Derrick Sanders understands clearly what his appointment to the Juilliard School means. The Drama Division, founded in 1968, boasts a who’s who registry of all star performers. Audra McDonald, Bradley Whitford, Anthony Mackie, Viola Davis, Adam Driver, Jessica Chastain, and Danielle Brooks are just a sampling of the stars who call Juilliard their alma mater. But until May, when Sanders was named associate director of the Drama Division, a person of color had never been hired in a leadership role for that sector of the school.
He has a fantastic pedigree that prepared him for such a landmark appointment. His undergraduate training was at Howard University, and his MFA training is from the University of Pittsburgh. His on-the-job training includes 22 years in the Chicago theatre scene, as artistic director and co-founder of the Congo Square Theatre Company with fellow Howard alumnus Reginald Nelson, and as professor in the theatre department at the University of Illinois at Chicago for a dozen years. Sanders is deeply rooted in the work of August Wilson, having directed many of the 10 plays that make up Wilson’s American Century Cycle, and assistant-directed both Radio Golf and Gem of the Ocean on Broadway.
Sanders, 48, has been hard at work since moving to New York from the Midwest, and in a recent interview spoke candidly about how he knew the theatre was his calling, what it meant to leave his home of more than two decades, the new vanguard of actor training for students of color, and the importance of having diverse leadership in major institutions.
The following has been edited for length and clarity.
DAVID JOHN CHÁVEZ: When did you know that theatre was your calling, that this was what you wanted to do for the rest of your life?
DERRICK SANDERS: I was really informed by my high school drama teacher, Medina Marable. I think a lot of my aesthetic choices came from her. She was rigorous, she was thoughtful, and at the same time had a high bar of expectation while being fun and light-hearted. In high school, we didn’t have any real drama department; it was just more of putting on plays. But we did great work. We did A Raisin in the Sun and Little Shop of Horrors, to name a few. It was a formative experience even then, and I was like, I think I can do this.
You earned your BFA from Howard. How did that institution shape the leader and artist you are today?
Howard has talented artists from across the nation and across the world, really, inside the same division, who are thinking about the levels of, and how we participate in, art. We also talked a lot about what it means to have an African American aesthetic. We had those conversations in hallways and dorm rooms. Those conversations were politically charged.
Who are some of the artists that you connected with through the Howard theatre department?
Al Freeman Jr. was the head of our department at the time. Chadwick Boseman was one of my good friends there. I was in my first play there with Taraji P. Henson. Phylicia Rashad would come in and teach, Debbie Allen would come in and teach. Celebrities would come through and speak, people who were really focused on what art and Blackness, or what being a person of color meant in a work. Howard was my major foundation. That’s when I really started to formulate my ideas about how I wanted to build my future.
You devoted 22 years of your career to the theatre industry in Chicago. How did that previous work prepare you for your role at Juilliard?
I think my appointment at Juilliard is a confluence of things. I’m a Southern man, I’m from Virginia, but I’m a Chicago artist, right? What I mean by that is that the idea of ensemble work was always intriguing to me. Two movements that inspired me were August Wilson and the Negro Ensemble Company of New York. All those ideas I found and then brought with me to Chicago along with Reginald Nelson, and then we founded Congo Square Theatre. We wanted to go to ensemble theatre, and Chicago was known for ensembles like Lookingglass and Steppenwolf, a ton of great ensembles. The idea was to create a home for artists of color, artists of the African diaspora, to really explore and uplift the craft and do the work on the level that regionals were doing at the time.
You’ve mentioned a significant realization you once had while reading August Wilson’s speech “The Ground in Which I Stand.” How did that speech impact you as a theatremaker?
That’s when I really started to formulate the idea of, maybe I shouldn’t become an actor. Maybe what I really want to do is, as August said, to create and support Black theatre, support Black writers. I decided to go to Chicago, but I thought about D.C., I thought about New York, I thought about Atlanta.
Why did you decide to make Chicago your artistic home?
I found this book when I was at the university’s library (while completing an MFA program at the University of Pittsburgh), and this woman was breaking down why students of color fail. It was a dissertation that I happened to run across. Chicago was the only place in the nation that had five Black theatres that were producing seasons year round. And I was like, okay, I’ll move there and start a company there. I won’t be the only one, but my goal was just to be the best.
I’m not really competing against the African American companies. I’m competing against the regionals. I’m competing against Goodman and Steppenwolf. My mentality is that, right? And the thing that was unique to me about Chicago, the thing that was major for me, is that they shared the front page of the arts section with smaller theatres. The Chicago Tribune used to put Steppenwolf and a small theatre that had a great show on the same page. So I was like, oh, that gives us a fair shot. If you’re giving a great experience, if people were moved and it was profound and they saw where you were going, they would celebrate you. That equal playing field provided us with the opportunity.
What were some important things you learned about ensemble theatre in Chicago?
If you needed something, you could get it. Goodman provided. Steppenwolf would provide; you know, they shared their resources. It was a real artist-focused and theatre-focused community, and they prided themselves on that.
