actor / director / artistic director, Congo Square, 2012-2017
I spoke with Sam Roberson on November 20, 2015. He was, at that time, Congo Square’s artistic director, and he speaks to me from that perspective. When Sam was eight years old, he was diagnosed with leukemia, which he battled throughout his life. In 2017, not long after we talked, he had to step back from his duties at the theater as his conditioned worsened. He died of pneumonia on May 21, 2017, at the age of 34.
I got to Chicago in 2008. I had been living in Minneapolis, and The Goodman was casting for The Ballad of Emmett Till. They reached out to the Children’s Theater of Minneapolis to ask about young, black actors, and I got a call. I sent a tape to Adam Belcuore [casting director] over at The Goodman, and he called me out to New York to audition. It was a crazy experience, it was something that I’d never had before, you know?
I was working with Marion McClinton at the time, who is one of August Wilson’s right hand men, and I was like, “I got this offer at The Goodman, but they want me to fly to New York for an audition.” (This is during tech for our show.) “I would miss this day of tech.” He was like, “Yeah, Sam, if the Goodman calls, you go.” I flew to New York on short notice; I think it was a $500 flight.
Did they pay for it, or did you?
(Laughs) I paid for it. It was definitely worth it. I went to New York, and I was auditioning for [the part of] Emmett, but I didn’t get Emmett. I got an ensemble role, and I played Simian, his cousin. I understudied Emmett. I was hoping for Emmett. I thought it was going to be like a breakout role.
Did that mean transplanting yourself, or did you come to Chicago just to do that show?
I just came to Chicago to do that show, but I had also proposed to my wife that summer before, and so we were getting married the summer of 2008, and she was in New York at the time and I was in Minneapolis. She is an actress, and we were trying to decide where to live, because she was living in New York and I was in Minneapolis. I wanted to stay in Minneapolis, and she wanted to stay in New York. It was a hard decision. I didn’t really want to move to New York, but at a certain time I kind of just gave in. It was like, well, let’s try it. But then after I booked this gig in Chicago, she came to visit and we talked about Chicago as somewhere neutral where neither of us lived.
Emmett Till ran ran for maybe six weeks. I was here for about two, three months.
I was really enjoying the city and I felt like there was a lot of opportunity. I got my name in the newspaper from doing The Ballad of Emmett Till, and I was nobody. I had a little side part,, and my name was in the Chicago Tribune. And everybody was like, your name was in the Chicago Tribune, and I was like, so cool!
There are some decent actors in the piece, including Karen Aldridge, Kirk Anderson and Samuel G. Roberson Jr. (who genuinely evokes teenage awkwardness).
Chris Jones, Chicago Tribune, May 6, 2008
I was working with some of the best actors in the city on this project, and they were booking commercials and voiceovers and TV shows and talking about how they’d been on this TV show or in this movie. I was like, “How do you do all of that?” They were like, “Got an agent” I said, “Well, I want an agent.” “I’ll introduce you to my agent.” So I started meeting the agents and was out on auditions. I was just like, oh okay. There is opportunity here. I think it was that discussion with my wife that kind of helped her to lean toward moving here.
What was your impression of Chicago theater when you were in Minneapolis? Did you have a sense of what was going on?
No, none. None. I just knew that there was theater happening in Chicago, I knew there was some black theater happening in Chicago, from some of my peers, but I didn’t really have an understanding of what Chicago theater was. I didn’t know there was 200 some, almost 300 theaters in Chicago. I never would’ve imagined that. I didn’t understand the whole ensemble concept, or the Chicago ensemble concept.
I knew that Minneapolis had an ensemble, but it was only the Children’s Theater where they work for the theater strictly as actors, and year round. They get insurance. Whereas in Chicago, the ensemble starts the theater, they create the work, they work together, they produce the work, they do everything.
What was your growing understanding, over that six weeks, of what Chicago theater is all about?
