San José Multicultural Artists Guild uses performance to advance social justice

San José Multicultural Artists Guild uses performance to advance social justice
(C) Cheryl Scales (C), and (L) Yvonne Woodson Tabia's 35th Anniversary Exhibition performance at SJ MLK Library. Jan. 27, 2020

Through mainstage plays, a Day of the Dead celebration and arts education in local schools, San José Multicultural Artists Guild (SJMAG) promotes performances that reflect the diversity of the region. The group hires and develops artists of color and showcases a wide range of productions to multiethnic audiences.

“We bring messages from BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) writers to the stage that celebrate and explore our culture and bring it to other folks,” said Viera Whye, producing artistic director of SJMAG. “The last show we did had at least 50 percent white audience members; we present cross-cultural experiences."

SJMAG has evolved during its 37 years in Silicon Valley. Today its two main avenues for performances are theatrical productions by Tabia, a theater group that focuses on the African American-centric production of mainstage plays; and the Latinx-focused Día de los Muertos celebration in San José. SJMAG also provides arts education to schools, and has performed in jails, juvenile detention centers, women’s shelters and many community venues over the years.

“We perform as a way to do social justice – that’s a big part of our identity,” Whye said. “When folks are looking for African American performances or education, we’re a resource for that.”

Advancing social justice is also a goal of Silicon Valley Community Foundation’s Arts and Culture Community Action Grant program, which has awarded SJMAG a $20,000 grant for general operating support.

Tabia Cast of Shakin' the Mess Outta Misery production Feb 2010. Playwright Shay Youngblood, directed by Viera Whye. Cast (L-R): Debra Crenshaw, Sonya Stamper,  Adaku Davis, Sharon Moore, and Gayle Rucker. (Sitting C): Briana Christie
Tabia Cast of Shakin' the Mess Outta Misery production Feb. 2010. Playwright Shay Youngblood, directed by Viera Whye. Cast (L-R): Debra Crenshaw, Sonya Stamper, Adaku Davis, Sharon Moore, and Gayle Rucker. (Sitting C): Briana Christie

Longstanding community ties

SJMAG has strong ties to local Black, Latinx and Filipinx communities — illustrated by performances at the Mexican Heritage Plaza and work with Black educators, the NAACP and other organizations. This ongoing focus on diversity and inclusion sets SJMAG apart from performing arts groups who have more recently started working to diversify their boards and the actors in their productions.

“That’s who we have been and who we are,” Whye said.

“Our Arts and Culture Community Action Grantmaking program was designed to strengthen BIPOC-led arts organizations and their allies,” said Mauricio Palma, director of community-building for Silicon Valley Community Foundation. “The organizations that we are supporting are working to create community-driven solutions that are capitalizing on social change.”

For SJMAG, the grant is a sign that the group’s work is appreciated.

“It’s important that we be recognized and acknowledged,” Whye said.

The grant is also a source of needed funds. SJMAG has operated with minimal budget for many years: It has three paid part-time staff members, including a recently hired general manager. Whye is essentially a volunteer contracted for specific assignments. And despite the limited funds, SJMAG has consistently presented quality productions and programming that is highly regarded within its community. In 2019, SJMAG received the Silicon Valley Black Legend's Award, and Viera had received the inaugural Black Legend's Award in 2015 in the Arts category.

The group is using the grant money – along with support from other funders - to train their two part-time staff members. SJMAG is also reassessing the organization’s structure. 

“Part of the structural assessment is analyzing our business processes and the skills we need to succeed,” Whye said. “Part of it is fundraising – focusing on audience development and how we can better market ourselves.”

The grant will help with these priorities — and it serves as a vote of confidence.

Production of The Trial of One Shorted Sighted Black Woman vs. Mamie Louise and Safreeta Mae by Karani Marica Leslie directed by Buddy Butler. At the Mexican Heritage Plaza Feb 2008. Cast (L-R): Susan McKuhen, Sharon Moore, Carter Stewart, Adaku Davis, Donna McCraney, Sonya Stamper, Darlene Pogue, Gayle Rucker, and Postoria Aguirre.
Production of The Trial of One Shorted Sighted Black Woman vs. Mamie Louise and Safreeta Mae by Karani Marica Leslie directed by Buddy Butler. At the Mexican Heritage Plaza Feb. 2008. Cast (L-R): Susan McKuhen, Sharon Moore, Carter Stewart, Adaku Davis, Donna McCraney, Sonya Stamper, Darlene Pogue, Gayle Rucker, and Postoria Aguirre.

‘Education and enlightenment’ in local schools

The funding from SVCF will also help support SJMAG’s ongoing work in schools. The group worked with the Santa Clara County Alliance of Black Educators to present professional theater performances – for many students, the first they have seen – to students in local school districts. The performances were followed by conversations with the actors to discuss the themes of the show.

One of the goals of this and other community outreach programs is “really taking the time to let folks know they matter, regardless of race or ethnicity,” Whye said.

Boosting creativity can also help the students build personal and professional skills.

“It’s not just entertainment for entertainment’s sake,” Whye said. “It’s also about education and enlightenment, along with the entertainment.”

Cast members of Gee's Bend by Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder, with producer Viera Whye and director Buddy Butler. Feb 2017. (Back L-R): Yvette Glasgow, Cheryl Scales, Sonya Stamper, Yvonne Woodson, Patrice Payne and Sharon Moore. (Sitting Front L-R): Viera Whye, Buddy Butler, and Gayle Rucker.
Cast members of Gee's Bend by Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder, with producer Viera Whye and director Buddy Butler. Feb. 2017. (Back L-R): Yvette Glasgow, Cheryl Scales, Sonya Stamper, Yvonne Woodson, Patrice Payne and Sharon Moore. (Sitting Front L-R): Viera Whye, Buddy Butler, and Gayle Rucker.

Recent and upcoming works

In April, SJMAG and Tabia African American Theatre Ensemble put on a post-pandemic production called Songs for Humanity: Gifts from the Ancestors. It was a multi-disciplinary performance of dance, media, story, poetry and song that explored themes of social and racial unrest, women power and community unity.

The group recently completed a series of arts education workshops at the San José Museum of Art. The workshops, entitled Re-Percussion, inspired creative ways of recycling, it taught folks how to repurpose recycled containers into musical percussion instruments.

SJMAG is also starting to plan for the fall, when the Dia de los Muertos celebration, held in partnership with the San José Museum of Art, will return in person in October. It is the region’s longest running community-organized Day of the Dead event and will be celebrating its 25th year.

SJAMG has been a force for giving voice to diverse communities for many years. The group has brought together folks from all backgrounds to make human connection, and celebrate the contributions and culture of our communities through performance art.

“SVCF is making the case for the value of the organization,” Palma said.“ SJMAG works to unite and serve African Americans, women and the Latinx communities in San José. The group is conducting cross-cultural programming that is reflective of the lived experiences, concerns and aspirations of the community.” 

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