Daryl Roth, Kamilah Forbes and Zibby Owens spoke about motherhood, the impact of COVID-19 on the entertainment industry and advice for aspiring creatives.
Jane Park, contributing photographer
Being a creative isn’t easy – paths to success are almost never straightforward.
This is especially true for creative women. On November 17, three leading women in entertainment – Broadway producer Daryl Roth, theater director Kamilah Forbes and publishing executive Zibby Owens ’98 – gathered for a panel at Yale’s Schwarzman Center to discuss their similar yet unique experiences as established personalities their fields.
When asked to share their stories and experiences, Roth, Forbes and Owens noted their tumultuous but fulfilling paths to success. As Roth began her career as a producer, she explained that there were few experienced producers willing to mentor a woman. However, she learned to break through the stereotypes associated with women in leadership positions
“People will tell you, ‘Women take things so personally,'” Roth told the crowd. “I’ve heard that 100 times and I’m like, ‘Yes, we do. And that’s why we’re good.”
Roth added that she always strives to be the last voice in the room and not the loudest.
This axiom has fueled her lobbying for diversity in the theater production industry. In an interview with the News, Roth described how she was motivated to find a replacement in the theater for her gay son, Jordan. She recalled taking Jordan to an Ian McKellen show to show Jordan that “in theater you can be true to yourself.”
Creative work has “allowed” Owens to navigate a challenging period in her life following a series of COVID-19 deaths in her family.
“I actually found that the pandemic was an opportunity to be even more productive and creative, to build a community around books and to put authors’ words into people’s hands,” Owens said. “I took my podcast, made it an Instagram live show for the first three months … I started a virtual book club, which I still do, and wrote essays that eventually became an anthology.”
Owens has not followed a straight path in her creative career. In fact, Owens’ decision to pursue writing in earnest was prompted by the death of her close friend, Stacey Sanders, in ’98 in the September 11, 2001 attacks.
“One of the things I decided, which has made me reconsider my whole life and the meaning of life, is that if I get killed at my desk while I’m doing my job, I’d better bring my whole self to what whatever I do and I couldn’t just sit around marketing Pepperidge Farm cookies for an ad agency any longer,” said Owens.
During the conversation, Forbes recalled her years in the Howard University theater program, where she encountered many “classic” black playwrights, including Adrienne Kennedy and Douglas Turner Ward.
Still, she noticed a generational gap in black representation, which led her to found the Hip Hop Theater Festival and eventually to collaborate with artists such as Danny Hawk and Lin-Manuel Miranda.
“I haven’t quite seen my generation,” Forbes said. “We’ve done so much, August Wilson, but as a 19-year-old college student there was no longer a role for me. I come from the hip hop generation. So the theater that really interested me was, ‘How can my culture and generational voices be reflected on stage?’”
Both Owens and Forbes have reflected on the uncertainties of COVID-19; During this time, both teams worked to make content more accessible and actively responded to the needs of their target groups.
As a major center for African American culture and arts, Forbes said the Apollo Theater worked to respond to national outrage surrounding the killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.
But the pandemic required theater to engage with audiences through a variety of mediums. The Forbes team partnered with HBO to produce a film adaptation of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book Between the World and Me. The film was released in November 2020.
Despite the difficulties and uncertainties of pursuing a career in entertainment, all three panelists urged students to follow their instincts and passions.
“In a way, you really have to put on blinkers,” Roth said. “Just take what you think is right. If it’s right for you, it’s right. If it’s a failure, that’s a word I use in quotes because I don’t believe in failure, don’t blame anyone but yourself, you learn from it and move on. It’s hills and valleys, hills and valleys.”
The Schwarzman Center was donated in 2015.