The Theater’s Queen of Green – and Contessa of Community Outreach
By Pat Launer
Add this magic-maker to your list of outstanding artists: Seema Sueko, co-founder and executive artistic director of Mo’olelo Performing Arts Company. Her small theatrical troupe is only in business since 2004. But under Sueko’s guidance, the group has extended its reach far beyond San Diego’s borders.
A writer, actor, director and business/marketing strategist extraordinaire, Sueko is a force of nature in a diminutive package. The product of a Pakistani father and Japanese mother, she grew up in Hawaii, and chose her company’s name from that culture. Mo’olelo is the Hawaiian word for legend or tale. “Telling good stories” is what the company strives to do, “recognizing the power of personal narrative to effect change in society.”
So there’s social conscience in the mission, and a strong emphasis on education, diversity and community outreach.
“Every Mo’olelo production has to meet three main criteria,” Sueko says. “It has to provide an opportunity to reach out to communities that don’t typically attend theater; it has to provide significant roles for actors of color; and it needs to be appropriate for high school and middle school students.”
Thus far, Mo’olelo productions have focused on hot-button issues like bullying, school shootings, adoption, climate change, brain injury, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Lost Boys of Sudan, women from Iraq and females who served in Vietnam.
Each show has brought new audiences to the theater, which every theater craves.
The Mo’olelo business model, Sueko’s ‘Consensus Organizing,’ is driven by an old adage that her parents used to espouse: “Slowly, slowly catch your monkey,” an Anglicized form of a British colonial expression that means something like “Slow and steady wins the race.”
Sueko interprets this as “taking time to learn from each production” (they only produced one show a year at first, gradually expanding to two, and next year, three). This provides plenty of opportunity to analyze what worked and what didn’t and “expand our resources,” which is to say, develop community partnerships. Thus far, the company has partnered with groups such as the Asian Business Association, Anti-Discrimination Committee, Disability Awareness Network, NAACP, Persian Cultural Center, Survivors of Torture International, Young Audiences of San Diego and many more. Mo’olelo spends a good deal of time cultivating and maintaining those relationships.
“I often call the leaders in a community as I’m considering plays,” Sueko says. “I ask them, ‘Does this sound like something you’d be interested in?’ Once someone helps you pick a play, they have ownership. We try to start working with them very early in the process; we don’t wait until the last minute to bring in new audiences, just as a marketing ploy.”
Sueko is in the process of codifying her model of Consensus Organizing, an idea that comes from the field of social sork, so she can share it with other companies anxious to achieve her level of success.
Mo’olelo’s current production meets all the company’s mission criteria.
“26 Miles,” by Quiara Alegría Hudes (Tony Award nominee for writing the book for the acclaimed musical, “In the Heights,” and Pulitzer Prize finalist for “Elliot: A Soldier’s Fugue”), is set in 1986 and centers on a 15 year-old girl who’s half Cuban and half Jewish. Five years ago, when her parents split up, Olivia chose to stay with her father, which devastated her mother. Now Olivia is in crisis (bullying at school, a suicide attempt), and she calls her estranged mother in the middle of the night. Beatriz comes running, and they embark on a cross-country road trip, from Pennsylvania to Wyoming (Olivia wants to see “where the buffalo roam”). It becomes a journey of discovery and identity for them, both separately and together.
“I think it’s universal,” Sueko says. “Olivia is struggling to find her place in her family and get comfortable in her own skin. This is a challenge we can all relate to.”
For this production, which Sueko directs, she’s re-connected with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, Kids’ Turn, Interactions for Peace and the Tariq Khamisa Foundation. As usual, there will be special student matinees, before and after which Sueko will visit local middle and high schools to discuss the issues raised in the play.
It’s this kind of production and outreach that caught the attention of La Jolla Playhouse artistic director Christopher Ashley four years ago, when he selected Mo’olelo to inaugurate the Playhouse’s Redident Theater Program for up-and-coming performing arts organizations.
That honor certainly raised the profile of Mo’olelo, but it’s not what put them on the national and international map. That would be their Greening Initiative.
“After I saw Al Gore’s film, ‘An Inconvenient Truth,’” Sueko says, “I realized the hypocrisy of an organization like ours, so community-focused and labor conscious, but the way we practice theater is so damaging to the environment: the energy consumed, the temporary nature of the sets, the environmentally-unfriendly paint and woods used. And I wondered, ‘Is it possible to create theater that’s holistic — socially conscious not just about content, but operations, too?’”
As always, Sueko went to the community for assistance. She found a LEED-accredited professional who helped the company apply the 3 Rs – Recycle, Reuse, Reduce — to theater. She came across the Green Choices Methodology, which was developed in Santa Barbara and applied to companies like Aveda and Patagonia, and she wondered if it could be applied to theater.
Sueko wrote and received a grant from TCG (Theatre Communications Group, the national organization for the American theater) and developed the Green Theatre Choices Toolkit, which has been used nationwide, including on Broadway, and as far away as Belgium and Australia. Wooster College in Ohio is now teaching a Sustainable Theatre class, using the Mo’olelo Toolkit, which is provided to any group free of charge.
At 39, Sueko is at the peak of her powers. Her company is respected and thriving. For the future, it’s not expanded size or numbers that she has in mind. She keeps coming back to her mission.
“Theater can and should be for everyone,” she says. “We believe in the concept of Arts for All. So long as there’s that need, we’ll do what we can to fill it.”
The Mo’olelo Performing Arts Company production of “26 Miles,” under the direction of Seema Sueko, runs Sept. 29 through Oct. 23 at the Tenth Avenue Theatre, 930 10th Ave., Downtown. (619) 342-7395; www.moolelo.net.
Pat Launer is an Emmy Award-winning arts writer and theater critic who, for the past 25 years, has written for newspapers, magazines, radio, TV and online. Her theater reviews can be heard weekly on KSDS-FM, and she writes regularly for Patch.com.