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Stage director and CMU grad recalls 'A Black Man's Journey in American Theatre'

Sheldon Epps at work directing at Ford's Theater.
Sheldon Epps
Sheldon Epps at work directing at Ford's Theater.

In recent years, American theater has been talking much more about equity and diversity. But when it comes to the past half-century, few theater professionals have actually lived the experience as thoroughly as Sheldon Epps.

Epps, a native of Los Angeles, graduated from Carnegie Mellon University’s theater program in 1973 and forged a career as a performer, director and administrator, with credits from Broadway and off-Broadway to hit sitcoms like “Friends.” He tells his story in an engaging new memoir, “My Own Directions: A Black Man’s Journey in the American Theatre” (McFarland).

From Teaneck to Broadway

Epps first saw theater as a boy, but really got the bug after his family moved to Teaneck, N.J., when regular trips to Broadway became feasible. It was in high school, too, that he began performing, in roles including Henry Higgins in “My Fair Lady,” and the Stage Manager in “Our Town.”

“I may have been the first Black Henry Higgins in theatrical history, actually,” he said, with a laugh.

And he must have been good even then. At 16 – he had started school early and skipped a year – he survived a highly competitive application process to enroll in CMU’s prestigious drama program, in 1968. Fellow students at the time included such future stars as Ted Danson (“Cheers”) and Judith Light (“Who’s The Boss?”).

The program was rigorous.

“It was intense. It was focused. It was wide-ranging. So that training has just really served me throughout my career,” he said during a recent visit to Pittsburgh for a book-signing at CMU. “I think I wouldn't have become who I become without having gone to Carnegie.”

In college, like all his classmates, he trained in the classics. But as a Black man, landing stage work in the early ’70s proved much harder than winning lead roles in high school.

“That was early enough that there wasn't color-conscious casting, or a term I don't really like, color-blind casting,” he said. “So you were put into a ‘Black box.’ You know, you were pushed into playing only Black roles and not doing classics …. So it was frustrating. It was frustrating to not have many things available to me that other actors my age had.”

Partly in response, he and three former CMU schoolmates founded The Production Company, an off-Broadway troupe that provided roles and a chance to direct. Notable successes in Epps’ early career included two shows he conceived and directed. The musical revue “Blues in the Night” ended up on Broadway with a Tony nomination for Best Musical, and went on to a hit production in London and an Epps-directed 2018 revival in Los Angeles. “Play On!,” an acclaimed musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” in 1940s Harlem and sung to the tune of Duke Ellington songs, received three Tony nominations.

Epps in rehearsal with Jenifer Lewis in 1999, at the Pasadena Playhouse.
Sheldon Epps
Epps in rehearsal with Jenifer Lewis in 1999, at the Pasadena Playhouse.

"I don't want to come to this theater any more"

The ’90s proved another big decade for Epps. He moved into television, with directing gigs on episodes of shows like “Friends,” “Frasier,” and “Everybody Loves Raymond.” And in 1997 he began his 20-year tenure as artistic director of the venerable Pasadena Playhouse – a job that proved groundbreaking.

“I don't think it considered itself a white theater, but it was a very white theater,” said Epps. “I would frequently notice that I was the only person of any color going into the theater, and I just thought that was fundamentally wrong because it didn't reflect the community of Pasadena and certainly not the greater L.A. community and certainly not America by that time.”

Epps set out to change that by staging works by playwrights of color, hiring more diverse casts, and personally engaging with social groups and communities who had not previously felt welcome at the Playhouse. It wasn’t easy, he said.

“There were people who said, ‘If you're going to be doing plays by Black artists, Latino artists, Asian artists, I don't want to come to this theater anymore,’” he said. “And I'd have to say, ‘OK, don't come.’ There were board members who left. There were donors who fled. But you just had to take that risk and have faith and believe that other people were going to come along who believed in the mission and would support the mission. And, fortunately, that happened.”

Shows Epps himself directed there ran the gamut from August Wilson’s “Fences,” starring Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett, to “Kiss Me Kate,” “The Real Thing,” “Intimate Apparel,” and “The Importance of Being Earnest.”

Epps left the Playhouse in 2017, and now serves as senior artistic advisor at historic Ford’s Theatre, in Washington, D.C.

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"Room for growth"

He said the national theatrical landscape he sees today has become more diverse over a half-century, but still has a ways to go.

“You see many more artists of color, certainly on stage, on screen, behind the scenes as directors, writers, designers,” he said. “There's still room for growth in terms of people in what I would call the power positions -- the executive positions at theaters and in the television and the movie business.”

“I do believe that audiences have gotten more diverse,” he added. “I think theaters here and theaters in Pittsburgh particularly are very focused on making that happen. I would use the old Negro saying to sort of sum it up, which is ‘I ain’t where I want to be, but thank God I ain't where I was.’”

Ironically, for all the theater community’s professions of high ideals, Epps said he’d often had an easier time finding work in television.

“I was certainly the first, if not one of the first persons of color to direct many of those shows,” he said. “Sometimes I was the only person of color to direct those shows. But I have to say that television is a time machine in that it's all about the clock, and getting it done on time and without going over budget and without making the actors angry and all of that. And if you can do that and get to be known for doing that, then you have wider acceptance in some ways in television than you do in theater. … So I was able, I think, to cover more territory in television than I sometimes was able to in the theater, which was surprising. But then I also did shows like ‘Girlfriends’ about five black women, which was also a great experience for me.”

Epps reflected on his teenage years haunting Broadway theaters, and the special thrill he got seeing Black lead performers – Pearl Bailey, Leslie Uggams, Sammy Davis Jr. – in the days when opportunities for them were especially scarce.

“I would see these Black performers owning their environment, you know, being celebrated, being so appreciated and without any regard to what was supposed to be the limitations of their color,” he said “They were Broadway stars and there was no denying it, and there was no denying the impact that they had. … So that was a great lesson for me that early on to know that reaching the top of the heap was going to be possible.”

Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: