Ford’s Theatre’s Senior Artistic Advisor Sheldon Epps shares his artistic journey in the new memoir “My Own Directions: A Black Man’s Journey in the American Theatre.”
WTOP’s Jason Fraley chats with Sheldon Epps (Part 1)
Ford’s Theatre’s Senior Artistic Advisor Sheldon Epps is not only a game changer in American theater; he has also directed hit television shows from “Friends” to “Girlfriends,” as well as the new holiday movie “Christmas Party Crashers” premiering on BET+ on Wednesday.
You can read all about his artistic journey in the new memoir “My Own Directions: A Black Man’s Journey in the American Theatre,” which he joined WTOP to preview.
“I’ve had a pretty distinctive journey as one of the few Black leaders of a major arts organization, Pasadena Playhouse,” Epps told WTOP. “With the rise of discussions about racism, equality and inclusion in 2020 and the Black Lives Matter movement, I was motivated to sit down, write the book, tell my story and hope it would be inspirational.”
Born at Compton Hospital in Los Angeles in 1952, he moved to Teaneck, New Jersey, when he was 10 years old. “That’s where I got in the habit of going to Broadway theater and then started doing plays in junior high school and high school, so that was the real beginning,” Epps said. “My senior year, I actually played Henry Higgins in ‘My Fair Lady.’”
He graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in 1973 and also studied acting at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. “I was in a production of ‘Julius Caesar’ with Richard Dreyfuss,” Epps said. “Actually not a very good production, but a production that got a lot of recognition because it was the same time that Richard won his Oscar for ‘Goodbye Girl.’”
In 1980, he made his theater directorial debut with the off-Broadway musical “Blues in the Night,” which hit Broadway in 1982, and co-founded The Production Company. “In our second year, the director Norman René said, ‘You know, I really think you think like a director. You’re a good actor, but I think you might be a better director, so why don’t you try directing?”
He soon became associate artistic director at The Old Globe in San Diego where he directed “Play On!” to three Tony nominations. “It was one of those divine inspirations where I said, ‘I think I want to do a version of ‘Twelfth Night’ with Duke Ellington music and set it in Harlem in 1940s with no rhyme or reason, just one of those ideas that comes blazing to you.”
In 1997, he became artistic director of Pasadena Playhouse in California.
“I was already planning to move to L.A.,” Epps said. “I was offered the job, I loved the theater, it’s a beautiful facility and I think L.A. has a great, unsung theater community, so it’s just a place that I thought I could really make a difference and build something, which I was able to do.”
His 20-year run included “12 Angry Men,” “Kiss Me Kate,” “Blue” with Phylicia Rashad and Diahann Carroll and “Fences” with Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett.
“I still sometimes pinch myself to see if that really happened,” Epps said. “We had the opportunity to do one of August Wilson’s best plays, all of those tremendous actors wanted to play those roles and were available at the same time. It was a theatrical explosion of talent!”
He simultaneously directed TV episodes of sitcoms like “Smart Guy” and “Sister, Sister.”
“That’s a little like doing a 22-minute one-act play that you rehearse and.. then you film in front of an audience,” Epps said. “The rehearsing and working with actors part was very natural, but you do shoot it in front of an audience with four cameras, so that took me a while to really get a grasp on. … But you do something often enough you start to get good at it.”
Soon, he was directing Emmy-winning powerhouses like 22 episodes of “Frasier,” one episode of “Everybody Loves Raymond” and three episodes of “Friends,” including
“The most significant one was called ‘The One Where Rachel Tells Ross,’ when Rachel was pregnant, they were in the hotel room and she told Ross that she was pregnant, the baby was his,” Epps said. “It’s significant because she told him right before the act break and the laugh was so big that when we came back from commercial, they were still laughing at his expression.”
His biggest legacy is directing 59 episodes of “Girlfriends,” which he also produced. Starring Tracee Ellis Ross, the series originally aired on UPN, which became The CW, and is now finding new life streaming on Netflix, proving that it’s underrated.
“It was a time when, frankly, Black shows just didn’t get as much attention as a ‘Friends’ or ‘Frasier,’” Epps said. “It’s been on cable and streaming for 20 years now. In that time, people who didn’t watch it initially have come around to it. I meet very young girls now who weren’t even old enough to watch it who say, ‘I love that show, it’s my favorite show!’”
In 2020, Epps was appointed senior artistic advisor at Ford’s Theatre here in D.C.
“There’s very few theaters in America or in the world that have such illustrious, significant history because of the events that we all know took place there,” Epps said. “For me, what really drew me to it is that it’s a living theater, it’s not a museum theater, it’s not about what happened over 100 years ago, it’s about what’s happening on the stage right now.”
Even so, the theater’s commitment to diversity, including Craig Wallace’s annual performance as Ebenezer Scrooge, is perfectly symbolic for Epps’ career journey.
“Isn’t it significant that the theater, the building that honors Abraham Lincoln, who fought and died for racial equality, should be continuing to push for equality and diversity in the art of the theater?” Epps said. “What’s more appropriate for that theater than to continue the mission that Lincoln actually died for?”
WTOP’s Jason Fraley chats with Sheldon Epps (Part 2)