Sheldon Epps learned early on how to bridge different worlds.
Actor, director of both adult and children’s productions on stage and screen, artistic director — there isn’t much he hasn’t done in the performing arts world.
Epps realized the importance of being well-rounded and the value of diversity at a young age. Born on the West Coast in the Compton neighborhood of Los Angeles, he moved to Teaneck, New Jersey, when his father was relocated for work.
“I was frequently the only person of color in my classes,” Epp recalled. “It was a pretty big culture shock.”
Being Black in a white community wasn’t the only big adjustment for Epps, though: Teaneck is a predominately Jewish neighborhood.
“You’re hearing new words and a different language, being introduced to new foods and new holidays and customs,” he said of his experiences living among Jews for the first time. “It’s not that anybody was unwelcoming — in fact, they were quite welcoming.”
Epps, a Carnegie Mellon alum, was in Pittsburgh last month promoting his new book, “My Own Directions: A Black Man’s Journey in the American Theater,” in which he discusses growing up in a Jewish neighborhood and its impact on his life and career.
Epps’ time in Teaneck was happy, he told the Chronicle. In fact, he was caught off guard when, later in life, he experienced racism.
“Because I became comfortable as a Black man in a largely white society, when I faced racial prejudice and racial challenge, I was taken by surprise,” he said.
Teaneck did more though than provide a secure neighborhood for a Black transplant; it was where Epps discovered the theater as he began performing in high school productions.
When the future director decided to turn his high school extracurricular activity into a vocation, his life’s path took him to Pittsburgh, where he earned a bachelor’s degree from CMU in 1973.
It was while attending college at the Oakland university that Epps reached a milestone in the life of an actor, earning his Equity card while working at the Civic Light Opera between his junior and senior year, and right after he graduated.
Epps worked as an actor for several years before co-founding The Production Company in New York City. He made his directorial debut with the Tony-nominated “Blues In the Night,” and went on to direct numerous plays and musicals.
Beginning in 1994, Epps started directing television shows including “Evening Shade,” “Frasier,” “Friends,” “Everyone Loves Raymond,” “Sister, Sister” and “Hannah Montana,” among others.
He became the artistic director of the Pasadena Playhouse in 1997, where he experienced both the highs and lows of his career, he said.
“The high was 20 years at the Pasadena Playhouse and building that theater,” he said. “At the time I started, the theater’s artistic reputation was not so great and wasn’t enjoying a lot of respect. It’s for others to decide if it’s a great theater, but I know that it had moments of greatness.”
The lows, Epps said, were the theater’s financial difficulties. It filed for bankruptcy in 2010 but reopened less than four months later after receiving a multimillion-dollar anonymous gift.
“Those days when I sat in a dark theater, all by myself, with the building locked up, those were the lows, which, fortunately, did not last,” he said.
Epps is a member of the executive board of the Society of Directors and Choreographers and a two-time recipient of the Theater Communications Group/Pew Charitable Trust National Theatre Artists Residency Grant, which supported his four-year tenure as associate artistic director at The Old Globe. He is the senior artistic adviser at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C.
Epps recounts tales of his private and professional life in his new book, which he decided to write because of the Black Lives Matter movement, he said. Before 2020, he explained, the American theater was self-congratulatory in what it saw as its lack of racism.
“I wanted the book to make it clear,” he said, “that [racism has] been around for all the decades before when I was directing, and before that. So, it’s been a long-standing challenge in the American theater — one that we are beginning to meet, but that we still have work to do. I thought telling my story would be an encouragement to do that work.”
Epps said he found much inspiration for his book from his time in Pittsburgh and from its most famous playwright, August Wilson. Wilson, he said, is quoted as saying he never wrote anything, he simply allowed the work to come through him.
“I feel the same way,” Epps said. PJC
David Rullo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.