An Interview with Sherri Young, ED, African-American Shakespeare Co.
Executive Director and Founder, African-American Shakespeare Company
Dedicated. Passionate. Inquisitive.
In this interview Sherri Young shares insights on launching a theatre company, how she’s addressing a culture of silence, and why representation matters.
Tell me about your current role?
I am the executive director and founder of the African American Shakespeare Company. It’s a cultural institution going into its 24th year, and I’ve been here from the very beginning. Through all the bumps, valleys, and peaks I have played almost every single role in the organization because I had to. (Sherri Young pictured at right.)
What are some of your career highlights?
At the very beginning, when the company was just a concept, we were featured in the Arts & Culture section of the paper with a real photo! For me, it was like, “Look at us. We are real!”
Another highlight was when we were invited to perform at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival and they paid for a hip-hop Macbeth production.
I think the ultimate career highlight, though, was securing Peter Callender as artistic director for the organization. This is his calling in life, it’s what he is supposed to be doing, as both a master artist and a Shakespeare expert.
There have been tons of awards and recognition. Being recognized both in the beginning, and further down the road, as well as hiring Peter were all the significant milestones for us. I would also have to say moving from the community theatre space to a larger performance venue, while not a highlight necessarily, it was a change that propelled us to the next level.
If there was a headline for your leadership journey throughout your career, what would it be?
I’ve always thought about writing a book and had several titles. (Laughter.) I will put one out now: You want to start a theater company? How hard could it be? (More laughter.) I like to remind myself that failure is never a failure if you have learned something.
What are your favorite types of challenges?
My favorite types of challenges are the leaps that I think I am ready for. Sometimes, it’s literally like being in the Olympics and I’m supposed to do a triple-spinning-thing on ice and can barely do a turn. Those are not the challenges I like. I like when I’ve done a double in rehearsal and now is my chance to try a triple. I’m going to give it my all, and know it’s a possibility. I like challenges that are reasonable challenges. Hey, you’re paying $8,000 per month to do a production, but now you have to pay $32,000. That is not a challenge I like.
What is one book that was meaningful or influential in your development as a leader?
One of my favorite books is Who Moved My Cheese by Spencer Johnson. I tend to skim for answers to the challenge that is top of mind for me. This book takes you through a short journey to realize that change is not a bad thing. It propels you to do something different. I often think that my legs and hands could go, but if my mind is still sharp then I could think my way out of anything.
A few years back, I went through big challenges and cleared those hurdles. We had been pushed out of a space: the administration didn’t understand the value of a cultural arts institution and that our vacancy was going to leave the community with barren space. It was a challenge for us to see if we could still be viable in a larger, more prestigious location, and if we could afford it. As it turned out, we received more donations, recognition, and sponsorships by being in different space.
Work in the social sector can be very personal and linked to one’s values. Can you think of a time when your values were in tension and how you reconciled that tension or not?
I think it’s happening right now internally. There is a lot of talk of the #MeToo movement, and even though everyone on my team is handpicked, we are finding a lot of challenges with behaviors that need to be in tow.
When we interview artists about things that have come up, they seem not to want to speak about certain instances, but will talk about them off-site. An important value of mine is to speak your truth. No grievance policies or opportunities for learning moments can happen when people are not speaking their truth. We are a community of artists, which is about speaking up. I have the biggest mouth ever and have started so much trouble. When people are on the sidelines and not speaking up, then they’re not helping. We have to start saying something; that’s the only time change will come. One person may not be believed but a group can’t be ignored. We have strength together, and a lot of people are not in the space like I am.
Have you figured out how to address the culture of silence?
I’ve tried but am not succeeding. I am realizing that subordinates don’t feel comfortable coming to me even though I run this organization. We’ve developed some policies, and I’ve been popping up at rehearsals to try and see what’s going on.
Summer 2017, Democratic Representative Maxine Waters coined the phrase, “reclaiming my time,” as she thwarted Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s attempts to waste her time with nonsense. Can you share an experience in the workplace where you have had to reclaim your time? What was the context? How did you navigate it? What was the outcome?
There was a situation between the board chair and I where there was a tone of dismissiveness on his part. I wasn’t able to articulate my concern about the conversation at the time. During the exchange, I let him know that I needed to put a pin in the conversation since it was having an impact on me. Sometimes people have to go back and revisit things. I’m an individual who if something is bothering me, then I need time to reflect, think on it, and gain a better perspective. The point is never for me to win an argument, I just need to have an acknowledgment that you understand truly what I am experiencing or trying to express. When I say reclaiming my time, it means putting a pin in it and not moving forward until I have better clarity.
What’s your approach to self-care? Are there any rituals you use to survive and thrive?
I have never had rituals, but am reminded of a phrase from a friend: “The time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time.” Self-care for me is anything I want to do with my time. I never structure it out – meditation, running…I’m very open about saying what I would like to do. I may get invited to something and opt to watch Netflix. Self-care is hanging out with my sisters, dad, and friends. It is doing whatever Sherri wants to do.
What advice would you offer other Black women trying to develop or amplify their voice and become self-advocates?
It takes a while to know yourself, but there’s some instinct in the back of your mind when your authentic self feels right. If it doesn’t feel right, don’t do it. Don’t follow the crowd. If you’re a nerdy chess player, don’t hide it because no one else is doing it. Empowerment comes from you owning it – whether it’s natural hair or your special way of cooking. Who would think of pig intestine guts as a specialty? (Laughter.)
Don’t worry about what others think of you; it’s more important what you think of yourself.
If you could change the social sector in a way that would benefit, lift up, or affirm Black women, what would that change be?
Have more of us at the table where decisions are made so our voices are heard. We have seen what happens when we are not at the table. No one is going to advocate or champion for you the way that you would. Sometimes being at the table changes minds and hearts in unexpected ways, but it is hard when you’re the only one there since there’s an expectation you speak for the entire race.
I started this organization because there was no company like this in the country and I wanted to be the first one. If you think about it, it’s a losing concept in terms of dollars. There’s immense pride, however, in the validity of the talent level – that was the reward. The common narrative was that there were no talented Black actors. That’s not true; Black actors had not been given the opportunities to learn this technique. It’s all about breaking doors open and doing anything we want to do and not be pigeon holed in one genre or era. If there is one more play about being a slave in the Antebellum South…we have a history beyond that!