Challenging moments in history demand visionary leadership that flies high and wide on wings of change. And if you add fierce winds of brave dialogue, collaboration and empathy, innovation and excellence, there’s a model in flight for creating cultural shifts rooted in joy. In essence, this is the mindset of Mosaic Theater’s new artistic director, Reginald L. Douglas.
DC continues to recognize and reward exceptional talent within its own arts community in Mosaic’s selection of Reginald Douglas after a national search for the best person to preserve and promote the theater’s dynamic multicultural legacy.
“We firmly believe that he is the right person at the right time for Mosaic,” said the theater’s board president, Cathy Solomon.
A director, producer, and new-play advocate dedicated to creating new work and supporting new voices, Reginald Douglas is also nationally recognized for his arts leadership. The National Theater Conference 2020 honored him with the Emerging Professional Award for his demonstration of exemplary promise in professional theater.
Douglas, when I spoke with him last year, was the new associate artistic director at Studio Theatre, where he remained through 2021 and where the production of Suzan-Lori Parks’ White Noise that he directed opens January 12, 2022.
Douglas’ first production fully onboard at Mosaic will be Dear Mapel, Psalmayene 24’s world premiere directed by Natsu Onoda Power, opening January 19, 2022.
Douglas confidently aims to dismantle known tradition as the map is redrawn around who and what claims space in American theater. He plans to bring a new kind of joy to the theater world by creating more inclusive traditions, telling stories sung by a mosaic of voices that echo the many diverse sounds of what’s America.
In my recent conversation, “Reg,” as he is affectionately called by those closest to him, brought that same urgent passion, truly inspirational energy, and personal commitment to transformational social change that goes well beyond being a theatermaker.
It was a joy talking with him, again.
Ramona: Congratulations on your new position at Mosaic Theater. I had the wonderful opportunity to speak with you a little over a year ago when you had just become associate artistic director at Studio Theatre. Now, as new artistic director at Mosaic, what are the priorities that will most influence your artistic choices for your first full season’s planning?
Reginald: We’re hard at work preparing for the 2022–23 season. This current season was picked by the Mosaic staff, who have proven to be dynamic and hardworking and quite talented. I’m grateful to now call them my colleagues. All the plays in this current season are by playwrights and directors I’ve known and respected for many years, so there’s a great synergy between this current season and where we’re headed.
As we look to the next chapter of Mosaic, we are deepening our commitment to new work. I’m a new play development junkie. I really believe in telling stories about what it means to be alive today. Theater that reflects on our past but questions our present and helps imagine a future is what I always strive to do.
In the art we will create at Mosaic, I’m really interested in deepening community engagement as part of the creative act. How are we engaging our community in making the work? How are we making work with our community? How we are involving partners and bringing different perspectives to the creative table as well as in our audience and reflecting a variety of DC voices through the theater is a core priority for me.
Anyone that knows me knows I believe deeply in collaborations and partnerships with other organizations, both locally and nationally. And so much of the beginning of this tenure and what we’re planning for next year is rooted in the spirit of collaboration and letting our local DC story become really nationally known. That is a goal for me, for Mosaic — that more of the country understands the work we’re doing and that our community feels represented in that work.
How do you make a local company become nationally known?
A lot of it, of course, is press, getting the message out there, working with our PR community and our marketing team to make sure people know what we’re up to. But beyond that, I think the work needs to be made in collaboration with national partners. We’ve already laid the groundwork for collaborations with new play incubators around the country, with other theater companies around the country, and with other theaters around DC. And we’ve recently joined the National New Play Network, which I’m on the board of, a collection of theaters who are all committed to creating new plays at different stages, from Alaska to New York and everything in between.
But beyond that, I think it’s about the work being dynamic, being specific, being inspired. And I hope that the work we’re producing and will produce next season inspires audiences to come back to the theater to see work that entertains and enlightens, work that is filled with music, stories that are unique and interesting and nuanced and reflect the diversity of perspectives and cultures. I think if you keep doing the work and you let your vision and values lead, people do take notice.
So to me, it’s all of those things working in tandem. Our goal for Mosaic is a multi-season goal; we are a wonderfully young, nimble company that’s now writing our next chapter, and that’s going to be one full of change and innovation and trial and error. We define success going forward as living out our values, treating our staff with empathy, and creating a space for brave dialogue for audiences to experience art that uplifts, that entertains, that challenges, provokes. That’s what success looks like. And if we happen to do well at the box office, that’s good too.
It sounds really exciting, and taking the local national sounds really new and innovative. Can you give us a sneak preview of any project in particular?
In the fall we are producing Ifa Bayeza’s The Till Trilogy — The Ballad of Emmett Till, which is a classic piece of our cannon; Benevolence, which is having its second production with us following a successful run at Penumbra [Theatre in St. Paul]; and the world premiere of That Summer in Sumner. I hope people understand how exciting it is to have a world premiere in the District from a master artist like Ifa. I’m thrilled about those three plays, and we are also doing a series of events that will take place across the city in partnership with over 15 arts organizations and theater companies, a citywide reflection about the legacy. How do we learn and heal from this past in order to engage our city, our community in a new imagination of our future? How does the question of justice and injustice resonate today? How do we allow space for Black artists and audiences to mourn but also to celebrate?
