New TPAC CEO Emphasizes Diversity

Jennifer Turner

By Clint Confehr

NASHVILLE, TN — At a pre-show program, Jennifer Turner, the new CEO of the Tennessee Performing Arts Center, was asked if she’d “ever give consideration to non-musicals” at TPAC.

“Yes,” Turner replied. “We just found out that ‘Mockingbird’ … is now going to tour. I think it’s a really interesting idea.”

At the Shubert Theatre in New York, “To Kill a Mockingbird” became the highest-grossing American play in history with cumulative sales of more than $70 million in 18 weeks, Variety reports. LaTanya Richardson Jackson plays Calpurnia, Atticus Finch’s maid, in a “radical adaptation” of Harper Lee’s book,

Told Mockingbird’s storyline is compared to events in Tennessee, Turner said, “If it made sense and was the right fit for us, I would certainly consider it.” She looks for resonance with the community, or impact on history of the region. “It’s very important to not only bring things that our audience might love but things that make our audience think and respond.”

TPAC’s addressed issues of race. “Hamilton” opens on New Year’s Eve. Turner spoke before a performance of “Miss Saigon.” It addresses mixed heritage.

Turner, who started a month ago, said, “Diversity, equity and inclusion are very important to me.” Having worked in Detroit, Chicago and Washington, she’s dealt “with questions and topics of diversity constantly.” She wants to “engage audiences and … our community in a way that’s meaningful … not dictating to the community what their needs are but … partnering … and asking how the arts can help solve a problem, or fulfill a need, or how we can use arts to bridge a connection between communities … I have a lot of experience in that area and I’m looking forward to bringing it to Tennessee.”

She appreciates patrons’ interest in ‘Hamilton’ “because it is such an unusual production.”

A comparison to “Mockingbird” arose in 2006. U.S. Reps. Jim Cooper and Bart Gordon attended events for Eugene Ray’s first term as Bedford County’s mayor. Ray’s the first African-American to be mayor there. Thirteen years ago, Gordon noted the 1960 book. Last week, Cooper recalled what happened before his father, Prentice Cooper, became governor.

“The scenario is all too familiar,” he said of what started Nov. 19, 1934. A black man was accused of sex assault, arrested and brought to jail, “but the criminal justice system was not fast enough for the angry mob. They wanted …[a]… lynching.”

National guardsmen were called out but couldn’t contain the large mob. People were shot. The courthouse was burned to the ground.

“It was one of the biggest fires in Tennessee history,” said Cooper. “My father …[and]… other lawyers, had been appointed by the court to represent the accused.”

Prentice Cooper and his client, E.K. Harris, “were smuggled out of the courthouse dressed as state troopers … and went over to Lewisburg,” Cooper said. “Then the crowd came to my grandfather’s house … to burn it down, but he met them at the front gate with a shotgun. Things calmed down once they learned the accused was … out of the county … Our racist past is not very far behind us and may not be past.”

Shelbyville Times-Gazette journalist David Melson posted a seven-part series on the 75th anniversary of the riot. The public was denied access to court hearings in Shelbyville. Tried in Nashville, Harris was convicted of rape. The jury deliberated five minutes. He was electrocuted May 22, 1936.

Turner succeeds Kathleen O’Brien, who retired. When announced in January, Turner was executive vice president and managing director at Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, Calif. TPAC Board Chair Tracy Kane said Turner’s experience, expertise, and vision for TPAC, made her the “ideal candidate” to lead TPAC.

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