The Common Ground Theater has been around since the civil rights era. Now, he’s beginning a new era as the theater-in-residence at La Jolla Playhouse.
The La Jolla Playhouse Theater-in-Residence Program offers small companies the opportunity to benefit from the resources of the Playhouse. The biggest benefit is the use of the Playhouse’s rehearsal and performance spaces.
Jacole Kitchen, director of artistic engagement and internal casting at The Playhouse, is always on the lookout for companies worthy of consideration.
“We’re really looking for companies that have a record of longevity, that have already made their mark on this community,” Kitchen said.
The Playhouse’s latest beneficiary of the program couldn’t do a better job since he’s served the San Diego theater community since the 1960s.
“The Common Ground Theater is known in the United States of America as one of the three oldest African-American theater companies,” said Yolanda Franklin, Artistic Director of the Common Ground Theatre.
Franklin stepped into the role just before the pandemic hit. But the company was created during the civil rights era.
“At the time, there weren’t a lot of places that were producing our parts,” Franklin said. “So they created it so that we could have a place where we could teach people the art of acting and also some of the behind the scenes. So you would help people become managers, directors and producers, designers of lighting. All of this was done at the Common Ground Theater and continues to be.”
Kitchen was impressed with Common Ground’s mission to support and uplift artists of African descent, and how deeply rooted the company is in the community.
“We’ve been really fascinated by all the work that Common Ground is doing within the community,” Kitchen said. “Just seeing how Yolanda Franklin and the Common Ground team hustled and got things done and just at the most local level.”
She hopes the residency can help Common Ground reach a wider audience in a way that previous residency theaters have not.
“Most of the theaters in residence come and they have a production they plan to do in the available space,” Kitchen explained. “Common Ground is using this residency year to spread out their productions because they have so many different types of events and it’s not just theater. There are poetry events, there are music events, and there are so many things they want to do that we are able to fully distribute the resources of the residence throughout their full season.”
Franklin is excited about the collaboration.
“It’s like a year-long masterclass that you go to every Tuesday with Christopher Ashley [The Playhouse’s artistic director who started the residency program], Jacole Kitchen, and all the staff and then the Board of Directors. I couldn’t be more grateful as an individual. I couldn’t be more grateful as an artist and as an advocate and now a community leader. I’m really excited about what this will do for the future of both of our companies.”
Common Ground’s first production under the residency program in July combined poetry, music and the theme of black struggle.
Franklin said the poetry and music portrayed the struggles of black people in an engaging way that opened up audiences to experience and see those struggles as something they could relate to.
“We all have something that oppresses us and keeps us grounded, which we have to say, I’m still going to rise above that,” Franklin said. “And the comments from the audience were that we were all in it together. And from there together we could continue the journey and then we could open them up to different things that they weren’t necessarily focusing on us. And we could talk to them then from common ground.”
During the pandemic, finding common ground was more difficult as the company wanted to respond to outrage in the black community over the killing of George Floyd.
“So what we wanted to do was create a space during this time where these playwrights could have a voice and they could take it off their chests and kind of like a healing process for the community, for us,” Franklin said. “And for us to start a conversation because everyone was like, where do we go from here?”
And where Franklin wanted to go was on a journey to expand that conversation to different sides of being black, which led to his black love streak.
“So there’s a local playwright. Her name is Sheryl Mallory-Johnson, and she has five novels. And they’re all about love,” Franklin said. “It’s something we need.”
Franklin directs “Sense of Love” and has had her eyes set on the story ever since she met Mallory-Johnson. But “Sense of Love” wasn’t always a play. It started as a screenplay, then turned into a book, and is now Common Ground’s next production.
“I see stories that too often deal with black oppression and overcoming our feelings and our struggles,” Mallory-Johnson said. “And I think that’s a very refreshing story to deal with a story that’s all about black love.”
His “meaning of love” is about a widowed father and a single mother who meet at pivotal times in their lives.
“They are both haunted by a painful past, and they must overcome it to have a second chance at love,” Mallory-Johnson said.
Franklin hopes this story has something everyone can relate to as Common Ground enters a performance space from the Playhouse that is twice the size of its former venue. The company is looking to fill 400 seats at each show.
“We’re ready for it. It’s exciting,” she said. “It’s stretching and it’s difficult.”
Common Ground has faced challenges for decades, but now has the opportunity to reach beyond its core community to reach a wider audience.
“Sense of Love” will have four performances from October 14-16 at the Mandell Weiss Forum Theater as part of its theater-in-residence at the Playhouse.