If things were to have gone a different way, we might be talking about Margo Hall, one of the greatest dentists in history.
The Detroit native roamed the hallowed grounds of the University of Michigan as a young undergrad in pursuit of a dental degree. As she got deeper into the program, she faced her moment of clarity and declared, “This is crazy – I want to be an actress.”
While a career in the medical field never fully left the ground, Hall is now a dean of sorts in the annals of Bay Area theatre. She has been one of the most sought-after performers in the region, tackling every conceivable type of role. The Magic Theatre, Marin Theater Company, American Conservatory Theater and Berkeley Rep are just a sliver of stages she has graced with her acting and directing talents, not to mention her work as a critically-acclaimed playwright. And of course, there is something she always comes back to when chatting about theatre – her role as one of the founders of award-winning ensemble Campo Santo and what that has done for her career.
She first came to the region in 1991 after getting her Master of Fine Arts degree in drama from Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. and was cast in one of her first major roles, playing Anita Hill in the Magic’s production of “Unquestioned Integrity – the Hill/Thomas Hearings,” directed by Ellen Sebastian Chang.
After nearly 30 years performing on just about every major Bay Area stage, Hall went on a walk one day with Stephanie Shoffner, the executive director of San Francisco’s Lorraine Hansberry Theatre. By the time that walk concluded, Hall was the new artistic director of the Hansberry.
“It was a great walk,” said Hall.
While Hall, 57, is thrilled about the opportunity to invest in a new generation of Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) theatre makers, she knows what she is up against. Funding, facilities and resources are all things Hall and her team need to address in order to prepare for what is on the other side of COVID-19. She also has a firm understanding of the historical significance of her appointment, the first woman to serve as the Hansberry’s artistic director in the company’s 39-year history.
The theatre is named after the first Black woman playwright to have her play produced on Broadway with 1959’s “A Raisin in the Sun.” Hansberry died in 1965 from pancreatic cancer at the age of 34, and 16 year’s later in 1981, the namesake theatre company was founded by Quentin Easter and Stanley E. Williams, who both died in 2010.
In this conversation, Hall speaks candidly about the challenges she and her new company face, ways in which the arts community can help her space thrive, how the murder of George Floyd impacted her decision to move into a new career phase and her desire to share “Black joy” with everyone who comes through the company’s doors.
David John Chávez: I don’t know if I’m different in this way, but I’ve always thought of you as an actor and director. So when I heard you were the newly appointed artistic director of the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, I was thrilled yet surprised. Do you get a sense that other people felt the same way?
Margo Hall: No, because I have been offered opportunities to become an artistic director for a long time. I love my acting career and I’ve always said no, I wasn’t ready yet.
I’ve been really blessed to work here in the Bay pretty consistently between acting and directing. And I found that the older I got, the more I started really thinking about investing in other people to become a mentor and really pushing forward the careers of young black writers and writers of color. I’ve found myself a little less attracted to being on the stage all the time, and I really wanted to do more for the community. I felt that, with everything that has happened with COVID-19, Black Lives Matter re-emerging and George Floyd, I had a moment of clarity.
My first thought was we need to support the Black theatre because they’re going to fall off. They don’t have the resources. They don’t have the support. A group of us actually reached out to the Lorraine Hansberry to ask how we can help.
I’ve done a lot of work with equity and diversity, spending time with predominantly white theatres trying to integrate their institutions, and I just felt like it’s time for me to put my energy somewhere else.
The work of equity and diversity can be a pretty hard room to penetrate. What would you say was really frustrating about the work that you had done before in other institutions, and how might there be a greater potential to do something more fulfilling with this new appointment?
I’ve always had a strong voice in my work and I call out injustices. I’ve never been afraid to sacrifice a paycheck.
A lot of folks didn’t feel they had a voice, so they would always come to me and say, ‘Margo, this happened – what should I do?’ So then I’d go to the theatre and say, ‘What the hell is wrong with you? Why does this happen?’ It’s tough because certain theatres don’t always come through on their promises.
This was one of my biggest questions, when all of a sudden, theatres were like, oh, we’re going to put up statements and we’re going to do this and that and I’m thinking, why now? Why so late? Do you really, genuinely care, or are you afraid to lose BIPOC people? Are you afraid that if you don’t put these things up, you’re going to be blacklisted? What is the difference now as opposed to what I was trying to say five years ago?
I truly hope, I really truly hope that we can make change because we are not going to survive as a community if we don’t.
Let’s talk specifically about the theatre company you’re taking over. Whenever anyone takes on a new kind of leadership role, that person can identify a gap or something that isn’t happening. When you look at the Hansberry, have you identified that gap to address, which will allow you to leave a really strong impact?
One of the things I think that’s lacking, like you say, that gap, especially when it comes to Black stories and Black theatre is Black joy. I feel a lot of theatres want to put out our trauma. We need spaces that show history considering the amazing people that came out of this journey of being a Black person in America. And we just don’t see that because we’re constantly teaching white audiences. We’re constantly playing to the white gaze.
