By Bold choices. Strong choices. Brave choices. These, according to Sheldon Epps, are essential to the alchemical creation of great theatre. A credible source to say the least, Epps has found, over the course of 40+ illustrious years as a director in the field, that this trinity has not only guided him in crafting the kinds of productions that changed the artistic and fiscal face of a once heralded theatre fallen from grace, but it has also been key to the navigation of his own career as a Black man in a space occupied predominantly by others who would often aim to box him in.
The boldness, strength and bravery of the Black Lives Matter movement at the dawn of the pandemic inspired him—and the quarantine afforded him the contemplative space—to chronicle his auspicious, if occasionally turbulent, ascension in a new book, entitled “MY OWN DIRECTIONS: A Black Man’s Journey in the American Theatre.”
“In 2020, when racial issues that I actually have been talking about for many, many years sort of erupted in the American theater…it just seemed like the propitious time for me to tell my story and some of the challenges that I have faced as a Black artist and as a Black artistic director,” Epps recalls. “Some of the triumphs as well, but certainly the challenges and frustrations.”
Among these is the painful memory of a brief period when the Pasadena Playhouse (the theatre Epps revitalized and led as artistic director for twenty years) had to shut down to resolve some longstanding financial issues that predated his arrival. As diversity was one of his hallmarks, a rumor circulated that the shutdown was due to him forcing his Black agenda on the community there, bringing in Black playwrights and artists that the theatre did not want.
“There’s kind of no way to answer it without sounding defensive,” Epps reflected. “Plus, we were in a process in which I wasn’t supposed to say anything about the reasons or what was going on behind the scenes, so that was rough for me, knowing that those things were being said, knowing how untrue they were and not being able to respond.”
However, this fueled Epps’ fire. Reasoning that the best way to prove his case was to get the theatre reopened promptly, he and his team fought to raise the necessary funds and reopened faster than anyone thought possible at the time.
Subsequently, a one-woman show starring Leslie Uggams, a one-man show with Ed Asner playing FDR, a production of Pearl Cleage’s “Blues for an Alabama Sky,” and a musical adaptation of “Oliver Twist” directed by Debbie Allen each met with terrific reception, and the Pasadena Playhouse, under Epps’ direction, was again off to the races, with new grants and favorable reviews. Epps recalls, “It was hard to argue with success.”
This is but one of his many victories. Epps has been honored with numerous awards including Tony Award nominations for conceiving and directing the Duke Ellington-inspired musical “Play On” as well as the musical revue “Blues in the Night,” which went to London following its run on Broadway.
Epps has enjoyed impactful collaborations with acclaimed actors and actresses such as Phylicia Rashad, Diahann Carroll, Orlando Jones, and Robin Givens, and seen tremendous success with a string of box office pleasers at Pasadena Playhouse, including August Wilson’s “Fences” starring Angela Bassett, Laurence Fishburne and Wendell Pierce.
Never one to balk at a challenge (as a young actor, he chose for his directorial debut in a modest 70-seat theatre Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”), Epps upped the ante for himself, spending many years juggling his position at Pasadena Playhouse with directing episodic television for such popular series as “Girlfriends,” “Friends” and “Frasier.” In these realms, his knack for working well with actors was lauded, a gift cultivated through years in the theatre.
Even later into his tenure at the Pasadena Playhouse, Epps’ ambitions would find him venturing out into bold, uncharted territory, directing a particularly tense adaptation of Reginald Rose’s “Twelve Angry Men,” with a cast that included six white actors and six Black.
“I am very, very proud of being a Black man, but I never wanted to be classified and/or restricted to being a Black director,” Epps emphasizes. “I wanted the freedom to cover any territory that I wanted to cover. And at the time that I began my freelancing career and once I came to Pasadena Playhouse, the desire to do that was kind of revolutionary. It often took my saying no to things. It took my explaining that to people. It took being accused of being arrogant and ambitious. It took fighting against being boxed in, boxed in by my color, rather than celebrated for it.”
Celebrations came in due time, and Epps’ new book, which details the events shared here and many more is itself a celebration of the life of an artist operating on his own terms.
Epps has just recently wrapped his first feature film for BET, a holiday movie entitled “Christmas Party Crashers,” which airs next month. He recently directed a new period play, “Miss Maude,” for A.D. Players at the George Theatre in Houston, Texas, he is the Senior Artistic Advisor for the Ford Theatre in Washington, D.C., and more of his directorial work can be seen on the Netflix series, “The Upshaws.”
Reflecting on his breadth of experiences, he wishes to inspire others to approach their own pursuits with the same fire. “[For] people of color and artists of color in this country, there’s always going to be people who say, ‘no, you can’t do that, no, you can’t go that down that road. That’s not possible for you.’ And you just have to walk that road. Be ready to walk it. Have the talent and ability and passion, and follow your own directions and make your own journey.”
“MY OWN DIRECTIONS: A Black Man’s Journey in the American Theatre” is available for purchase at Amazon.com.