Victory Gardens Theater cancels remaining performances of ‘cullud wattah’ amid company upheaval

The move comes on the heels of a week filled with turmoil for the theater, including the decision by the company’s board of directors, led by chairman Charles E. Harris, to place artistic director Ken-Matt Martin on leave.

SHARE Victory Gardens Theater cancels remaining performances of ‘cullud wattah’ amid company upheaval
Brianna Buckley (from left), Demetra Dee, Renee Lockett and Sydney Charles portray three generations of one family dealing with the difficulties of day-to-day life compounded by the insurmountable Flint, Michigan, water crisis in “cullud wattah” at Victory Gardens Theater. | Liz Lauren Photo

All remaining performances of “cullud wattah” at Victory Gardens Theater have been canceled after playwright Erika Dickerson-Despenza pulled the play from production amid an unfolding controversy between the company’s board of directors and creative staff.

Liz Lauren

Victory Gardens Theater, currently amid a week of tremendous upheaval, announced on Friday the cancellation of all remaining performances of Erika Dickerson-Despenza’s critically acclaimed production of “cullud wattah,” effective immediately, following the playwright’s decision to pull the play from production.

In a statement, Dickerson-Despenza said of her decision: “As a result of the white supremacist capitalist patriarchal values espoused by the Board of Directors at Victory Gardens Theater, I have pulled the production of my show, CULLUD WATTAH, effective immediately.” The play, which received four stars in a recent Sun-Times review, was slated to run through July 17.

The move comes on the heels of a week filled with turmoil for the theater company including the decision by the company’s board of directors, led by chairman Charles E. Harris, to place artistic director Ken-Matt Martin on leave. The move prompted Marissa Lynn Ford to withdraw her name as candidate for the position of executive director, and the resignation of ensemble playwrights Marisa Carr, Keelay Gipson, Isaac Gómez and Stacey Rose as well as resident directors Lili-Anne Brown and Jess McLeod. The theater’s acting managing director, Roxanna Conner, has announced her intentions to resign at the end of the month.

Also on Friday, Actors Equity, the union that represents professional theater actors and stage managers, issued a statement in support of the actions taken by the individuals who resigned. “Actors’ Equity Association stands fully in support of our members, and their right to a safe work environment — as well as the right of all workers to work in a safe environment free from harassment, discrimination and bullying.

“It is deeply disheartening to see an organization that has very publicly wrestled with institutional racism in recent memory again be perceived as unable to support workers of color without whom Victory Gardens Theatre [sic] could neither exist nor thrive,” the union’s statement read, in part.

A letter to the board of directors signed by all of the resigning ensemble playwrights and resident directors, and posted on Medium by Gomez, detailed the artists’ reason for resigning:

The same lack of transparency and accountability informed by toxic behavior from this board that led the previous Playwrights Ensemble to resign in 2020 has now led to the loss of a dedicated board member; two experienced and well-respected Black leaders who have worked tirelessly to help this theater to live up to its stated values of integrity, diversity, innovation and excellence; and every single one of Victory Gardens’ most recent cohort of playwrights and resident artists. This situation is not tenable for Victory Gardens, and we have serious concerns about the theater’s ongoing viability if another artistic leadership transition takes place so soon after bringing Ken-Matt into the organization,” the letter read, in part.

The letter writers did not specify the “toxic behavior” they were alleging.

The theater’s board of directors addressed the entire matter with a statement of its own issued in response to Gomez’s post:

“We are a 48-year-old theater company with a rich history of bold and diverse productions. Collectively, our board members have more than 100 years of experience with Victory Gardens, and we know well the delicate balance of managing the artistic well-being of the theater with our fiduciary responsibility. We have invited our playwrights and resident directors to board meetings to weigh in on various issues but ultimately, certain decisions must happen at the board level. We regret the resignation of our playwrights’ ensemble, which was shared today, but we stand by the difficult and significant decisions we have made as a board that have kept this theater financially solvent for so many decades, including through the unprecedented COVID shutdown,” the statement read, in part.

This is a developing story...

The Latest
Multiple fights broke out all over the field as Chicago Public Schools security and coaches and administrators from both schools struggled to calm things down.
Police misconduct investigators’ findings were made public investigated more than three years after the crash that killed an 89-year-old and 11 other people in all.
Long known as one of the league’s fastest skaters, Athanasiou has a golden opportunity to rejuvenate his career with the Hawks this season. But he’ll need to play in more than 28 games to do so.
Bench coach Miguel Cairo will continue to serve as acting manager for the rest of the season.
Illinois has reported an average of 2,482 new cases per day over the past week, a 32% decline compared to a month ago.