By Brian Robin
Delicia Turner Sonnenberg—The Perfect Pilot
There is a trickiness to directing Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ Appropriate that Delicia Turner Sonnenberg embraces wholeheartedly. A trickiness that goes beyond the fact that along with Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes, it makes up one-half of Voices of America.
The trickiness also goes beyond Turner Sonnenberg sharing three-fourths of her cast with her fellow Voices of America director Lisa Peterson. It goes beyond the adventurous nature of this project, which has never been done anywhere before with these two plays on any stage.
“The challenges are always recognizing that two plays have to happen in the same space,” she said. “How we get from one place to the other takes human capital. Not being too demanding, but asking for the things each individual play needs. That’s a little bit of a challenge. Making sure the actors don’t get overtired, so they can do their best work.”
The trickiness, as Turner Sonnenberg points out, is the nature of Jacobs-Jenkins’ work—the rich, often incendiary text Turner Sonnenberg brings to life.
“My play has two kids (Natalie Bright and Isaac Person) and some of the conversations with the play are provocative. So part of my job is making sure they feel safe. Whenever you talk about some of the issues here, it’s already hard for us outside of theatre to talk about race, especially in this country. Having those conversations with grace, that is what I’ve been trying to focus on.”
Appropriate is an incredibly well-written play, an Obie Award winner, with the dysfunctional Lafayette family springing off the pages in a witty, yet often disturbing, fashion. At the same time, it is a play written by a Black playwright featuring an all-white cast. As a Black woman directing that cast in this turbulent, tricky work, Turner Sonnenberg is fully aware of the nuances she needs to navigate.
“What was challenging here is being Black and Branden being black, with a white cast,” she said. “When you are anything but white, you have to think about white people and our people. You have to think about more than one thing. Because I’m not white and because the family in the play is white, it’s really important that they are a white family. I can’t turn them into a Black family.
“I’m a big sister with younger brothers. My family is Black and even though I’m Southern, Black Southerners are different than white Southerners, obviously. That’s actually one of the trickiest things to maneuver here.”
Turner Sonnenberg is candid about Jacobs-Jenkins’ provocative words and how to artfully bring them to audiences in a thoughtful, yet entertaining, manner.
“I was born in 1970, right after the Civil Rights movement, and I grew up in Atlanta. All my messages were ‘Black is beautiful.’ I thought everyone wanted to grow up and be a dark-skinned Black girl,” she said. “One of the things that intrigued me about this play is we talk a lot recently about representation and representation being important. I believe racism can’t be solved by people of color. It has to be solved by white people.
“One of the ways this play works is that the family is white and in conversation with an audience that is white. So the questions that come up are that I can talk to my own family, but I can’t talk to your family about their racial views? A part of what’s going to solve some of the things we have is really white people having the hard conversations with each other.”
It’s a tricky path and Turner Sonnenberg is highly skilled navigating it. She is one of Southern California’s most respected directors—with strong roots in the San Diego region. She is a multiple award-wining director, capturing the 2015 Director of the Year from the San Diego Theatre Critics Circle and the Des McAnuff New Visions Award for “Risk Taking Leadership and Body of Work,” for her work founding and serving as Artistic Director for the MOXIE Theatre.
Last year, Turner Sonnenberg received the Best Direction Carbonell Award—emblematic of excellence in South Florida theatre—for her direction of One in Two for the Island City Stages. She has also received several NAACP Theatre awards and the San Diego Theatre Critics Circle Craig Noel Award, which recognizes excellence and theatre achievements throughout San Diego County.
Turner Sonnenberg received that Noel Award for her 2014 direction of the stage adaptation of Toni Morrison’s novel The Bluest Eye.
Along with serving as MOXIE’s artistic director for 12 years, Turner Sonnenberg helmed plays at Utah Shakespeare Festival, The Old Globe, San Diego Repertory, La Jolla Playhouse, Actors Theatre of Louisville’s Humana Festival, among numerous others.
Turner Sonnenberg has also mentored hundreds of students through her direction and teaching at the University of San Diego, San Diego State, UC San Diego, Palomar College and the University of Redlands.
Her earlier path established, Turner Sonnenberg embraced the tricky path SCR Artistic Director David Ivers put in front of her. Once she learned she’d be working with acclaimed director Lisa Peterson, Turner Sonnenberg said she “went all-in.”
That thread she shares with Peterson is one they both embrace for many reasons. Turner Sonnenberg loves the fact she and Peterson were “always on the same page” when it came to casting and choosing designers. That Appropriate and The Little Foxes speak to each other about family, history, legacy, and yes, race, is a story Turner Sonnenberg takes pride in telling.
“When we’re talking about plays like The Little Foxes or August: Osage County or any other American family domestic drama, those plays are seen as family plays,” she said. “When we’re talking about Fences or Raisin in the Sun, those are seen as Black experience in America plays. But all these plays have a racial context because they’re all American plays and we all live together.”