Last year, the Chicago edition of Time Out thoroughly examined how inclusive the city’s theatre companies were by measuring the number of ensemble roles for actors of color. As one of Chicago’s premier theatrical institutions, Steppenwolf naturally found itself under the microscope. Although its renowned acting ensemble was 35 strong, there was but one actor of color (the versatile K. Todd Freeman) to be found.
While it’s easy to look strictly at the number of ensemble members, as Time Out did, an equally important measure of how inclusive a theatre company is should be the types of plays it performs. Several of my favorite productions over the past couple years -- The Unmentionables, Master Harold And The Boys, The Sunset Limited, Sonia Flew and The Pain And The Itch -- worked so well because they not only focused squarely on race or ethnic identities, but they provided an array of breathtaking performances by many actors of color.
So fast forward to this week when Steppenwolf’s Artistic Director Martha Lavey proudly announced that six additional actors were joining its ensemble. Whether or not the Time Out piece served as a catalyst, four of the accomplished actors joining the estimable ensemble are persons of color. The new ensemble members are: Alana Arenas, Kate Arrington, Ian Barford, Jon Hill, Ora Jones and James Vincent Meredith.
With the exception of Arenas, I’ve had an opportunity to see each of these tremendously gifted actors tread the boards of Steppenwolf’s Downstairs Theatre over the past couple years. And from what I’ve heard about Arenas’ performances in The Bluest Eye and The Sparrow Project, both of which I regretfully missed, she -- along with her new ensemble colleagues -- adds tremendously to the evolving face that is Steppenwolf. Clearly, these six actors are now part of the ensemble, not because Steppenwolf has some quota to fill, but because they’ve earned their place in it.
I applaud the announcement that dovetails exceptionally well with the company’s stated mission:
Committed to the principle of ensemble performance through the collaboration of a company of actors, directors and playwrights, Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s mission is to advance the vitality and diversity of American theater by nurturing artists, encouraging repeatable creative relationships and contributing new works to the national canon. The company, formed in 1976 by a collective of actors, is dedicated to perpetuating an ethic of mutual respect and the development of artists through on-going group work. Steppenwolf has grown into an internationally renowned company of forty-one artists whose talents include acting, directing, playwriting, filmmaking and textual adaptation.
This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).