Sean San José: ‘There needs to be a home for more people’ in local theater
By Lou Fancher
In a conversation in early September with Bay Area theatre actor, director, producer—and, as of August, new Artistic Director of Magic Theatre—Sean San José speaks with blazing purpose.
People of color and new voices from communities that reflect the world in which we now live will be centered in every facet of the organization; not just in rehearsal rooms or onstage, but in audiences, repertoire, new initiatives and collaborations. Partnerships will arise from mutuality of vision, not crass commercialism, and never striving to shine at the top of another organization’s trendy Ferris wheel or engage in superficial diversity. Authentic voices will be realized in original theatrical works, but also in poetry, music, dance, and hybrid theater productions. Oh, and there will be no selling of Teslas.
“The main thing is we only want to do things at which we will be excellent. We’ll try new things, but I don’t have a passion for selling electric cars, for example, so we won’t do that. Initiatives that come from understanding a community, going in with our ears open, working from the position of a community’s time, energy, and need. That’s where we’ll go.”
Multiply the word “go” by thousands to land on the perfect way to encapsulate or embody San José’s drive and conviction. Trust his language based not on volume or superlative nomenclature, but on his track record and reputation. Listen for ambiguity and find it: Humanity is not a tidy bundle and theater, he suggests, would strangle itself if it became predictable, conflict-free, shuttered, unquestioning, and unquestionable.
“Those who are only interested in protecting their institution, they are dinosaurs and will collapse,” he predicts. “If a theater organization only wants a collaboration with us to put more Latinos on their stage? If they’re not interested in partnering with people who make their space a bigger home for everybody? I’m not interested in them.
“When I first got this job, one of the first things I did was contact people of power in other theater organizations. You find out quickly who’s waiting for the money part of the conversation—which is not to decry anyone concerned about money; it can be third in importance, but never first,” he says. “Titling and name sharing and other things aimed at financial success are not effective. If you’re shooting plays into the night and then they’re gone, what are we doing? Collective power is the only power that will sustain it.
“I don’t care if audiences at Fort Mason walk away knowing the name of the company that performed a play, whether it’s Magic Theatre or Lorraine Hansberry Theatre or another group. I want people to just know it was a work they like and believed in.”
San José entered the professional Bay Area theater scene as an actor after acquiring his equity card in 1990 and appearing onstage at Magic Theatre in Erin Cressida Wilson’s Soiled Eyes of a Ghost. During the past two decades he has acted or directed with Magic under notable leaders Mame Hunt and Loretta Greco and performed in works by Luis Alfaro, Jessica Hagedorn, Octavio Solis, and others. In 1996, San José co-founded theater troupe Campo Santo with Margo Hall (now Artistic Director of Lorraine Hansberry Theatre), the late Luis Saguar, and Michael Torres. Campo Santo has developed, produced, and premiered nearly 100 new works for and by people of color and will become a resident theater company with Magic Theatre.
“One of the biggest reasons I took this position was being able to bring Campos Santo in. I told the committee there was no reason to separate my work with Magic and with Campo Santo: it’s win, win, win. We benefit from everyone invited to the party.” Having a permanent home space and sharing it with other arts organizations pays dividends, according to San José. “We’ll not only generate work onstage, but we’ll have more people in the building and other companies will create more interconnections, experiences, audiences.”
Campos admits to considerable initial hesitation about the AD position at Magic. After the board and search committee greeted his “this needs to be a home for more people” message with enthusiasm, he bought in. “Magic needs to center people of color in all ways: who’s working in the space, but also who’s being invited into the space. It goes back to why are we doing this and what is theater doing that’s right?”
What theater is doing right is responding to the reality of white supremacist structures and culture with full spectrum countermeasures—and at last, those voices are being heard. “The reality is that so many of us are outsiders. What’s happening now is that the real world is responding to the people who’ve been doing the true solid theater of people of color for years; the late, great Loraine Hansberry got it right. Groups that remain true and want to communicate with culturally specific work that transcends, they got it right. People who remained entrenched in their communities doing storytelling, those groups got it right.
“The groups that bend their language and put DEI [diversity, equity and inclusion] language onto their websites to show they are momentarily aware and say they’re now in a new club, I’m not sure about them,” he says.
San José says he’s not even certain what “anti-racism” means. “It doesn’t equate to changed action or interactions. It changes ratios and numbers, but it’s not rightful centering that puts your community or culture into the center of everything in your organization, which is real change. The ’80s were supposed to be all about the Latinos, ’90s were queerness, 2000s were getting hip to the lack of Blackness in society and culture. Those ‘movements’ are responding to trends rather than getting to the roots.”
Although reacting to the clustered terminology of DEI and ambiguity of anti-racism as a movement, San José admits to thinking about inclusion as expansion. Does Magic Theatre create the largest home? Does it invite the world to enter, take ownership, remodel if need be? Capturing the energy of communities and reflecting them back onstage is a never-ending ambition. Even so, he holds the pursuit of mirroring a world and society that are constantly changing as most worthy. “As soon as you think you’ve figured it out, it breaks open, evolves. That keeps us open and more present. We’ve never figured it out and we never will.”
As the conversation winds down, San José offers updates about the upcoming Magic Theatre season. Taylor Mac’s new play, Joy and Pandemic, that is to be directed by Greco, was meant to bridge the transfer of leadership. “We had to postpone it to fall 2022 because of the breakthrough Delta variant,” he says. “Also the subject, even though it’s not about COVID specifically, it is about a pandemic and that would create a drama that’s not actually in the play, because we are living in an actual pandemic. We bring in our world, joys, fears, and passions to the theater, but it would create too much anxiety in this moment in time. We aren’t even sure what’s around the next corner, so thrusting us into this unknown land doesn’t feel right.”
In this decision, San José and Magic Theatre deliberately operate counter to their go, go, go tendencies—but not contrary to the “ears open to community” priority held central to their mission. Until community voices around them call without trepidation for live theater and can gather safely to experience new productions with extended runs, the season of plays is postponed. Nevertheless, Magic will not cease to develop new works, foster new playwrights and actors, seek likeminded collaborators and present single-night productions. Launching a new poetry initiative, a concert set for October 15 features San Francisco Poet Laureate Tongo Eisen-Martin appearing with a percussionist to read the entirety of his new City Lights book, Blood on the Fog. A virtual gala is set for September 29.