Though the initiative Taking Our Place Centerstage: The African Diaspora in Harmony (TOPC), the St. Paul theater and playhouse is broadening its shows in efforts to attract patrons of African heritage and also to expose its current audience to varied works of the African Diaspora. Like most major Twin Cities cultural arts centers Ordway audiences have been almost exclusive white. Apologists rationalize that as a business model, that made sense since as recently as 1990 the state was nearly 95 percent white. But that number has changed dramatically in recent years. And the demographic makeup of the Metro Twin Cities area in particular makes it obvious that the old business model of ignoring communities of color is outdated.
Robin Hickman and her TOPC colleagues say it was wrong to begin with.
"My mother always taught me to take my rightful place," said Hickman, CEO and executive producer with SoulTouch Productions, and director of TOPC. "We have the right to participate – be it showing up as a patron, performing; whatever."
TOPC came to fruition in 2010 when Hickman and others, through the assistance of a grant from the St. Paul Foundation, formed the TOPC Vision Council, tasked with programming and community engagement. The current council consists of program director, Hickman, Leah Nelson, who is charged with artistic, educational and economic engagement, Mahmoud El Kati, Titilayo Bediako, Andrea Jenkins, Tom Gitaa, Nneka Onyilofor, Hawona Sullivan Janzen, Shegitu Kebede, Maria Isa Perez, Marcus Pope, Sherine Crooms Onukwuwe and Shelley Quiala.
Nelson said the diversity of the council and its synergy will hopefully spread to the community at large.
"We've found greatness in working with each other," said Nelson. "We're having small moments of harmony. Hopefully our small moments of harmony will result in large moments of understanding – deeper understanding for those that are witnessing us."
Vision Council member Gitaa said TOPC is all about opening doors.
"I've always been interested in how we can get access to more of what I call premium spots – all of these premium institutions that our tax dollars paid for," said Gitaa. "For me personally, it's all about having a presence – as much of a presence as possible. That's big for me."
Gitaa said people of color were shut out because of a combination of exorbitant ticket prices and programming that did not appeal to a wider cultural audience.
"When (cultural institutions) do get us in they want to squeeze all these events in February (for Black History Month), so we've been working with the Ordway to spread out the season."
Nelson said the Ordway deserves accolades for recognizing a large audience was being underserved.
"We have to recognize that we do have allies in this," said Nelson. "I have to commend the Ordway for partnering with us."
Next in the TOPC series is Maria de Barros Feb. 19. De Barros' performance will be honoring Naomi Tutu, an international speaker on race and gender justice and daughter of South African Bishop Desmond Tutu. Naomi Tutu will also give a special introduction for de Barros.