| | By Mike Rosen-Molina | Photos by Margaretta K. Mitchell
LPeter Callender, 58, knew when he took over as artistic director for the African-American Shakespeare Company in San Francisco in 2010 that he wanted the company to become a rising star. The company had been doing steady, solid work in its near 20-year history, but Callender felt it was still largely flying under the radar.
After African-American Shakespeare Company founder Sherri Young offered him the position, Callender came back to her and the board of directors with a bold counteroffer: Give him five years, and if the company didn't have a substantial regional footprint by the end, he would step down.
Callender added other classic European and American dramas to the company's repertoire of Shakespeare and fairy tales. He dedicated himself to creating plays that were polished, well-acted, and well-designed. He lives by the mantra that perfection is unattainable, but, if you strive for it, you might just catch excellence.
The hard work seems to be working. This year, the San Francisco Bay Area Theater Critics Circle, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting theater arts, awarded the company its first Paine Knickerbocker award for outstanding Bay Area theater. The award recognizes groups that have made a continuing contribution to Bay Area theater—and, to Callender, a clear signal that the company is making waves.
Callender's friend Jonathan Moscone, artistic director of California Shakespeare Theater, had once told Callender that he'd have to be crazy to want to be an artistic director – something that, after having held the position for four years, Callender is inclined to agree with.
"The responsibility is awesome," Callender said. "You put everything you believe in on stage, and you have to just say 'This is my taste; I hope you like it.' If I were to buy a ticket for this show, I would like it. That's my barometer. If this were an art piece, would I hang it in my house? As long as you feel your best, let it fly."
Long before he joined African-American Shakespeare, the Juilliard-trained Callender was already a legend in the Bay Area Theater scene for his work for 20 years as an associate artist at Cal Shakes in Orinda, where he played the title role in Julius Caesar and Laertes in Hamlet. Callender has played roles on and off Broadway in New York, as Casbeque in The Caucasian Chalk Circle and Caliban in The Tempest. An imposing man with an intense gaze, Callender has an eye for detail and an uncanny ability to get into a character's head, which have made him one of northern California's premier theatrical directors. But the maestro director's intensity is tempered by his easy laugh, a quick wit, and a deep sympathy for the actors' craft—all things that help draw out the best performances from his actors.
But helming African-American Shakespeare is more than just a chance to stage great theater. For Callender, it's part of a continuing lifelong ambition to demonstrate the talents and abilities of African-American actors.
When Callender was still a student, the prevailing wisdom was that African Americans should not perform certain roles. Certain roles were reserved for white actors, because it was assumed that audiences would not accept an African-American actor in a Shakespeare play.
Callender would sit in at rehearsals at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in New York, where he witnessed firsthand the talents of many young African-American dancers. And that made the pronouncements of critics, that certain styles of dance were better done by white performers, all the more infuriating to Callender.
"In the late '70s, when I was a student at the Juilliard School, reviewers used to say that black actors shouldn't do Shakespeare; that black dancers shouldn't do ballet—that they didn't have the body structure for it," said Callender. "Of course we could! It instilled in me the desire to prove them wrong. That resonated with me. It stayed in my blood; it pissed me off, even at that young age.
"I want actors to know that we are capable of doing an O'Neill play and saying it's not just an Irish play—this is an important a story that needs to be told," he said. "Our goal is to tell stories, not to say, 'We can't do that because it's an Irish play or a Russian play or a British play, etc.' "
Traditionally, there have been few theater roles for African Americans, often in the past restricted to only parts specifically written to be played by black actors. Callender wants African-American Shakespeare to be a place to serve the young, black actors graduating from acting schools like Solano and Laney colleges—to have a place where they can hone their talents.
"African-American Shakespeare Company is here to let you play Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof; it's here to let you play Oberon in A Midsummer Night's Dream. It's here so that you, a trained actor, can lead a cast, gain strength and confidence. When you're successful, come back and do stuff with us."
Some modern theater companies choose to adapt plays seen as traditionally white to fit more racially-diverse casts; they might update the play's setting—for example, moving Hamlet from medieval Denmark to modern-day California. The idea is that the move might help audiences more easily accept a diverse cast. When Callender stages a play, he always keeps the original setting. A good story is universal—and, if well told, audiences won't see a play as being "black" or "white," he said.
