For her directorial debut with Seattle’s Intiman Theater in 2011 Valerie Curtis-Newton, Head of Performance at the University of Washington School of Drama, went with a classic: Arthur Miller’s All My Sons. She staged it with a mostly black cast.
The twist was her way of luring a diverse audience into the theater. She figured mainstream audiences would come out for Miller, and the more adventurous types would be drawn by the casting choice and that once she had them all together, she could engage them in a conversation about race.
“It worked very well,” says Curtis-Newton. “But some folks were really upset that I had made this classic American play racial. [Hearing that kind of feedback] is not fun, but it is a conversation."
“Why do you feel like [this play has] been stolen from you?” she asked audience members upset by the casting. “What if I said, as an American, I own Arthur Miller as much as you do?”
Valerie Curtis-Newton is a provocateur. Her goal with All My Sons, her 2013 production of Trouble in Mind, also at Intiman, and indeed all her work is to get “different people sitting in the same room looking at the same thing and talking about it.”
“And then,” she adds, “being okay with whatever gets said.”
Whether it’s listening to an audience member insist that lynchings never happened, which occurred at one of the Trouble in Mind post-play discussions. Or “taking a lot of grief from the black community” for collaborating with a mainstream theater like ACT on the Hansberry Project, “an African American theatre lab”. Or being called out in front of a large crowd of art professionals by critics who argued that ACT was just “using [her] for grant money.”
“I’m using them too,” she shot back. “The stories from my community deserve the kind of production that ACT can give them, and our being there opens a door for people.”
Curtis-Newton is an Air Force brat, whose parents finally settled in Vernon, CT when she was 14. Though she considered the Yale School of Drama, she enrolled in the UW’s MFA program in 1993. “Yale felt a little bit behind its Ivy-covered walls,” she says. The UW promised more opportunities to connect with the community.
The UW didn’t have a lot of African-American students in 1993. When Curtis-Newton graduated, at age 36, she took a position in the UW school of drama. She eventually became head of directing and then of performance. Cultivating different points of view and giving them voice has been her passion. Thanks largely to her efforts, the UW’s drama school now boasts one of the most diverse acting programs in the country; some 30 percent of its students are students of color.
“I have a reputation as a bomb thrower,” Curtis-Newton allows. “But I don’t see myself that way. I see myself as someone invested in the community.”
Inclusion is the bedrock of the community Curtis-Newton longs to create, and be a part of. “Because without it,” she argues, “the view of the world based on privilege and entitlement leaves those excluded with no access to power or resources. But money aside, empathy involves seeing the other. Without that we can't really live in community.”
Curtis-Newton’s courageous act is clinging to that vision, to a purpose that is bigger than any of us. Bigger than all of us.
“When you’re working for the biggest possible ideal, all your fears get really small,” she says. “Inclusion may be the grand, moral ideal that draws people past their fear. People are afraid to have that conversation. They’re afraid I’m going to go off or call everybody a bigot or be the angry black woman. It’s not that I’m never angry. But I want to have the conversation so much. If more of us find the courage to connect to that big ideal, we’ll cross the bridge more easily.”