Anyone who's worked in the theater a day in his life knows how difficult it is to keep a theater company alive and well. Cuts in arts funding, shrinking arts coverage in the media, and the constant fight for the attention of potential audiences compound the struggle. But the fact that San Francisco's Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, the region's oldest African-American theater company, has occupied its performance space in the downtown theater district since 1988 has been encouraging.
On top of that, the company draws one of the city's most diverse audiences (numbering nearly 20,000 over the course of last season); has boasted many world and West Coast premieres; supports the community that it serves in numerous ways; and has managed to take considerable artistic risks—such as commissioning and premiering the theater's first play by a non-black playwright, namely Bee by, yes, me, Prince Gomolvilas, in an effort to address African-American/Asian-American race relations in the United States. High schools were brought in to see the play, the Korean Consulate General attended opening night (and enthusiastically sent his kids the following evening), and in a subsequent production The Washington Post called the play "a barbed parable about bias in contemporary America, a cerebral comedy suggesting that if human beings try hard enough, they can transform an angry, alienated world into a better place." This is all to say that the theater has not only earned its place in San Francisco's cultural landscape, but it has touched me personally and has served as an important step in my playwriting career and in my place as a figure in the Asian-American arts community.
What a shame, then, that it is all but assured that the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre will be kicked out of the space it has occupied for nearly 20 years. After happily co-existing with the Academy of Art University since 2005, when the school converted the one-time hotel into dormitories, the theater will be unceremoniously thrown out onto the street so that the space can be turned into a gym. The university, after all, needs that gym in order to qualify for National Collegiate Athletic Association membership. Apparently, when the students graduate and go out into the arts world, evidence that they played basketball at an NCAA-member college will undoubtedly help them find a good job—unless, of course, there is a dearth of arts institutions that they can apply to because they've all been shut down for some reason. Hmm.
To understand the complexities of the story, check out Sam Hurwitt's comprehensive Theatre Bay Area article. Caving under public pressure and heaps of shame from local officials, the university has entered into negotiations to give the theater a short stay of execution and some financial assistance for moving costs. I would call it hush money, but I know the folks at the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, and, believe me, they ain't gonna shut up about it.
An anonymous theater friend tipped me on these events, and I told him, "I don't care if it's valid or not, but they should play the race card! If there were ever a time to play that race card, man, it's now! Now!"
So: you, yes, you can help save the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre from the evil racists. Go to their website for information on how you can write an e-mail or letter and who you can send it to. It's not likely that the company will get to stay where it is, but you can encourage the university to give them hush money that's substantial enough to cover the costs of finding, moving into, and converting whatever space they end up in into a new theater—and not the meager amount they are offering now, which is a mere 25 percent of what it cost to build the current theater.
This cannot wait. Send your e-mails now. Tell people about it. And play the race card if you have to. The tactics may be dirty, but you can only fight dirty with dirtier.