We want to do our Black classics. We have Black classics, you know? We have amazing plays that were written in the ‘20s and ‘30s that had nothing to do with white people. But no one knows that and no one wants to sell that. So I’m really interested in digging into the wonderful beauty we possess and put that on stage.
I also think there’s a lot of potential in highlighting people of color in general. The world we live in is extremely diverse, and we have the ability to really put that diversity on stage. Again, not for the white gaze. I have come across so many amazing plays and I just don’t understand why we don’t do those, why they are not part of our theatrical journey.
We need spaces that show history considering the amazing people that came out of this journey of being a Black person in America. And we just don’t see that because we’re constantly teaching white audiences. We’re constantly playing to the white gaze.Margo Hall
As an artistic director, it sounds like you have an incredible opportunity to really use your space as a true pillar of the community.
That’s something I can do, and again, we can put the Hansberry at the forefront, and not have it be just a place that produces a play, right? It can be a place that really nurtures Black and brown folks with a strong educational component. And not just for young folks, but for adults.
What are some things that stand in the way, and how can you overcome those obstacles?
People always say, well, we don’t have a Black sound designer. We can’t find a Black set designer. We’re there, but a lot of us don’t have the training. We haven’t been exposed to the resources. We can approach American Conservatory Theater and say, ‘We don’t need you to put us in a play. We need you to offer your resources and allow us to train on your sound board for two weeks.’ That way, Black and brown folks know how to go into a space and work one of those boards.
It’s all about access. It’s like, give us the fish because we’ll cook it.
In the summer of 2019, the American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA) attended the National Black Theatre Festival in Winston-Salem, NC, a festival that was founded in 1989. One of the panels was hosted by some of the festival’s founders and current board members. A panelist mentioned that, as popular and critical as the NBTF has been to the city of Winston-Salem, he knew he could go into the community and find plenty of Black people who had no idea it was even happening. For as long as the Hansberry has been part of the San Francisco and Bay Area theatre community, how do you develop an audience that maybe really has no idea that the Hansberry is even there?
You know, it goes back to resources. It goes back to finances. It goes back to who has the support. You need to be able to afford a marketing committee. You must be able to put yourself out there in a way where you can get exposure. You also need a facility so that people know where you are. A lot of our Black theatres are nomadic. You can’t find it. It’s like, oh we’re going to do a play here. Next thing you know, we got a play, but it’s in Petaluma, and we’re going to do another play in East Oakland. And it’s like, where do you live? How do I find it? Again, resources and finances are everything. Having a foundation and a space where you can set up shop so that people know where to find you is a real advantage.
Last year in New York City during the ATCA annual conference, David Henry Hwang was on a panel. Among the many things he said that were incredibly interesting and insightful was his challenge of the idea that Black and brown people don’t go to theatre because it’s too expensive. Lots of things are expensive, but theatre is not always the most welcoming place for BIPOC people. The idea that finances are the sole reason for not attending is inherently racist. What do you think of that? And how do you, in this new position of power, work to make theatre an option for everyone, even those who never considered theatre to be any part of their experience?
Theatres have responsibility, especially non profit, to reach out 2 communities who don’t go 2 plays. @DavidHenryHwang makes great point. Price of tickets not a factor, becuz sports/concerts are pricey too, but theatres don’t always make those communities feel welcome. #atcany19
— BayAreaPlays.com 🌯🎭 (@davidjchavez) November 1, 2019
Yeah, I understand that, and I agree. Tyler Perry can come to the Paramount Theatre in Oakland and sell out tickets for $50 and they’re all Black people. It’s not a matter of what we can or can’t afford, it’s what Black people want to pay for. And I feel like if they’re not really seeing themselves on stage, why are they going to go? Why are they going to spend their money on that?
There are many ways to try and offset ticket prices. It’s a tricky thing, because I’m learning. You know, this is my first rodeo with the artistic director thing. We’ve got to make some money. But we also want people to have access. You have to feel comfortable coming into a space.
And that was another one of the biggest things I worked with some of these theatres on, because they were like, ‘We need to get a Black audience. We’re doing “Jazz” by Toni Morrison.’ And the theatres are like, ‘Where are the Black people? This is their story.’ And then it’s like, ‘We can go talk to a church.’ But that’s only a couple of nights of Black people.
People look at this like it’s a project – the project this month is to get Black people in the theater. But this isn’t a project. This is a way of life, a way of working. This is a way of reaching out to your community.
What are some other obstacles that impede our ability to make theatre audiences more diverse?
Alright, I’m breaking this down – when you go into a certain theatre, and Black and brown folks are very vocal people, we watch something and respond to it. And if your response is not welcomed in that space, you’re not going to go back there. If you happen to laugh loud or comment on something and someone shushes you or looks back at you and tells you to be quiet? The theatre is not a museum, it’s an experience. So you have to create an environment where people get to see who they are and let them enjoy their experience.
It’s not about them being disrespectful. It’s about understanding that people enjoy experiences differently. It’s not funny, but now people have to get up to make a speech and say ‘We welcome everyone. People can shout, people can scream, and we’re not going to be upset about that.’ When you come to the Hansberry, you can enjoy yourself. You can be part of the experience. And that’s what real welcoming is.