Grants to 10 Bay Area nonprofits fund work with world-class artists on new works of theater, musical theater, and spoken word productions

Media Contact:
Heath Wickline
Communications Officer
Hewlett Foundation

MENLO PARK, Calif. – The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation announced today 10 new recipients of its Hewlett 50 Arts Commissions, a five-year, $8 million initiative that is the largest of its kind in the United States. Reflecting the foundation’s longstanding commitment to sustaining artistic expression and encouraging public engagement with the arts in the San Francisco Bay Area, 10 local nonprofit organizations will receive grants of $150,000 each to commission major new works of theater, musical theater, and spoken word.

“The arts are a vital part of any thriving community,” said Larry Kramer, president of the Hewlett Foundation. “The San Francisco Bay Area has long been home to one of the nation’s great art scenes, and many of the world’s most innovative artists. We hope this program plays a role in sustaining and continuing that rich tradition.”

The nonprofits commissioning the new works include both well-established, large-budget organizations and smaller nonprofit organizations that are deeply rooted in their communities. Some of the artists have long-established careers, and others are closer to the start of their journeys. What unites them is the quality of their artistry and their commitment to creating new work that will engage, challenge, and inspire Bay Area audiences.

“This project is a transmission of experiential wisdom and love- for family, for homeland drawn from decades of living and working in the city,” said performer Brenda Wong Aoki, who will work with Center for Asian American Media to create a new performance called “J-Town, Chinatown, Our Town.” “At its core, this is a love letter to San Francisco. 

“This new work will allow us to explore other ways of making theater that will be enriching for ourselves, our communities, and America’s theater landscape.” said Rodrigo Garcia, artistic director of recipient Teatro Visión in San Jose, who will collaborate with Salomón Santiago of Mexico City’s La Quinta Teatro on “Alas y Raices”(Wings and Roots), a new work about immigration.

Awardees were decided based on four selection criteria: artistic excellence, community engagement, collaboration and leadership, and financial capacity. A group of 20 finalists for the awards was nominated by a panel of outside experts whose members included:

  • David Dower, ArtsEmerson  
  • Ebony Noelle Golden, Betty’s Daughter Arts Collaborative
  • Kamilah Forbes, Apollo Theater
  • Leslie Tamaribuchi, Consultant
  • Marianna Schaffer, Creative Capital
  • Naomi Iizuka, University of California, San Diego

The Hewlett Foundation Performing Arts Program staff selected this year’s 10 recipients from among the finalists.

“Commissions on this scale help organizations reaffirm their missions and redefine themselves by fostering the creation of works that are new for organizations, artists, and audiences alike,” said Performing Arts Program Director Emiko Ono. “They shorten the time between an artist’s reaction to what’s happening in the world and our opportunity to be moved by it. That’s the promise and the power of bringing new art to life.”

Since 1967, the Hewlett Foundation has made more than $350 million in grants to arts organizations. Launched in January 2017 to celebrate the foundation’s 50th anniversary, the Hewlett 50 Arts Commissions awards 10 grants to local nonprofits annually in each of five performing arts disciplines through 2021. The 2017 grants were awarded in the discipline of music composition, and future years will focus on dance, traditional arts, and film. The new works created with this year’s awards will premiere in Bay Area communities during the next three years.

2018 Hewlett 50 Arts Commission Awardees

California Shakespeare Theater and Marcus Gardley

“A Thousand Ships” tells the story of the women who came to the Bay Area to work in the shipyards during World War II.

Building on the tremendous success of their 2017 production of “black odyssey,” California Shakespeare Theater is commissioning a new work by acclaimed playwright and Oakland-native Marcus Gardley as part of its New Classics Initiative. Taking his inspiration from Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” (which begins with a shipwreck), Gardley will focus on the lives of the many women like his grandmother, women who uprooted their lives and their families to work the Richmond Shipyards (iconically known as “Rosie the Riveters”) during a period of mass migration and vast social upheaval in the United States. The production will draw on interviews with surviving shipyard workers and their descendants; incorporating choreography, projection, and popular folk and blues music. The process of developing “A Thousand Ships” will include programming in Bay Area communities designed to share stories between generations of shipyard workers and their families and neighbors. There will also be theater-based residencies in schools and community centers leading up to and during the world premiere production. Premiering at the Bruns Memorial Amphitheater in Orinda as part of Cal Shakes’ 2021 season, “A Thousand Ships” will explore themes of migration and community, and the notion of making home and family among strangers in a new land.

Center for Asian American Media and Brenda Wong Aoki  

“J-Town, Chinatown, Our Town” is a multi-disciplinary work rooted in the artist’s 121-year family history in San Francisco.