Our production of these plays is centered on resilience. This is a history and a legacy and a story that is so rooted in pain, but Mosaic will be producing from a spirit of joy that we are here to tell Emmett’s story, to keep his story alive, to keep his legacy alive. With that consciousness, we can engage in a conversation about how we do better today and how we as a community build a future that uplifts and celebrates all the Emmetts.
This work is very personal for me. I could have been an Emmett. Honoring his legacy and ensuring that the Emmetts of my family and my community, their stories, don’t end up this way — that’s urgent work. The greatest gift theater can do is inspire that conversation and build that level of empathy across diverse audiences. That will be what kicks us off in 2022: three productions by a master writer happening in DC on H Street and then a series of symposiums and panels and concerts and play readings and discussions all across the city that reflect on his legacy with new insight and hope.
What are some specifics in terms of educational outreach and community engagement around The Till Trilogy?
Intergenerational conversation about these themes is vital. This is a legacy and a moment in history that some members of our audience remember personally; they were there. And then we have audiences who may not; for them this is a history book lesson. How do we engage both audiences in a theatrical conversation? That’s the joy of the job. And I’m gratefully joined in this work by our director of engagement and education, Angelisa Gillyard, as we seek to be actively in the community of H Street and our surrounding neighborhood engaging with schools, senior centers, churches, universities, with hands-on arts activities and reflection opportunities.
Sounds like it’s going to be an incredible project.
I’m grateful that everyone we’ve waved the flag to has said yes so far and we keep waving.
That is great.
This is a really exciting moment and I hope this will be part of the legacy we build at Mosaic. You know, our name says that we are a sum of many parts, and I believe the DC theater community and our cultural community, we have an opportunity to lean into that value and all work together to make something bigger than just ourselves. We’re using this Till Trilogy project as a way to connect across organizations and across disciplines, engaging with visual arts, theater, music, dance, poetry, scholarships, education; we can connect across disciplines in the name of our audiences and all their diversity and all of their neighborhood locations together, in a reflection about our country and the country we want to build. I’m really excited about that work and hope it becomes common practice for Mosaic and for DC to work together in this way.
Broadway has gone from having practically no plays by Black playwrights to seven in the current season, and many regional theaters across the country are diversifying artistic leadership, such as Mosaic and Folger, and making new production choices. But you and I both know that there are voices out there who might be fearful that with too many theater leaders of color and too many new kinds of works, the traditions of the American theater establishment are imperiled. How do you respond to that inevitable chorus as change happens?
Well, I’m in a “Yes, and…” spirit today. I believe that we can build audiences in a spirit of with, not a spirit of this or that. Either/or marketing doesn’t work for me or my box office or my spirit. So I believe in “Yes, and…” practices where we build on the audiences that exist.
But there are a lot of traditions in the American theater that need to be dismantled, and I’m proud to be part of dismantling them. I believe that theater is a place where everyone’s voice is welcomed and where everyone should be able to see themselves in the spotlight and in the boardroom. I have committed my life to doing that work beyond me. When I take this seat, I bring up my six folding chairs for the next generation of women and people of color to take their rightful place in leadership as well. The audiences and the board members and the artists that I want to work with, and that I’m happy to bring into the Mosaic fold, share that value: that we are greater together than we are apart. Theater, this magical act of imagining the world as it could be — through the plays we produce at Mosaic, plays that take the newspaper and offer perspective on it, plays that enliven our history books with curiosity, plays that reimagine what our future can mean — that work cannot take place in silos. That work takes place in diverse communities coming together to share multiple perspectives. There’s a great gift and a unique opportunity in that — and those are the new traditions that I’m hoping to build. If they replace traditions built in exclusion, then I am thrilled to be a part of dismantling the past in order to build the future.
I remember vividly walking into a first rehearsal early in my career, a meet-and-greet with the whole staff of a major theater company, and being one of two people of color in the room. I vowed in that moment that I would not be a part of making that happen again, that I would let my work as a director and as a theater producer and an arts leader be about bringing more people to the table, bringing more voices to the table and more people who look like me to the table so that they can share their stories and their experience and their insights as we build our American theater. And for me, that America needs to look like America. That’s joyful work for me, that we can bring more people to the table and offer opportunity. That is why we have these jobs, right? I’m excited about that work. Will it be hard at times? Yes. Will there be noise? Yes, but I’m not listening to the noise. I’m listening to the chorus and finding the light, and that’s all we can do and must do in this moment.
New leadership styles are part of current conversations in American theater management. Decentralizing power and greater collaboration is the new shared leadership model. What’s your perspective on the value of changing leadership styles in terms of diversity and inclusion?