I felt like it was a great community. I felt like people welcomed me with open arms, they took me in, they took me to meet their agents, they told me which theaters to go to, they took me to shows, they introduced me to people like Congo Square, they introduced me to theater people around the city, and I just felt like I could make it. I felt like if you wanted to do something in Chicago, you could do it. Learning that there’s like almost 300 theater companies and all these ensembles, it just felt like, it felt like people were happy as artists here. People were always talking about what they were doing and what they were auditioning for and what was coming up and what was next.
You joined Congo Square in 2009 as artistic associate, and then became artistic director in 2014. When you took on that roll, did you know Congo Square would be a good fit for you?
They were for everything that I was for, you know? We were on the same side of every discussion.
What were those things that you were for?
The promotion of black work and black artists working. They were also working with youth in underserved neighborhoods. And I liked the content of the shows that they were doing; I liked the caliber of the work and the artists, the artistry. Some of the best shows that I’ve seen were at Congo Square. The actors are top notch, top quality, and I felt like there was opportunity for me. I felt like I could have a voice. I could be myself and not be questioned.
“Not be questioned.” Where would that not have been possible?
I don’t know if it would not possible, but often at larger, white institutions, there can be a conflict for me to be me. It can be adverse to the way that other people think. It can push back against what people think is right.
I think Chicago is getting better. I will say that first and foremost. I think Chicago is getting better. I get the sense that people are trying. I don’t know if they’re trying hard enough, but to try harder would mean sacrifices.
Like they would have to let people go and hire new people.
More people of color.
Yeah. But that means letting some of the people that are already there go. I think there are some, but very few, organizations that are genuinely looking to diversify. I think there are other organizations that are incentivized to diversify. A new study just came out that talked about the fact that when larger institutions started doing work by black and Latino artists that funding started to pull away from the actual black and Latino companies to go toward these larger companies to do this work. And I think there’s something fundamentally wrong about that. I think there’s something fundamentally wrong about having to have an incentive, having to have a grant to hire people of color.
I also think there’s something wrong with some of the ways that people are going about quote-unquote “helping” people of color. I think there’s something wrong about hiring a bunch of people of color as apprentices or as help but never actually giving them real jobs or creating a pipeline for them to have a real job at your company.
I don’t think that there are wrong intentions; I think everybody has good intentions. And I don’t want to believe that anyone is blatantly being racist about their hiring and their methods. I understand that there are some issues on our end, too, as far as training, but that’s a systemic problem. If there’s not opportunity, people won’t invest in the training. And internships [require] privilege. Working for free for six months [comes from] privilege. Like, I couldn’t afford to do [an internship I wanted to do] at ATC [Actors Theater Company] in Louisville because I wasn’t privileged enough to have the money to go out there and have my parents pay my rent for twelve months. I couldn’t do that, so I missed out on that opportunity. There are a lot of people that miss out on internships because they can’t afford to not work.
So what can we do, as a city, to start training up people of color even more, or start giving them opportunities to learn on their feet? [Theaters] need people that are already ready and already in tiptop shape as opposed to saying, “Okay, this person’s pretty close. Maybe if they just do six months [as an apprentice], then we can transition them to take over the position.” I wish I could hire them. I would take them all; I would take every single apprentice of color there is out there, but I can’t afford them because I don’t have the resources.
Do you see opportunities to make the change that you want to see?
I do, I do. I feel an obligation to seek ways to improve the honesty of diversity at institutions in Chicago.
What do you mean by “honesty of diversity”?
When it’s not a trend, not a fad, not incentivized. [You do it] because you need people that reflect the community to help you make culturally sensitive decisions. Even if you do works by people of color, if you have no one on your staff or on your marketing team that is a person of color, you don’t know how to market that piece to people of color. I don’t know how you can understand or even make sure that you’re being culturally sensitive about what you’re saying about the piece, how you’re promoting it, how you produce it, when you have a bunch of artists of color on stage and then the whole design team is white and the whole production team is white and the whole administrative team is white.