The Center for Asian American Media (CAAM) is commissioning award-winning storyteller and playwright Brenda Wong Aoki to create “J-town, Chinatown, Our Town” (working title), a major multi-media and multi-disciplinary theater work based on true stories about people and places from her life and that of her Chinese- and Japanese-American family’s 121-year history in San Francisco. Over the course of her 42-year career, Wong Aoki has developed a form of monodrama based in elements of Nohgaku, a traditional form of Japanese theater, combined with contemporary aesthetics and informed by personal perspectives on current events and everyday life. Inspired by the story of her son, a mixed-race young man raised in San Francisco, Wong Aoki will weave together narrative, film, live music, dance, and other media to examine a young man’s familial connection to the city of San Francisco as it undergoes a period of rapid, dislocating economic change and rampant inequality. The piece, which will draw on interviews with the artist’s aging relatives and CAAM’s Memories to Light collection of home movies from Japanese- and Chinese-American families, will premiere at the Herbst Theater as part of CAAMFest in 2021.

Destiny Arts Center and Marc Bamuthi Joseph

“The Black (W)hole”  is a multidisciplinary theater production and work of public ritual that will serve as a spoken word and movement elegy for Oakland youth killed before the age of 30. 

Destiny Arts Center will commission spoken word artist, playwright, and 2017 TED Global Fellow Marc Bamuthi Joseph to conceive, write, and perform in  “The Black (W)hole,” a site-specific work that will include poetic elegies, choreography, video installations, and vévés, visual symbols in the Voudon tradition that represent and summon spirit intermediaries, to create a public ritual for mourning and healing. A partnership between Joseph and Destiny Arts’ celebrated teen company (Destiny Arts Youth Performance Company), this multidisciplinary production will examine black culture as a vehicle for resistance and spiritual renewal. With a 2020 premiere at the Oakland Civic Center and the Odell Johnson Performing Arts Center at Laney College, ”The Black (W)hole”  will address Oakland youth homicide and urban gentrification, and become a resource to residents in Oakland, a city undergoing swift, dramatic transitions.

The Imaginists and Árpád Schilling

“The Gun” examines the central role of guns and gun violence in contemporary American society.

The Imaginists are commissioning acclaimed Hungarian theater director Árpád Schilling to create “The Gun,” a new work that will bring his outsider’s eye to the role that guns and gun violence play in American society. Building on a longstanding artistic collaboration between the Imaginists and Schilling, the new work will highlight a shared artistic sensibility that prizes risk- taking, experimentation, and theater as instigation and provocation. The Imaginists will continue their unwavering commitment to community engagement on “The Gun,” working with youth organizations and holding community conversations throughout the development and premiere of the play. “The Gun” will preview at a venue in Sonoma County and premiere at Z Space in San Francisco.

Kitka and Karmina Šilec

“BABA,” a music-theater work inspired by “sworn virgins,” a disappearing social phenomenon of women living as men in remote regions in the Balkan highlands.

“BABA” is a work of contemporary vocal theater, created by internationally-acclaimed Slovenian director, composer, and conductor Karmina Šilec for Kitka, an Oakland-based women’s vocal ensemble known for its musical and theatrical explorations of stories of unconventional women in Eastern European history, mythology, and folklore. “BABA” is the latest of Šilec’s body of “Choregie” music-driven theater projects. “Choregie” is a creative process that brings the sensibility of musical composition to fully staged dramatic performances. “BABA” is inspired by real and imagined stories of Balkan “Sworn Virgins” or burrneshas (women who live as men after taking vows of chastity and celibacy). The tradition of Sworn Virgins is rooted in a centuries-old social code of law present in remote rural regions of Albania, Bosnia/Herzegovina, Kosovo, and Serbia. Born as women, life circumstances, including the loss of male relatives in blood feuds or a desire to escape an oppressive arranged marriage, led these individuals to live as men in order to gain the honors, privileges, and freedoms of community patriarchs. The motives for this gender transformation were traditionally social responsibility and family honor, not sexual preference or feelings of being male by nature. “BABA” raises questions about choice and sexual identity in modern society by bringing to light a disappearing practice of women transforming themselves into men as a means of upholding their family honor and surviving in an isolated, dangerous, impoverished, and intensely patriarchal part of the world.

Magic Theatre and Taylor Mac

“Calamity Joy” traces the life of Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science, and the death of Mac’s own mother, a Christian Scientist who refused treatment for cancer because of her beliefs.

“Calamity Joy” is a new play by MacArthur Fellow and Pulitzer Prize finalist Taylor Mac exploring Christian Science and its founder, Mary Baker Eddy, and the American propensity for believing more in make-believe than science, and Mac’s mother, Joy, a Christian Scientist who remained committed to her belief that her God would heal her cancer, refusing treatment in the face of excruciating pain. Interspersing the 1870’s with our current time, the play confronts the American archetypes of the propagandist, the snake oil salesman, and the charlatan, and considers how one might manifest a future free of imagination’s reign over us to build an American path forward. The fourth collaboration between Mac and San Francisco’s Magic Theatre, “Calamity Joy” will premiere at Magic Theatre in the fall of 2021.

