Jacqueline Lawton: Give us a little background on where you’re from originally, where you grew up, and how you ended up where you are now…
Alfred Heartley: I was born in North Carolina and grew up in Stone Mountain, Georgia for most of my life. My family has always been animated and had various characters in it. I went to an arts magnet high school in Atlanta and then went to college at Florida State University. I remember our production manager in high school saying that I needed to have an internship with a theater by the time I was a sophomore or junior in college. So I applied to some internships at a city I thought I wanted to live in which was Chicago. I applied at Steppenwolf Theater for their Casting Internship figuring I had zero chance of being offered the position. But sure enough I was. I grew to love Steppenwolf and Chicago and so I applied for their Multicultural Fellowship when I graduated and came back to work there.
JL: Why did you decide to get into theater? Was there someone or a particular show that inspired you?
AH: I would say two things: One was two separate productions I saw at the Alliance Theater when I was younger. One was A Moonlight for the Misbegotten by Eugene O’Neil which I fell asleep in. I figured that I wouldn’t want to do theater or see it for that matter. The other however, was a production of Pacific Overtures also done by the Alliance. I was a history buff so a musical about the opening of Japan to trade in the West really intrigued me. I was amazed by the songs, the acting, and the production as a whole. It renewed my spirit so to speak.
The second was my mentor in college, Irma Mayorga. She taught me a lot about myself and the diversity of American theater. She never let me get away with anything short of top quality work. She helped me to discover who I was and my place in American theater which was to change it in any way that I could.
JL: What is unique about being an artist where you live?
AH: The opportunities. The amazing network of people that are in this city. Chicago is unique because there is a culture in its inhabitants to see theater that is good. And by that I don’t just mean at the big theaters because the community recognizes when even they do not do good work. But no matter where the show is, if it is good Chicago will come out to see it.
JL: You are a freelance director and Associate Artistic Director of Sankofa Theater Company. How did you get involved with Sankofa Theater Company? AH: I got involved with Sankofa by directing a reading with a friend and coworker, Sam Roberson. I told him that I was interested in New Play Development and directing new work. He presented me with a script and asked if I wanted to work with these two actors who had a theater company which was Sankofa. I was intrigued by the name and the idea of Sankofa so I took on the task. Ever since then I’ve been involved and decided to interview to be their Associate Artistic Director. And there you have it.
JL: What was the first show you directed and what did you learn from that experience that remains with you today?
AH: The first show I directed was Jitney by August Wilson. I was enamored by Wilson and wanted to do a show that I found palpable and gave opportunities for African American male actors. But I was completely nervous in doing this. I had never directed before, but I figured that I just needed to try it. And that’s exactly what I did. It taught that in theater I did not need training to do something. Sometimes baptism by fire is the best way to learn how to do something. Training has certainly helped refine my skills, but I also find myself refining my skills with each production that I direct. So I saw that as long as I had the willingness to work hard and learn, I could do anything in theater.
JL: Who nominated you to be a Young Leaders of Color Award Recipient?
AH: I was nominated by Steppenwolf Theater Company.
JL: What excited you most about taking part in the conference and the program?
AH: I was excited about talking with a group of people, exceptional people, who were interested and invested in the ideas of diversity and inclusion in American theater. I was also excited to meet new people and make connections to various theaters across the country. Also I had never been to Boston so that was going to be a new experience for me too.
JL: What was the most valuable lesson you learned from the conference?
AH: I learned a lot about core values. I think that was one of the most important lessons that I learned about myself and how I want to work with others. I saw the values that I wanted to aspire to did not in fact align with the ones that I was currently living. That was eye-opening to me in a lot of ways. It made me wonder and consider again who I am and what I care about. What I came down to when I was flying was that I really valued two things that were emphasized at this conference and what I already had but did not name: Leadership and Diversity. I found that I cared deeply about both of those values and that I attempt to live them out every single day whether it is with the experiences that I have had in my life or the spectrum of friends that I have. I look forward to identifying more as there is so much to choose from and hard to narrow down exactly the ones that you hold on to. It was a small workshop, but a wonderful experience.
JL: What are some of the challenges you have faced as an artist of color? What have you learned from these experiences?
AH: One of the challenges that I have faced as an artist is the constant justification for diversity. Time and time again I have always had to somehow justify why diversity is important. I’ve always been asked why I have to make everything about race or why do I hate white people. The truth is I don’t hate white people and not everything about me is about race, but it certainly informs who I am as a person. I’ve seen that I have to explain myself pretty consistently or have my ideas thought as a way of spurning racial scorn for other people. But I’ve learned from that that this will be a conversation that I will have to have for the rest of my life. That there is no running from my skin color as it is a part of who I am. I believe you just have to know how to justify what many will deem unjustifiable or you as a person of color just being “angry.” I’ve learned that I also do not want to tell another person of color that they cannot change American theater. I do not want to be that bitter person who tells the next generation that they can’t do anything. I have to keep fighting and looking toward the future. A future that may not involve me, but will hopefully be influenced by me.
JL: What advice do you have for other young artists of color in the theatre?
AH: Find yourself. That may seem big, broad, and scary. But that’s because it is. But the sooner you find that out, the better off you will be. That moment that you discover you are a young artist of color will be vexing, confusing, and engrossing. It may overwhelm you. But it is a part of what is needed in order to fight this fight. You have to be baptized by fire. That’s not an easy burn to take, but you will rise from the ashes more powerful than you ever imagined.
JL: What’s up next for you and where can keep up with your amazing work?
AH: I actually just accepted a position at Cleveland Playhouse to be their Education Associate so I am off to Cleveland! I do have a website that I update from time to time: www.alheartley.com. I also have a blog that I write in from time to time at aheartley.tumblr.com. Check them out!
I'm a playwright, dramaturg, and teaching artist. It is here where you'll find my queries and musings on life, theater and the world. My posts advocate for diversity, inclusion, and equity in the American Theatre and updates on my own work. Please enjoy!