U.S. World Theatre Day Message 2021 by Olga Garay-English
Recently, Teresa Eyring, Executive Director of Theatre Communications Group, emailed that Helen Mirren would be penning the World Theatre Day Address for ITI worldwide. Later that same day, I watched Dael Orlandersmith and Neel Keller speak as part of TCG Books' First Friday Series about her latest published play – Until the Flood. I knew the minute I heard Dael's powerful story that I had found the core of this essay connecting seemingly unrelated events with a celebration of World Theatre Day.
You see, last year we lost two great people of the theater barely two weeks apart: my best friend, Diane Rodriguez, and my beloved husband, Dr. Kerry English.
Diane got her start at El Teatro Campesino in the early 70s, and through that formative experience, she traveled the world. She also met and befriended Helen. A couple of times a year, Diane would say, "Oh, I am meeting Helen for lunch this weekend" – so joyous and so real that she made breaking bread with Dame Helen Mirren sound like the most natural thing in the world. Upon Diane's death, Ms. Mirren wrote, "My brilliant friend, Diane Rodriguez. Funny, vibrant and so talented. A great leader and a passionate advocate. And also the best girlfriend to laugh and chat with. She was respected and very loved by many and will be terribly missed. She was better than most of us."
By day, my husband, Dr. Kerry English, was director of the pediatric division at Martin Luther King Hospital in Watts, Los Angeles, working with abused and foster kids. But at night, as his obituary in the L.A. Times chronicled, "He was the ultimate theater fan, a cultural omnivore who sometimes took in more than five shows in a week. He was a devoted audience member who became a reliable board member at theaters including Rogue Machine, Cornerstone Theater Company, Ojai Playwrights Conference, and 24th Street Theater."
His family comes from St. Louis, and that is where the connection to Dael's haunting piece fell into place.
Dael's Until the Flood examines community members' reactions after the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, St. Louis County, Missouri. Originally commissioned by the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, the play came to the Kirk Douglas Theatre in L.A. early in 2020. By that time, Kerry had already been diagnosed with ALS, yet he was present. He took his 21-year old grandson, Pharoah, to see Dael's work. Since he was a small child, Kerry would take Pharoah and his little friends to see theater wishing to impart the same kind of devotion to the artform that he cherished so much. Kerry came home that night keen to talk about Dael's work and the relentless pain caused by racial injustice. You see, he not only cared about the theater but about redressing injustices; he practiced this commitment every day he went to work.
As a refugee to this country, having fled the Cuban revolution in 1961, I have come to believe in the absolute power of the arts to build community between often disparate peoples. Artists can create human connection and understanding in a way that politicians cannot. This revelation has made international cultural exchange and engagement a through-line in my long career. As a presenter, former funder, and tireless champion of international collaborations, I have been fortunate to have traveled the world to see theater - often inviting companies back to my community to share their work.
As Founding Program Director for the Arts at the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, I had the privilege to collaborate with The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to launch a theater initiative, which awarded more than $40 million during the five-year effort and resulted in the creation of the acclaimed Under the Radar Festival in NYC. TCG housed part of the Duke/Mellon multi-pronged initiative as well.
Every other year, we would invite our Leading National Theatres grantees to a convening held during an international theater festival. This gave us access to festival leaders and artists who would meet with us during the day while offering us the opportunity to see their productions at night. It also messaged loud and clear that the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation prized international exchange and collaboration, antidotes to individual and cultural isolation.
In that spirit, I recently established the Dr. Kerry English International Arts Fund at TCG. But that gift pales next to the extraordinary rewards I received by being in the shadows of Kerry and Diane throughout the years when we were fortunate to have these two exceptional individuals on earth.
In 2014, Diane authored this very essay in celebration of World Theater Day. She wrote, "ACTivating a moment in a play is akin to ACTivating a moment in the struggle that is our life. There are victories and there are setbacks, and when the setbacks happen you are filled as a creator with ideas that take the setback and set it right."
During one of the most challenging years in memory, both for our global society and individual human beings, I invite you to be filled with ideas that take this unprecedented setback and set it right.