How can you leverage Congo Square to change that?
I think that at Congo Square what we’re seeking to do is understand where the gap is. And if we can understand where the gap is, then hopefully we can help to fill it, right? So I feel like Congo Square should serve as an institution that is a bit of a training institution. We should be training people in marketing. We should be training people in development; we should be training people in tech, in crew, in artistry, so that we are creating generations of people who can efficiently do the work, so that people coming out of college can come and work and apprentice and learn and then be able to hold jobs at these places. They [will] have the knowledge and the wherewithal to work at larger institutions.
Do you know how diverse your audience at Congo Square is?
Our audience is about 80 to 90% black, African-American. I need to diversify my audience. I don’t know how to get more white people in my audience. I don’t know how to get more Latino people in my audience. I don’t know how to make them feel welcome. I don’t know how I feel about it. Chicago doesn’t challenge their audiences to go see different stuff. We’re very territorial. It feels like we get our [audience] and we want to keep ‘em tight. I guess it got that way for some reason. I don’t know why. But everybody needs their audience, everybody struggles. It worries me. It worries me, because my sense is that people would rather go see a black show at The Goodman or a black show at Court Theater or a black show at Steppenwolf than a black show at Congo Square.
Why is that, do you think?
I don’t know, I don’t know. I think people should see all theater. Every story that we tell is universal. It’s from a specific lens or specific point of view or a cultural point of view, but it’s a universal story, it’s about humanity. And that’s what we do. When you come to see our show, you start to realize how much we are alike and how we deal with stuff, the same stuff, and maybe in different ways.
What would it mean to you to have a more diverse audience?
We tell our stories with an authentic voice, from the experiences that we know and that we understand, and we show people the many facets of African-American culture. So the more work that we do, the more you will understand black people and black culture as a whole. People are hammered with negative images of black people, just hammered with them. In the media, on television, in films, they are hammered with the negative part of the story of these people and these lives, which allows people to stereotype and allows people to have preconceived notions of what and who we are.
We are an institution that can improve the quality of life in Chicago. Because by doing what we do, we bring understanding to people who don’t understand the culture. We hope to keep hope in those who do understand the culture, and then we also are providing opportunities for people to see themselves in a different light that they don’t often get to see themselves. So the more stuff that we can do, the more people from the community we can bring in, the better the community’s going be. The more opportunity that we’re going provide for youth, the more opportunity that we can provide for people to see a positive image of themselves, the more positive they will be. I have a purpose and I’m trying to serve it best I can right now. It’s hard, and it’s going take more than me, which I understand. And it’s not going to be easy for anyone.
It seems to me that you’ve been talking about a real, tangible commitment to societal change through theater.
Yeah, and it’s going be good for everyone. These are hard things to discuss, and I’m finding my way into the conversation. I just know that what happens often is that there’s a lot of privileged people in the room that are talking about these things, so it’s hard for them to really understand or even think deeply about what to do, because they’re thinking from a point of being up there as opposed to being down here. Which is hard, it’s hard. It’s hard, you know? People are going to have to give up some money; funders are going to have to choose somebody else to give money to. If you really want to make change. But who does that?
Honestly, if there were more large institutions of color in Chicago, Chicago would be the first place to do it. First place to have a diversity of large theaters in America. It would be the first ever. And it would bring more people to the theater, more people of color to the theater, and then they would go see all of the shows because there wouldn’t be so much of a difference, a gap between all of the institutions. Right now there’s a huge gap. I mean, you [either] go to The Goodman or you go to Congo Square.
So, if we could spread the resources a little bit …. If five percent of the money that was going to these larger institutions instead went to the smaller organizations of color, that would give Chicago theater a facelift. Five percent.
You’ve described an attractive vision of what Chicago could be. Do you feel hopeful about that?
I do, I do feel hopeful. I have to, I have to, you know?