Chicago was and still is one of the most segregated cities in the nation. But I would try to find ways in which we can be more inclusive and diverse, and Congo Square came right at that time. We had the training and experience, so we were starting to collaborate with Goodman, Steppenwolf, and Chicago Shakespeare Theater.
An audience needs to understand the story, but they also need to experience the story. And that comes from the actors and from the artists. Keeping that at the core of the work was the Chicago model, and it was for Congo Square. I think that’s why it was a formative experience when I came into Juilliard. When I step into a Juilliard hallway, I’m in Chicago. I was raised as a Chicago artist. Some of the things that could be considered distant or pretentious, we don’t think about the work in that way. We’re all equal when we hit the boards in Chicago.
What made you decide to come to Julliard right now?
Oh, man. [Laughter] You know, a lot of this is, you have to explain it to your wife, right? I think nationally, we are recognizing that we have been less accommodating, we have diversified but haven’t been considering people; we have allowed people in our spaces but haven’t let them feel included. And I was at a point in my career where I realized overall that I could be a benefit to this community. I think they wanted the benefit of someone like me and my experience with August Wilson and Black theatre, and also classically trained, working under Peter Brook for a while.
What was your impression of Evan Yionoulis, dean and director of the Juilliard Drama Division?
I was impressed with her vision of the future and her desire to see and try change, and really investigate how we look at classics. What are classics? How do we use training to bring us closer together? If classics only happened from this particular year to this particular century, that’s only white men who had access to printing presses. You’re only going to do white men.
What happens when we look at the elements of classical theatre or classical training—what are the elements of training that artists need, point blank and period? How do they apply to cultures? This was an aesthetic value that I carried also, and it was ripe and is still ripe for looking at these things. We’ve been doing some exciting things and it’s been moving quite fast. But that’s why it seemed like, at this point in my career, it would be a natural step. Someone like me being there, being invited and part of those conversations is a benefit.
In 2019, there was an incident at Julliard which highlighted some of the ways that actor training programs and conservatories can cause harm to students from marginalized or under-resourced communities, who often represent a very small percentage of the student population. Though you were not at Juilliard at the time, were you aware of this issue, and have you considered how to provide healing for the Juilliard community?
I was first informed by Evan during the interview process and was told a little about what was happening. After that, I did a lot of research. I have quite a few Juilliard alums that I consider colleagues and friends. I called many of them and asked what was going on. I also happened to have a couple of friends who were teaching there at the time and asked for their assessment of the situation. So I went in fully aware of the situation; it didn’t sound much different from what’s going on across the nation.
A lot of my conversations have been built on how I can help heal and have the honest conversation that needs to be had around it. Part of it, I think, is putting people of color, particularly Black people and those from marginalized communities, in leadership roles. They have to be at the table to discuss these things when things come up. Because when these things come up, if you don’t have a good answer, to even have thought about some of these issues, that’s a blind spot in an organization and an institution. And I don’t mean just Black people on your faculty, but Black people in decision-making at the table, because that’s when bad ideas can stop.
While Juilliard has many incredibly successful alums, an artistic career path does not necessarily reap the same benefits for everyone. In this way, the price of a conservatory education doesn’t often match up to a grad’s potential living wage. When you look at the post-pandemic era for Juilliard, what are the biggest challenges facing Juilliard and other similar conservatories, and their students?
There’s the financial component, there’s the social component, and there’s the pedagogical part of that question, and I’m trying to figure out a way to combine them.
I think this question of making universities across the nation and the world more affordable is at the forefront of every institution. And with (president Damian Woetzel), it’s one of the things he is concentrating a lot on: maintaining the quality of education and supporting faculty and staff absolutely, but also primarily, the student experience, making sure students who get there have access to food and all the things they may need in order to do the work, and also to make it as affordable as possible for people who need assistance and how the process goes to get that assistance. How can we streamline that to make it easier?
Every meeting I am in is about how we can make this clearer and how do we become more inclusive. What does inclusivity look like, and what meets the criteria of the work that we want the students to experience? Ultimately, what we want at Juilliard is for them to be fully rounded artists and storytellers. We’re not in a job of trying to create superstars—we want to make great artists and that might not look like how Viola Davis’s career looks.
What does a bad day as associate director of the Juilliard Drama Division look like?
Not enough sleep the night before. And tons of meetings. There’s always problems, there’s always issues when you’re dealing with this kind of work and the work that I signed on for. There’s always uneasy discussions. So I can’t say that that qualifies as a bad day; that’s just where we are in the world.
We sit at a point of privilege, so it’s kind of hard to really define what a bad day is, really, I’m not digging ditches. So for me, any time I get to wake up and be an artist is a pretty good day. Any time I’m teaching or directing, it’s a pretty good day.
What would be a great day, then?
Teaching directly, vision implementation—that’s a great day.
David John Chávez (he/him) is a Bay Area-based theatre critic and reporter who writes regularly for the San Jose Mercury News, KQED and the San Francisco Chronicle. He is chair of the American Theatre Critics Association and served as a juror for the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Twitter/Mastodon: @davidjchavez
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