The landscape of theatre in Oklahoma City is gradually becoming more ethnically inclusive, but diversity has been at the forefront of one area theatre’s priority list for quite a while now. The 2013 Poteet Theatre Awards distinguished the local theatre as a pioneer in bridging the vast cultural divide that many minorities in Oklahoma City perceive in terms of both opportunity and recognition.
This year, all of the Poteet Theatre Award winners in the major male acting categories were African American. Brian C. Scott was recognized as Best Actor for the 2013 season for his portrayal of Troy Maxson in August Wilson’s Fences; Eugene Smith was named Best Supporting Actor for his performance as Jimmy Early in Dreamgirls; and J. LaMont Thomas took home the Best Featured Actor prize for his role as Jim Bono, also in Fences.
Poteet Theatre is no Johnny-come-lately when it comes to diversity. For the 2012 season, for example, the awards were a sweep for women of color. That year, Tiffany Mann won Best Actress, Tinasha LaRaye was Best Supporting Actress, and Kelli Gates was named Best Featured Actress, all for their principal roles in The Color Purple. Mann was Celie, LaRaye was Nettie, and Gates was Sophia. The Color Purple, in fact, won Best Show for the year. This year, that honor went to Dreamgirls. Both shows featured predominantly African American casts, and both were directed by Poteet Executive Director Jay Prock.
Jay has made it his mission to reach out to all ethnicities and provide a platform for stories to be told reflecting all cultures. The Color Purple was groundbreaking in terms of the magnitude of the cast in sheer numbers – with 82 people in the cast – and in terms of popularity, with several shows added to the original schedule to attempt to accommodate the demand of the community to be a part of the experience.
In 2013, Poteet took an additional step in providing a platform for minorities. August Wilson’s Fences was solely directed by Tinasha LaRaye, and was nominated for Best Show.
One local actress, Regina Banks, has a unique perspective on Poteet’s efforts to be inclusive. Banks, who played the role of Michelle in Dreamgirls, also starred as Shug Avery in The Color Purple, but her Poteet experience didn’t begin there. She was recognized as Best Newcomer for the 2011 season for her roles in both Ain’t Misbehavin’ and Carousel that year. This year, her daughter Maya was nominated for Best Featured Actress for her role as Raynell in Fences. Here’s what Mrs. Banks had to say about Jay Prock and his work as a cultural ambassador of the arts:
Not only does Jay Prock have a desire to see more minorities and every facet of the American story represented onstage, he’s one of very few to not only ‘talk about it,’ but ‘be about it.’ And more than any other director, he and St. Luke’s Methodist Church have put their money where their mouth is. All of their actors are volunteers, but they go above and beyond when it comes to telling the stories that need to be told.
Poteet is not merely flirting with the African American community; it is making significant efforts to build a solid long term relationship. This season, Poteet’s production of Ragtime, directed by Shawna Linck, runs from February 21st to March 16th.
Poteet is not the only theatre showcasing minorities. There are many others who are making efforts to include the stories of those not in the majority. Some, however, appear to be a bit misguided in their efforts. One local actor had this to say about the efforts of some other theatres in the area to include minorities:
[They're] trying, but I’m sorry, y’all finally reach out to us and you want us to play….wait for it….slaves. No thanks. I’m good.
Surely, though, roles as slaves and such in productions that demean without redeeming will not continue to be the norm in the city. Change is inevitable, especially as progressive theatres such as Poteet continue to lead the way in not only including people of color in their productions, but respecting us and telling stories that reflect our dignity as well.
Brian C. Scott