Ever since actor Kory LaQuess Pullam's breakout performance in the Guthrie's production of Parchman Hour, he’s been ingratiating himself with some of the most prestigious theaters around the city. This would be a peak level of success for any aspiring actor who awaits their chance to grace the big stage.
But for Pullam, something just didn’t feel right.
One night, after yet another great performance, Pullam took a good look at the applauding audience and couldn’t help but think: Nobody here looks like me.
This is a reality that Pullam has become accustomed to since moving to Minneapolis three years ago.
“[This is especially common] in the bigger theaters like the Guthrie or the Ordway or the Jungle Theater,” he says. “You’re going to be surrounded by 80 to 85 percent old white people. That’s just the culture of theater. And I’m always wondering: What would be the reaction to this work if there were more people of color here? What if there were younger people here?”
Let’s not forget that, before anything else, theater is a business. Companies wouldn’t be remotely interested in new productions of any kind if the building couldn’t keep the lights on. When their trusted patrons and beneficiaries represent an older white majority, the theater tends to put their needs and wants to the forefront. That includes the stories they want to be told and who they want to see. As a result, Pullam believes that POC artists remain an afterthought.
“I feel like we are so disposable as artists sometimes,” he says. “But I think our social awareness now and people becoming more vocal about needing that equality is why theaters are feeling that pressure.”
As inequality runs rampant across America, the theater community too has fallen victim to its destruction. From the playwrights to the directors to the actors, people of color are consistently overlooked and under-appreciated. There’s no need to wait for the injustices to appear; POC artists searching for theater-production jobs can see it right on MNplaylist.com. Within the site, there's a specific search tab for “color inclusive” roles. It serves as a cruel reminder that, historically, the white majority of directors and producers aren’t interested or motivated in having POC in their production. This exclusion is ingrained so deep within the culture that one wonders if a POC would waste their time showing up for a tryout.
Unless, of course, your artistic merits are only needed to fill a role that exists solely based on your skin complexion. Such ignorance sets the creative limitations of the community. It’s one of the many things that frustrates Pullam.
“A character can be anyone,” he says. “[Directors] need it spelled out for them. ‘Oh [the script] says he’s an African American. Great, let’s go look for an African American now.'”
By taking a more grassroots approach, Pullam plans to use his increasing influence to build relationships with smaller theaters that will host new and exciting art made by others like him who have stories to share that are built from experiences outside of the majority who dominate the space.
“Until [people of color] take agency in the kind of art we want to see in the world, no one’s going to create it for us,” he says.
In the summer of 2015, Pullam banded together with some of the most talented actors/improvisers he could find in town and created Blackout, an all-black improv group. It’s a first of its kind.
“It was sort of baffling to me,” says Pullam of being the first. “I don’t think I had an amazingly bright idea. I think I’m just trying to fill the voids.”
Since its inception, the show continues to sell out its monthly performances at the Phoenix Theater in Uptown. The original cast now shares the stage with new POC actors, giving them an additional platform to perform and display their talents. It's especially important when their opportunities come so few and far between.
These days, Pullam is embarking on a new venture: producing original plays under his production company, Underdog Theatre. Their mission is to create art for the undeserved, underrepresented, and unheard. Its first production, Baltimore is Burning, explored the events following the death of Freddie Gray. After its successful run, the reviews of the show were quite positive, with praise for the cast. It was something Pullam had expected.
“There are so many [people of color] who are good at so many things but because audiences aren’t looking their way, no one's paying attention,” he says. “I know so many people that are dope that no one knows about. How do we take them to the level of those people [at more renowned companies and theaters]?"
It just so happens that one of the lead actors in that play, Pedro Juan Fonseca, caught the eye of a casting director during his standout performance. He is currently onstage at the Guthrie in Native Gardens.
Progress has been made in the Twin Cities, especially with the continuous support from the legendary Penumbra, Pillsbury House, and Mixed Blood theaters. Joe Haj, the new creative director at the Guthrie, is also making inclusiveness -- including hiring more female directors – a key part of the organization's mission. This is something that Pullam acknowledges with increasing optimism. But still, he must keep working.
“It’s getting better,” says Pullam. “But we still got a long way to go.”
Blackout Improv is at Phoenix Theater this Friday, August 18, at 10:30 p.m.