Craig Zadan Memorial Fund For Racial Equity Aims To Bring Diversity And Equality To American School Theatre Programs


EXCLUSIVE: “We had no idea, of course, that we would soon be on the brink of an historic moment in race relations in this country. So this racial equity fund is now suddenly more enormous in its significance than we imagined. But then again, Craig always did seem to have his finger on the pulse of what was coming, didn’t he?”

Those are the words of Elwood Hopkins, husband of the late Emmy-winning producer Craig Zadan and member of the board of trustees of the Educational Theatre Foundation. He was describing the timing, now more prescient than ever, of ETF’s Craig Zadan Memorial Fund For Racial Equity In School Theatre, which began with $250,000 in seed money that was raised from a November 2018 memorial concert honoring Zadan shortly after his unexpected death. It is now a permanent endowment that will bestow five grants a year for school theatre programs in communities of color nationwide in perpetuity.

Here is a perfect example of building diversity into the business from the ground up, and this effort takes on new importance now. The goal is a permanent fund of $1.25 million through foundation grants and individual donations, enabling ETF (whose president is Julie Cohen Theobald) to give grants of $10,000 to five schools in communities of color every year in perpetuity.

Educational Theatre Foundation

According to a letter being sent by the foundation to all those who attended the memorial, the goal was “to translate the outpouring of generosity on that night into a permanent funding stream they label Pathway for high school and middle school plays and musicals, especially in communities of color that—more often than not—face stark disparities in access to such opportunities. Little did we know that this undertaking would soon become centrally relevant to a transformation in our national consciousness — an awakening to the price we all pay for racial disparities.”

According to ETF, Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, made a grant enabling them to begin the work even before the permanent fund is in place. ETF is currently in discussions with schools in Atlanta, Miami, Fresno and Cincinnati to be the first recipients for the 2020-21 school year. The plan is to engage their Celebrity Advisory Board members who grew up in high school theatre in these cities, as well as overlay in-kind contributions from studios or networks that can help professionalize the productions or launch them with red carpet premieres.

Zadan, along with partner Neil Meron, had always prided himself on the level of diversity in their productions which included the TV production of Cinderella with Whitney Houston as the Fairy Godmother and Brandy Norwood as Cinderella; a  production of A Raisin in the Sun on Broadway and on ABC starring Sean Combs and Phylicia Rashad; threatrical and TV productions of Hairspray; and Jesus Christ Superstar Live In Concert also with a diverse cast in key roles. The latter won the posthumous Emmy for Zadan, who died in August 2018 just a month before the ceremony, and shortly after I did his final video interview (along with Meron) for Deadline’s Behind the Lens series.

Jesus Christ Superstar Live In Concert
“Jesus Christ Superstar Live In Concert” Eric Liebowitz/NBC

“If there was one thing Craig hoped more than anything, it was that he was having an impact on racial equity through his casting and through the treatment of others he modeled as a producer,” Hopkins tells me. “I don’t know if you were aware, but one of the people who flew in for the memorial was Congresswoman Karen Bass, Chair of the Congressional Black Caucus and sponsor of the George Floyd Justice in Policing bill in Congress. No one knows this, but many years ago, when she was a grassroots organizer in South Central, Craig invited her to visit a movie set in Toronto to see what it was like. She said it always inspired her.”

“We built a celebrity advisory board (from those who attended that night) and the members agreed to visit the funded schools (the first will be Audra McDonald at a school in Fresno and Danny Pino in Miami, visiting their hometown schools). We also have a leadership group that includes people from Workplace Hollywood, the effort Steven Spielberg and DreamWorks supported many years back. They are at the early stages of designing pathways for young people of color in these schools to find work in the entertainment industry.”

Here is an excerpt from ETF’s letter encapsulating its mission:

Educational Theatre Foundation

This theme of pathway is especially meaningful to us as we remember Craig. Craig was forever acting as mentor, coach, and guide to younger people in his life. And while he spoke often of dogged determination and commitment to goals; he spoke just as often about the importance of improvisation, flexibility, and adaptation. He believed in seizing unexpected opportunities, even if it meant that a film, tv show, theatrical production — or even a career — might not end up as originally planned. This openness to finding a personal passage was central to the genius of his greatest accomplishments; and it is, we believe, central to any effort to enable full inclusion in our society. And as a nation, we have all reached a crossroads in our path and must collectively choose our future.

During this time of national crisis, when schools are shuttered, life-and-death civil rights issues have been laid bare, and so many pressing public health and economic concerns dominate our thinking, it is easy to forget how essential the arts are to our fundamental humanity. And how critical they are to the development of young people for whom this unnerving moment in time is a key stage of their growth. Rip Rapson, President of the Kresge Foundation, who attended and contributed to Craig’s memorial event, put it this way:

The arts help fortify civil society’s ability to cope, to adapt, and to imagine the future. They can detect order within disorder – think of the powerful poetry so many of us have shared to help make sense of the insensible. They can substitute the unexpected and fresh for the conventional and insular – think of the magically inventive and beautiful virtual choruses on YouTube. They can offer a vision of connection as an antidote to isolation – think of the singers on the balconies of Italy. They can offer beauty in the face of the repellent – think of the countless examples of self-expression popping up in windows, on sidewalks, and along the streets in places like Detroit, or Memphis, or New Orleans. And they can transport us to a different reality. Think of how the original cast of Hamilton recently did a virtual reprise of “Alexander Hamilton” for a nine-year old whose dream of attending the show was dashed by the virus.

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