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Originally published January 7, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified January 7, 2008 at 11:00 AM

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Langston Hughes Performing Arts Center in crisis

As a leadership conflict boils over, an important Central Area institution stands at a crossroads, with some worrying its unique African-American focus will be diluted.

Seattle Times staff reporter

The two top directors at Langston Hughes Performing Arts Center occupied offices on opposite sides of the building's second floor, rarely speaking to one another.

The estrangement of artistic director Jacqueline Moscou and her boss, managing director Manuel Cawaling, fueled tension throughout the building.

Staffers largely allied with Cawaling, an Asian-American who was more buddy than boss, while alienating Moscou, an African-American they described as quick to belittle.

Cawaling and Moscou were locked in a power struggle at the iconic Central Area institution, which over the past three decades has given rise to generations of African-American talent. And as the center's staff grew more diverse, its troubles increasingly came to be about race.

Conflict is nothing new to Langston Hughes, which, after a holiday break, reopens today amid unanswered questions that go beyond the fate of its artistic director to the mission and even future of the center itself.

The depth of the directors' disunity became clear last October when the lead actress in Moscou's fall musical, "Dinah Was," broke her foot — only hours after the city had escorted Moscou from the building and placed her on paid administrative leave.

The show did not go on — though the cast still had to be paid — because neither Cawaling nor anyone else there was able to salvage it.

"But about Jacqui leaving ... I'll tell you what, no one on that staff was crying the blues," said Paul Harding, a black writer who teaches cultural history at the center.

Her many friends and backers have rallied to Moscou's defense with an e-mail campaign and a candlelight vigil and by turning out in large numbers to support her at a public hearing late last year.

While some worry Moscou's departure signals an effort to dilute the center's core mission — its commitment to an African-American focus — the Seattle Parks and Recreation Department, which runs the center, said there's no such plan.

"There's a group of people who would like to see it an exclusively African-American facility," said Eric Friedli, the parks department's director for Langston Hughes.

"As a publicly funded entity, we ... can say the emphasis is African-American, but we need to make sure we're welcoming to others."

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Parks department officials have declined to say why Moscou was placed on leave, calling the case a personnel matter. Friedli said only that Moscou ultimately will be returned to her job or replaced.

Before placing her on leave, officials had completed a "workplace assessment" brought about by mounting morale problems and staff complaints. Among those they talked to was Harding.

He emphasized that he has tremendous respect for Moscou but said that on at least one occasion she made racial comments about Asian-American employees, saying she saw no difference between them and white people.

Moscou denies making any such statements. She said she was removed for upholding the center's mission, which is to foster artistic expression for African Americans and other communities of color.

"I've been accused of this being a personal agenda of mine," Moscou said. "Over and over again I've said 'no, this is not my mission, it's the historic mission upon which Langston Hughes is built and I'm just standing up for it.' "

Her attorney, Vonda Sargent, said "Jacqui is accused of being a racist, of wanting Afrocentric this, all-black that; won't hire anyone but black people." But her record proves none of that is true, Sargent said.

Moscou's supporters say her ability to transform Langston Hughes into a nationally renowned arts organization was just being realized when she was removed.

Cecelia Beckwith, a member of the Langston Hughes Advisory Council and a longtime friend of Moscou's, said, "With Jacqui, we saw a rebirth of Langston Hughes."

"Then they take Jacqui out," she said, "and what we know is a significant number of people being brought into the building have no relationship with the African-American community."

At the same time, there are those who believe that for all the outrage being expressed over Moscou's departure, the larger African-American community has failed on a sustained basis to support the center itself through donations, volunteer work and regular attendance.

"I tell people, 'Look down the list of donors and find your name,' " said Vivian Phillips, a longtime advocate of the center. "I'd like to see you buy a ticket to every performance. This is what needs to happen.

"The distinction here is whether people are willing to support a person or an institution."

Unique institution

Named for the Harlem Renaissance poet, Langston Hughes is housed in an imposing 1915-era synagogue, which the city bought in 1971.

It is the only publicly owned, culturally specific performing-arts center in the Puget Sound area, funded by the city of Seattle last year to the tune of around $580,000.

An additional $330,000 was raised through donations, program fees, corporate giving and ticket sales.

Like many other local arts venues, the center has experienced acrimonious staff turnovers and financial troubles.

It is where generations of African-American performers got their start. Its longtime summer musical attracts young artists from throughout the Puget Sound region.

The center also rents space to community groups for art-related functions and offers classes on everything from writing and poetry to dance.

Some believe it is experiencing nothing short of an identity crisis stemming from a poorly executed transition earlier this decade.

In 2001, the parks department approved a reorganization plan allowing a name change from Cultural Arts Center to Performing Arts Center, and swapping traditional community-center staff positions for the more traditional theater staff positions of artistic and managing directors.

But the changes were largely in name only, designed to position Langston Hughes for the kinds of donations that other performing-arts institutions receive.

And some believe the organizational structure that had Moscou reporting to Cawaling was flawed, since in many arts institutions their positions are equal.

First nonblack leader

Cawaling had worked at the Northwest Asian American Theater and Wing Luke Museum before applying to be artistic director at Langston Hughes in 2002. A finalist, he lost out to Moscou.

The center hired him the following year to run its arts-education program, and in 2004, when the managing director quit after clashing with Moscou, Cawaling was tapped to head the center, becoming Moscou's boss.

The son of white and Filipino parents, he also became the center's first nonblack head, and his appointment encouraged new worry among some about the loss of an African-American focus.

Raised in New York, the daughter of black and white parents, Moscou attended the American Academy of Dramatic Acts. She had three decades of experience in theater and is perhaps best known locally for her "Black Nativity" production at Intiman Theatre.

Those on the local theater scene describe a woman driven. Energetic, productive and committed, Moscou, they say, also can be demanding and imperious. But no one questions her talent.

The center's African-American Film Festival, held each spring, has thrived under Moscou. Moscou established an acting camp for kids and a hip-hop festival that draws artists from throughout the region.

She said she's "always looking for that bridge" to connect cultures, having brought to the center projects linking African-American with Latin, Asian and Jewish cultures.

"I know how difficult change can be," she said. "I represented the difference between a performing-arts center and a community center. I represented the arts. I came in and I set standards and I set them high."

For that, she said, she was alienated and denied some of the support needed to do her job.

But some believe there was enough blame to go around.

"It got to the point where they created trenches," said Umémé Dinish, a local actor who performs at Langston Hughes. "Each time you talked to one of them and mention the other's name, a wall would go up. Things weren't going to change unless they were willing to sit down and talk."

Whatever happens, it's important that Langston Hughes survives, said Steve Sneed, a former head of the center who now directs cultural programs for Seattle Center.

"Art is an invaluable part of what makes us human, and for any cultural group, it's no less important," he said. "When you have no culture and arts in a community, it's like it's missing its soul."

Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or lturnbull@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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