She’s a theater legend. But still often the only black person in the room | KUOW News and Information

She’s a theater legend. But still often the only black person in the room

Jun 7, 2016

Growing up, Valerie Curtis-Newton knew how it felt to be the only African-American in the room.

“There’s a picture of a club in high school. It’s me and a bunch of white girls. There’s this picture of the softball team; me and the white girls!” She pauses. “I’ve spent a lot of time being the only one in environments that are largely white.”

Decades later, she says that’s still a common situation.

Curtis-Newton directs the graduate acting and directing programs at the University of Washington drama school. Off-campus, she’s developed a career as a freelance stage director. 

Despite those credentials, sometimes she still feels like the odd woman out when she’s working at one of Seattle’s professional theater companies.

“It’s a rare thing to have artists of color in the rooms when the decisions are being made,” Curtis-Newton explains.

Many times, she’s the person who questions artistic choices. When she points out the lack of plays by women or people of color on a season line-up, Curtis-Newton feels like people view her as the problem.

“Because I’m pointing out the fact of the lack of diversity,” she says. “Then, it makes everybody nervous when I enter a space that somehow I’m just looking, like a Geiger counter, for latent racism!”

Valerie Curtis-Newton contemplates an image of playwright Lorraine Hansberry, namesake of Seattle's Hansberry Project, at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis.

Curtis-Newton has wide experience as a stage director, but she’s most often associated with drama by African American playwrights. Ten years ago, she founded the Hansberry Project in Seattle. It’s billed as “a place for black plays to develop and find their place in the world.” This year, Intiman Theatre tapped her to co-curate a festival of plays by African American women. Next fall, as part of that festival, Curtis-Newton will direct mid-20th century writer Alice Childress’ play “Wedding Band.”

Valerie Curtis-Newton wasn’t a theater geek as a kid; she didn’t get involved until her freshman year in college, when a roommate dragged her to an audition. She landed a small role in “The Good Woman of Setzuan” by Bertolt Brecht.

“I played an old lady,” she says, “And that was the beginning of being part of the community.”

Decades later, she still savors the community that theater can build, both onstage and off. Although Curtis-Newton is dedicated to producing more plays by African American writers, she isn’t satisfied if only African American audiences see this work.

“I want us all to be changed by sharing the experience of hearing stories,” she says. “It’s important to me there’s a diverse audience for the productions we make.”

 That’s why she responded quickly when Intiman Theatre’s producing artistic director Andrew Russell approached her about working together. She wanted to make sure that Intiman was invested in ongoing conversations with both African American artists and the wider community.

“I love my community,” she says. “I love our history, I love our contributions to the American fabric. And I just want to make sure that I give other people the opportunity to fall in love with us too.”

Intiman Theatre’s festival of plays by African American women continues through October. 

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