Mixed Magic: Bringing diversity to Rhode Island theater

PROVIDENCE, R.I. – For the last decade, Ricardo Pitts-Wiley has been challenging audiences in Rhode Island at his Mixed Magic Theater in downtown Pawtucket. Mixed Magic is most known for bringing diversity to its performances of both well-known and original productions.

At the only table in a large room rimmed with windows, Mixed Magic Theater founder Ricardo Pitts-Wiley wraps up another meeting with his architect and carpenter.

"This used to be the window shop at the Hope Village," he says.

Pitts-Wiley surveys the space filled with piles of boards, and stacks of old windows. A row of delicate columns lines each side of the room in this brick mill building. This will be his new Mixed Magic Theater.

"This will be back stage and the rehearsal hall, the corner there will be the shop, and this corner over there will be the dressing room," says Pitts-Wiley.

His son Jonathan, the company's artistic director, is excited about moving from their current location in downtown Pawtucket to the Hope Artiste Village.

"We're in 85 seats in the space that we're moving out from and I think we're moving up to a good level, 125, I think that's a good step up," says Jonathan Pitts-Wiley." Some theaters go from 85 seats to 300 seats and that's a dangerous thing to do."

Ricardo Pitts-Wiley has spent more than 40 years in the theater, much of that time in Rhode Island. And the urban grit of Pawtucket is a world away from the rural town in Michigan where he was born. "Country, real country: cows, pigs, corn country," says Ricardo Pitts-Wiley.

He hated school, until he found the theater. His first play was the high school production of Romeo and Juliet; he played Prince Escalus, the Prince of Verona.

"The whole cast was made of a bunch of misfits, I was the only black kid in the show," he says. During rehearsals the principal walked in and said something he never forgot. "And one day the principal came in and said, "I don't know why you are trying to do this, you can't do."

That comment galvanized Pitts-Wiley and the cast, they not only pulled off the production for their school, but they were asked to show other high schools how to put on a production of Shakespeare.

"It also served to me that never let anyone tell you that I can't be done, because we did it," says Pitts-Wiley.

Pitts-Wiley credits the stage for saving his life, and getting him to college, where he studied theater. Then he hit the road to see where acting would take him. First, he landed parts with the Trinity Theater in Philadelphia, then on to Trinity Rep. in Providence. Trinity's founder and artistic director Adrian Hall gave him his first role.

"I was a slave," he says while laughing. " I was an enslaved man on a plantation in Virginia."

From Trinity he and his wife Bernadette struck out on their own, forming Mixed Magic Theater, first in San Diego, and then the returned to Rhode Island. Their first play was an original production about North Kingstown. During those years the couple raised a family, including their son Jonathan, who as a kid was around a lot of theater, but not in a lot of theater.

"I was in a Christmas Carol a few times and in some of my dad's original productions, but I wasn't a child actor, I was just a kid," says Jonathan Pitts-Wiley.

He studied history as an undergrad at Yale, and it's where he directed his first play. It was August Wilson's The Piano Lesson. He's been Mixed Magic's artistic director for a little more than a year now. He says Rhode Island's pool of actors is small but growing.

"It's not like when I put out a casting call ten actors of color show up. There's not some critical mass like that," says Pitts-Wiley. "You've got to turn people who have a talent and turn actors."

So he visits the Shakespeare productions at Hope High School in Providence, and Central Falls High, scouting for talent. Many times he's creating actors one student at a time.

Ricardo Pitts-Wiley says what he, and now his son, have done to cultivate a diverse acting community has only enriched his productions and theater experience. He points to a production he did of A Mid Summer Night's Dream.

"The two couples were black, white, Hispanic, Cape Verdean, Oberon was white, and Puck was black, the fairies were white, Asian, they looked like America," says Ricardo Pitts-Wiley.

His definition of diversity includes age and education.

"When we did Moby Dick some of our high school kids when they encountered some of the top scholars in Melville, they knocked the scholars' socks off," says Pitts-Wiley. "Because they brought a new attitude to the work that those scholars had to step back and say you know what I've been teaching Moby Dick for 30 years and they brought a perspective I never thought about."

And that's what Mixed Magic does, says Pitts-Wiley, attack barriers as a way to bring out the art in theater. When Mixed Magic Theater opens this spring in the new space at Hope Artiste Village, the first performance will be a mix of Shakespeare and gospel.

Center Stage: A Spotlight on Rhode Island Theater
What: A series of conversations discussing Rhode Island's theater community
Where: The Gamm 172 Exchange Street, Pawtucket, RI
When: Saturday February 19th 2:00 - 4:00pm

Admission is free, but seating is limit. So reserve your space at ricommunityforums.org.

Do you have insight or expertise on this topic? Please email us, we'd like to hear from you. news@wrni.org.