You know, theater has always been at the forefront of innovation and creativity. So it feels only natural that we as an industry would be leading the charge on new ways of working. At Mosaic, we work in a collaborative leadership model with an artistic director, managing director, staff leaders and our staff and our board all working together. I like to say we have rehearsal room culture, which means everyone’s opinion matters. Everyone’s respected as the expert in what they do. I don’t believe in telling actors how to act, telling costume and set designers how to make costumes and sets. I bring all their voices together to support my vision and then make it something bigger and better and bolder than I ever imagined it could be alone. That’s the gift of collaboration and collaborative leadership, which is the model that we will follow at Mosaic. How do we bring more voices from our staff to the decision-making table and then let those voices and their concerns and their insights determine the decisions that we make? That’s the model that we currently work under and I’m excited to put it to the test with Serge [Seiden, managing director] and our team. And we have strong board support, which I think is so vital. Our board is deeply committed to issues and questions of equity and power dynamics and structure and are supporting Serge and me leading with empathy and with rigor in equal measure,
Is your leadership style and your approach to rehearsal room culture part of what you consider healing for your staff, given the recent changes in leadership at Mosaic?
I believe in confident vulnerability as a leader where the most important thing you can say is “I don’t know, what do you think?” I don’t find that to be a conversation that reduces my power. I find the place where I get my power is through shared accountability, through respect, and through kindness. I think you can be kind to people while still expecting excellence and hard work. I like to create a brave space and have a good time in rehearsal. At my first rehearsal, we have a dance party because we’re centering joy. Joy is the first thing we’re centering in the room. And out of that joy comes the rigor, comes the hard work. We are all deeply committed to making it to opening night in this way, with excellence at the forefront, with hard work at the forefront, with good spirit and great enthusiasm at the forefront and telling a story that is bigger than us and in service of an audience feeling empathy when they leave. That’s what keeps us motivated. It’s what fires us up. I think we can do that work with urgency and immediacy while still laughing, while still having a good time. And that is the kind of spirit I bring to the staff room and the boardroom as well. One where people feel safe and brave to express themselves, to laugh, to work really hard because they are good at what they do, and to be respected as such,
Mosaic’s mission statement says that your plays speak truth to power and its art is made for purpose and impact. Can you share your personal interpretation of that statement in terms of your new leadership role as artistic director?
You know, when people say we’re telling the truth, I always want to make sure people tell the full truth. And I say this at first rehearsals too — “In a world that so often seems focused on my death, I’m celebrating my life, and that’s why I come to the theater.” That’s why I use theater as the means to which I do that life’s work, live that purpose. Yes, so much of my experience in this country, and so many people’s experience in this country, is full of pain, sadness, grief, fear, disgust, despair. Yet we are still here. And so, I find the real power of the truth to be that we are survivors, resilient, joyful people, always full of potential for change. Those are the stories that excite me. Those are the plays I want to produce and develop at Mosaic. The stories we want to give audiences are ones that reflect the world around us as it is, but also as it could be. And as we demand it to be. And so, yes, our hope is that the plays speak truth to power and that they ignite and they catalyze and they inspire conversation with yourself and with your neighbor; that they foster a dialogue that can spark civic change at the ballot box, as well as at the school board and at the church meeting. And when you talk to your neighbor or your son or your daughter again. The theater we produce entertains but also enlightens; it moves you, it’s theater that makes you go hmhmm and yes and aha. That’s the kind of work we’re going to do at Mosaic. It’s our purpose. And to me, that’s bigger than a few plays. That’s an organizational purpose. That is why we are here — to bring stories that cross cultures and ignite dialogue in DC and beyond.
Is there anything else you’d like to share about your future, the future at Mosaic?
Sure. I’d say it’s a joyful time at Mosaic. The organization is wonderfully young and ready for our next chapter building upon the legacy of the organization as a home for contemporary stories that speak to demographics and communities that are often underrepresented in the American theater. We are creating a new canon of great new plays, right on H Street, new work that will have national resonance from emerging and established writers. That will be a core of our mission going forward. We will continue to center the community in all of its diversity at the core of what we do, embracing collaboration and outreach and engagement with all audiences, regardless of their zip code.
We want you to feel that Mosaic is a place where you belong, where you see your story on stage, and you see yourself in leadership and on the staff and off stage. We will center dialogue across cultures. We believe theater can be a connector. That work and the opportunity to do that work at Mosaic is my life’s work. I’m grateful and excited to be walking into this next chapter of my career and building it for this organization, with this really awesome staff and board and community of artists. And I’m asking DC to go on the journey with us, join us in this work, be in the audience and be on stage, support us and see yourself at Mosaic. That is my very personal, humble dream and request to our community. Come join the party.
ON STAGE NEXT at Mosaic Theater:
Dear Mapel, written and performed by Psalmayene 24
Reginald L. Douglas named Mosaic Theater artistic director (news story)
For Folger’s Karen Ann Daniels, the Bard’s big O stands for opportunity (interview by Ramona Harper)
Reginald Douglas and David Muse on how Studio Theatre is “doing the work” (interviews by Ramona Harper)
‘The Till Trilogy’ at Mosaic Theater Company (column by John Stoltenberg)