"When I decide I want to do any American or European classic, I don't adapt it," Callender said. "I cannot change a word. With the exception of Shakespeare, which we cut and edit for obvious reasons, we keep the play as written. The character names aren't changed; we don't bring it to where we live. We go where the play lives; the play takes place exactly where it's written. All we're here to do is tell the story. In Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Big Daddy is still a rich plantation owner; he's still dying of cancer; he still has deep-rooted family issues. Brick is still a former athlete with secrets; Maggie is still a young woman seeking attention. The story is still there, just the texture changes a little. When I say, 'I want to do A Doll's House,' I do it. There are black people in Russia; there are black plantation owners. We will do American and European plays to the best of our ability and see people on stage that we recognize."
Callender likes to recall when an audience member approached him after a production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. She had previously seen a production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in London with a black cast, but had never seen the 1958 Elizabeth Taylor movie. She was blown away by Callender's production. "What an amazing story!" the audience member gushed, "But could it be done with a white cast?"
"They assumed that it was always intended to be a black play," said Callender, "Our production succeeded on many levels. She saw real people in real situations on our stage."
Callender first came to the East Bay in 1991, originally intending to do a single show with Berkeley Repertory Theater. But he fell in love with the Bay Area's mild climate and rolling landscapes, which reminded him of his birthplace in Trinidad in the West Indies, and soon one show became three, and three became a season.
"As actors, we tend to leave home, do a show in Cincinnati or upstate New York, and then come back home," he said. "We don't tend to uproot ourselves. But when I came out here, I'd never been to California before. Being from the West Indies, I loved the weather. It reminded me of where I was born—the houses, the trees, the hills, and landscape."
He also enjoyed the Bay Area's theater culture, where he was pleased to find actors were more dedicated to being part of a company and helping their theaters thrive. As Callender says, actors tend to go to New York, the theater capital of the world, when they want to find fame and glory. They come to the Bay Area, with so many diverse thriving theater groups and styles, when they just want to do the work they love.
Although born in Trinidad, Callender moved to London with his mother when he was 8 and later to New York City. It was here, when a passionate sixth-grade teacher at PS 80 in the Bronx inspired him to do readings of Dickens and Shaw, that he first fell in love with the theater. The following year, he formed his school's first theater group and started doing musicals. He later went to a performing arts high school and then graduated to study theater at the Juilliard School in New York City.
Callender now lives in Oakland, and, when he's not in the theater, his other passion is golf. He tries to get away at least once a week, to walk the courses at Lake Chabot or Metropolitan Golf Links by the Oakland airport or Monarch Bay Golf Club in San Leandro.
"When I need to get away, golf does just that. It focuses my mind and challenges me like no other sport," Callender said. "You can play the same course again and again, but it will be different each time. It teaches you about learning from your mistakes."
In 2010, African-American Shakespeare founder Sherri Young first approached Callender about becoming artistic director for the company.
"Peter is the wind beneath my wings," Young said. "When I started 20 years ago, I knew what I wanted it to be but didn't have specific talent to make it happen. Peter brings my vision into reality. He is such a talented actor and an extremely talented director; he runs circles around other directors. My goal in life is to direct something and have him look at it and say 'There's nothing I could add on.' "
Some actors are at first intimidated by Callender's focus, but he has a playful side as well.
"When he's out, he has this distinguished air about him," Young said, adding, "But he actually jokes a lot. He tells knock-knock jokes and is laughing all the time in my office."
Callender directed actress Leontyne Mbele-Mbong in an African-American Shakespeare production of A Raisin in the Sun. Mbele-Mbong played Ruth Younger, a character with a lot of stage time but less dialogue, and Mbele-Mbong had difficulty at first wrapping her head around the role.
"Working with him helped me feel out the process of Ruth and what to do in silence," said Mbele-Mbong, who often calls Callender for advice when she's trying to visualize a role. "He helped make her continuously present and alive and not just wallpaper. Peter can bring things out in a visceral sense. He's good at picturing what happens to a character right before the door opens and they walk out on stage."
In one of her earliest performances, Mbele-Mbong appeared in as the title character in Andromache.
"I tend to get very into my head," she said. "I did lots of research about what times were like in ancient Greece. But Peter is the one who brings the scenario in my head to a real scenario. 'Where's she been? What does that feel like?' I look to him to bring it down and crystallize it to the here and now."
For Callender, it's all part of finding a universal story and telling it the best way that you can.
"We're a Shakespeare company, so we do one Shakespeare play every year," said Callender. "He only has 36 plays; he doesn't write a new one every year. So it has to be reimagined. We ask: How can we reimagine these plays with a black cast? With a multi-racial cast? They can be done with any race, any culture. We proudly present these plays with color and our multi-cultural audiences love it."
Mike Rosen-Molina is an East Bay writer and frequent contributor to The Monthly.
Margaretta K. Mitchell is a nationally known artist and professional photographer, author, and educator based in the East Bay. margarettamitchell.com.