PolicyLink and Michael “A Scribe Called Quess?” Moore

“We, the 100 Million,” is a series of place-based, community-driven choreo-poems performed with music and multimedia storytelling exploring inequity in the United States.

“We, the 100 Million” expands on the work of PolicyLink over the past two decades to advance racial and economic equity in the United States by combining data, policy, performance, and poetry. The piece will be a 10-part spoken word performance that lifts up the lives of the 100 million Americans living near or in poverty in the wealthiest country on earth. One source of inspiration for the development of the performance will be data from the PolicyLink National Equity Atlas. Another important source will be direct engagement with the people in the communities most affected by inequity in the United States that PolicyLink works with on a regular basis. Recognizing the limitations of quantitative data to engender empathy and encourage action and the limitations of poetry to articulate and advance policy, lead artist Michael “Quess?” Moore and PolicyLink senior fellow and creative director of “We, the 100 Million” Jeremy Liu will work closely with both PolicyLink’s staff of researchers and public policy experts and members of affected communities to communicate a richer and more nuanced understanding of the lived experience of 100 million Americans struggling to make ends meet.

Stanford Live and Weyni Mengesha

“Treemonisha,” a reimagining of Scott Joplin’s ahead-of-its-time opera.

Stanford Live will commission, develop, and premiere a contemporary but historically-informed reimagining of Scott Joplin’s early 20th century opera “Treemonisha.” The work’s creative team, led by director Weyni Mengesha, librettist Leah Simone Bowen, and composers Jessie Montgomery and Jannina Norpoth, will bring to the work an entirely new libretto and an expanded musical language incorporating jazz, traditional and contemporary classical music, West African idioms, and of course, ragtime. Set during Reconstruction, Joplin’s story is extraordinarily progressive for its time, with the female protagonist elected leader of her community, decades before women and most people of color could vote. Despite his fame, Joplin could not find backing for an opera by a black composer with an all-black cast of characters, and the full opera was never staged. In Treemonisha’s new story, a community has been split in the aftermath of slavery. One side remained on the plantations, endured slavery, and found solace in the church. The other side escaped, and from their forest hiding places, rekindled ancestral spiritual practices carried to the Americas from Africa. When Treemonisha is elected leader of the community, her task is to mend the torn fabric of her two communities. The project will honor Joplin’s vision and bring his neglected masterwork to light while creating a new work reborn for our times.

Teatro Visión and Salomón Santiago

“Alas y Raices (Wings and Roots)” is a new play about migration, developed through a bi-national collaboration between theater companies and community members in San Jose, California and Mexico City.

San Jose’s Teatro Visión is commissioning Mexico City-based director Salomón Santiago and his street theater ensemble, La Quinta Teatro, to create “Alas y Raices (Wings and Roots): Amphibious Theater About Human Migration.” Combining Teatro Visión’s deep commitment to community-based participatory theater and La Quinta Teatro’s playful, large-scale work designed for both indoor and outdoor settings. Filled with La Quinta Teatro’s huge puppets and masks, whimsical costumes, audience engagement, and energetic music, the new work will be developed through community workshops and story-gathering activities in the Bay Area and Mexico City. The culminating performance, a non-verbal spectacle suitable for audiences regardless of how old they are or what language they speak, will premiere in the theater and outdoor courtyard of San Jose’s Mexican Heritage Plaza in 2021.  

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) and Rafael Casal  

“The Limp” is a new work combining song, verse, and theater to examine toxic masculinity.

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) is commissioning Bay Area writer, performer, and producer Rafael Casal, best known for his debut film ​Blindspotting​ (2018), to create a new performance piece at the intersection of musical theater, spoken word, and hip hop-driven narrative. Casal and his artistic collaborators will use the piece to talk honestly about how some of our outdated paradigms of masculinity give rise to sexual harassment, abuse, and violence. ​”The Limp”​ will premiere in June 2020 at the YBCA Theater. In addition to ​”The Limp​,” Casal will be bringing his landmark Bars Workshop from the famed New York City Public Theater to San Francisco with YBCA in partnership with Campo Santo. The workshops aim to address the same issues raised in “The Limp”​ as a complimentary engagement for theater professionals.

For more information about the Hewlett 50 Arts Commissions, please visit For information about the 2018 grant application process, please visit

About the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation

The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation is a nonpartisan, private charitable foundation that advances ideas and supports institutions to promote a better world.

For more than 50 years, the foundation has supported efforts to advance education for all, preserve the environment, improve lives and livelihoods in developing countries, promote the health and economic well-being of women, support vibrant performing arts, strengthen Bay Area communities, and make the philanthropy sector more effective.

The foundation’s Performing Arts Program makes grants to sustain artistic expression and encourage public engagement in the arts in the San Francisco Bay Area, to give California students equal access to an education rich in the arts, and to provide necessary resources to help organizations and artists be effective in their work.