaking Bad” actor Bryan Cranston) and “To the Mountain Top,” a drama about Martin Luther King Jr. having a fictional conversation with a maid who works for the Lorraine Motel, where he was assassinated.

The Lyric Rep also expanded its recruitment of directors and performers from BIPOC (black, indigenous and people of color) and MENA (Middle Eastern and North African) communities; incorporated a land acknowledgement statement on the Lyric Rep’s website and print materials; and implemented an “emerging director’s initiative” to recruit young women and people of color in that top role.

The Lyric Rep’s group for the 2021 season includes two Asian-Americans and one Mexican-American in stage management. Of the five shows, four are directed by people of color. Half of the acting company’s identifies as BIPOC and/or MENA. For anyone who was invited to be part of the canceled 2020 season but couldn’t make it to 2021, the Lyric pledged to recruit anyone who is BIPOC or MENA in their place.

CALL TO ACTION

The changes came — at least partly — in response to artists of color who worked with the Lyric Rep and expressed frustrations that the theater was not doing enough to publicly call out systematic racism in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of recently convicted former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin.

Their criticisms were due to an Instagram post the Lyric Rep made about Floyd’s death right after USU issued a statement on the killing.

The Lyric Rep promptly apologized and said it was forming a Call To Action Committee that would help it do more to culturally diversify its performances, cast and crew. However, the committee did not end up meeting due to COVID-19, a theater official recently told a reporter, and it will begin doing its job in advising the Lyric Rep this coming season and beyond.

In absence of the committee, Lyric Rep officials were able to make changes to the 2021 season to reflect cultural diversity thanks to an effort called “We See You, White American Theatre,” said Jason Spelbring, associate artistic director for the Lyric Rep. He was referring to the group made up of hundreds of Black theater artists throughout the country who believe racism, among other things, have made their institution less of a safe space for them.

“As a theater company, we have to answer these calls,” Spelbring said. “It is now our responsibility to do the work as a small professional theater. I’m proud of what we have done for 2021. We have a ways to go, and it is going to be a moving, growing experience.”

He said the committee will be able to examine the changes Lyric Rep made for the 2021 season to help it prepare for 2022.

It will “help encourage or discourage the direction we are actually going in,” Spelbring said.

The committee will evaluate the Lyric Rep’s one-year plan before examining three- and five-year plans. At the five-year mark, it’s hoped that Lyric will be “consistently answering the questions that all American theaters are having about equity, diversity and inclusion,” Spelbring said. He does not believe the committee’s work will end.

“THE FIRST STEP”

Summer Session, a Black graduate student at the University of California-Irvine who was named this year’s Emerging Director by the Lyric Rep, praised the downtown Logan theater for their efforts to respect people of color.

“Being a woman of color and director has been a very long and hard road,” Session said. “The fact that Lyric Rep is actually encouraging young directors of color, female directors, it’s really an opportunity that I couldn’t pass up on.”

And that is a compliment to the downtown Logan theater, considering Session has had to make her own artistic opportunities when ones were not available, she told the newspaper.

Asked about the Lyric Rep’s own acknowledgement last year that it could do more to diversify itself, the California director said the theater company is trying to make professionals like her who “felt that we haven’t had a place in the theater community” now feel welcome.

“That’s the first step and I’m serving as one of the first people getting to take up space in a place where, oftentimes, I felt I was not given that right,” Session said.

Mitri is a USU professor of Egyptian heritage who came to Logan from Hawaii several months ago. One of the reasons he was attracted to teaching in Cache Valley was because of the Lyric Rep, which he felt was “a bridge” from the school to his students’ careers. Based on his knowledge of the downtown Logan theater, he believed it was already making progress on racial and cultural diversity.

“Their 2019 season was one of the reasons coming here appealed to me. But certainly the events of the last year have shown us all that there is more that we can and should be doing,” he wrote in an email. “When we set out to choose our shows and company this season, that was a guiding force for us — to create as many opportunities and promote as many diverse voices as we can.”

Session will direct “The Thanksgiving Play” by Sicangu Lakota playwright Larissa FastHorse. The play follows the story of four “woke theatre makers” who seek to make a non-offensive production telling the story of the traditional American holiday, but the effort is doomed from the start because no Native Americans are involved in the production or consulted for their input.

“Lyric Rep is very smart about knowing how important it is to have a BIPOC directing such a piece; even though it is a play with a white cast, is a play that deals with a heavily talked-about topic right now — putting on plays in a respectful manner and making sure that you’re being politically correct,” Session said. “My goal as director of the play is to really create that conversation.”

Another 2021 performance, “Dreaming America,” is about an Egyptian American who experiences prejudice in the U.S. The plot was “my father’s immigration story of sorts,” said Mitri, who wrote the play.

As a longtime theater producer, he has always been about trying to “cast against convention” and is particularly troubled by the fact that people of his heritage are not asked to play “role models,” but instead villains, including terrorists.

“In the past, I’ve been told specifically that if I wanted to be cast I needed to play into that stereotype,” Mitri wrote in an email. “One goal for my play ‘Dreaming American’ is to create opportunities for MENA actors without having to do that. Telling my father’s story, I hope, will also allow others that identify with that culture to show their art.”

Kevin Opsahl is a staff writer and features editor at The Herald Journal. He can be reached at 435-752-2121 ext. 1016 or by email at kopsahl@hjnews.com

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