The brownstones of New York City's West Village shine under the stage lights inside the Pasadena Playhouse during a recent tech rehearsal for "Stop Kiss." An Asian American woman and an African American woman giggle over a take-out menu in a cozy living room at center stage, a blossoming romance that will lead to the vicious, homophobic attack that drives the story.
Computer screens that track light and sound cues glow in the cool darkness beyond the stage, their operators silently tapping away while a short figure moves between them, stopping now and again to give instructions. Seema Sueko, the theater's new associate artistic director, is directing her first play at the Playhouse.
Half Pakistani and half Japanese, raised in Hawaii and thoroughly American, Sueko — and the subject matter and casting of "Stop Kiss," which opens Sunday — are statistical rarities in American theater, statistical rarities that Sueko has been trying to change for more than a decade.
In her previous role as co-founding artistic director of Mo'olelo Performing Arts Company in San Diego (Mo'olelo means "story" in Hawaiian), Sueko led a company that made diversity onstage and in the audience the linchpin of its programming. Pasadena Playhouse also has a solid track record of diversity under artistic director Sheldon Epps, but Sueko's arrival signals the theater's intention to push that mission further.
"Her point of view, knowledge and interest in community organizing has broadened the scope of our own efforts and made them more effective," Epps says of Sueko's work in consensus organizing for theater, a process that she refers to as "designing the audience."
The lack of diversity in American theater is a hot issue. During a historic demographic shift in the United States, when a recent projection by the U.S. Census Bureau showed that by 2042 white Americans will be in the minority, some theater leaders say the industry urgently needs to keep pace with change or face irrelevance.
Of the 74 League of Resident Theaters members in the country, only five have artistic directors who are people of color (Epps included). A 2011-12 survey by the Asian American Performers Action Coalition found that the racial makeup of casts on Broadway and in nonprofit theaters, which are considered fairly representative of trends nationwide, was 79% white.
Sueko said she wants to avoid generalizing but suspects the reason might be financial. Regional theaters live and die by their funding, and the perception could be that too much diversity might scare off largely white donors — or at least prevent them from connecting with local theater companies. After the first act of "Kiss Me Kate," the playhouse's recent production featuring a black cast, one couple in the audience left complaining that they didn't know it was "a black show."
"Diversifying the programming onstage might mean diversifying who is in the audience, which could mean you might be sitting next to somebody who doesn't look like you and maybe some people don't want that," Sueko says, her voice sweet, her feet tucked beneath her on a tall-backed leather chair in the playhouse's library. "I really hate saying that. I don't think it's a majority of people, just 1 or 2%, but when something hateful is said and it's received painfully and without the opportunity for dialogue, it becomes paralyzing and scary."
Expanding that kind of conversation at Mo'olelo won Sueko the Lorraine V. Hansberry Performing Arts Award in 2012 from the San Diego branch of the NAACP.
"There is a perception that people of color don't go to plays," says Lei-Chala I. Wilson, president of the San Diego NAACP. "But that's because they weren't invited."
Sueko invited them by reaching out to Wilson and asking her to hold an NAACP night during the run of Lydia Diamond's "Stick Fly," about a wealthy African American family on Martha's Vineyard.
Politics and theater have long been Sueko's twin passions. She has an undergraduate degree in government from the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Wash., and a master's in international relations from the University of Chicago. She became an actress after graduation because she thought she could better effect change on a micro level through theater. After working in New York and Seattle, she followed her sportscaster husband to San Diego, where she started Mo'olelo to create more work for actors of color.
For the Record
Nov. 4, 12:25 p.m.: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Sueko's undergraduate degree was from the University of Washington Tacoma.
With each new play Sueko asked four questions: Does the play engage a community that traditionally doesn't attend theater? (The community could be centered on an ethnic group or an issue.) Does the play allow significant opportunities for a multicultural cast? Can high school students attend? Do we like the play?
If the company decided to move forward on a show, it would offer group discounts to key audiences and involve them in special events and activities.
Over the years Mo'olelo worked with Israeli, Palestinian, Muslim, Christian, Jewish, African American, Latino and Asian American groups. It staged plays that spoke to issue-specific communities, including people with brain injuries, veterans and refugees, which in San Diego were primarily Sudanese and Somali.
Since arriving at Pasadena Playhouse in January, Sueko has coordinated the hiring of four community organizers — one for each show in the current season.
Alison De La Cruz is in charge of organizing for "Stop Kiss," and she has reached out to more than 90 groups with LGBT roots or ties, including Pasadena PFLAG, Los Angeles Female Playwrights Initiative, Black Lesbians United and Caltech Center for Diversity.
It's this kind of leadership that makes Sueko inspiring, said Alison Whitelaw, president of the Mo'olelo board of trustees.
"She has a clarity of vision that is very unique," Whitelaw says. "And she has a good business sense and therefore a good understanding of how to realize that vision artistically and financially."
For Sueko, an important part of the conversation to have with audiences is about the expense that goes into putting a play onstage.
"By coming and being in the audience, they are ensuring that a diversity of stories get told onstage," Sueko says. "In this case, if they don't show up, and we don't get an audience, we can't keep doing this."
Actors like Angela Lin, the Asian American who plays the lead role of Callie in "Stop Kiss," are grateful for a chance.
"I've been seen for roles that are open ethnicity, and in the end it does go white," says Lin during a break in rehearsals. "Maybe that person was more fit for the role than me." Or maybe, she says, there's just "a comfortability with what's familiar."
Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 4 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays, through Nov. 30. (Call for exceptions.) In previews through Saturday.
Tickets: $25 to $125
Info: (626) 356-7529, www.pasadenaplayhouse.org