Tanika Baptiste directs 'Group Therapy' at Theatre Rhino

  • by Jim Gladstone
  • Tuesday November 7, 2023
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(Back L-R) Mark Anthony, Joshalvin, Tory Williams; (Front L-R) Hector Zavala, Senait Mengstab, and James Quedado in 'Group Therapy' (photo: Scott Sidorsky)
(Back L-R) Mark Anthony, Joshalvin, Tory Williams; (Front L-R) Hector Zavala, Senait Mengstab, and James Quedado in 'Group Therapy' (photo: Scott Sidorsky)

Tis the season for Tanika Baptiste.

Eight times a week, from late September through October 28, the rising star gave audiences the guffaw-inducing gift of her riotous performance as a Nigerian talk show host in "Nollywood Dreams" at the San Francisco Playhouse.

In the midst of that engagement, she began afternoon rehearsals for the premiere of playwright Kheven LaGrone's "Group Therapy," which she's directing at the Theatre Rhinoceros.

Note: Opening Night for "Group Therapy" is postponed to November 18

She's directed past productions of "At the Wake of a Dead Drag Queen" and "How Black Mothers Say I Love You" for the company.

Concurrently, Baptiste, who identifies as queer, is working as the talent coordinator for Enchant, the enormous Christmas attraction that will take over San Jose's PayPal Park from the day after Thanksgiving through New Year's Eve.

And every Thursday, she catches the 5:42 a.m. train from Oakland to U.C. Davis where, in December, she'll complete the B.A. in African American Studies that she's been steadily pursuing alongside her theater work since 2003.

'Group Therapy' director Tanika Baptiste  

A passion-driven life
"I know I should have a personal life," Baptiste joked in an interview with the Bay Area Reporter an hour before going onstage at the SF Playhouse on a recent evening.

While hardly unique among theater makers in deftly juggling multiple gigs in order to make a living in her chosen field, Baptiste approaches her work with singular focus and good cheer.

"You're not going to hear me say I'm just doing whatever I have to in order to pay the bills," she explained. "Theater is my joy and passion. This past year, my goal was to take on jobs that let me tell the stories of my people and of my ancestors. I did a good job of that."

In addition to "Nollywood Dreams," Baptiste gave a scene-stealing performance in "The N— Lovers" at the Magic Theater, played a leading role in the Afropunk spaghetti Western "Is God Is" at The Oakland Theater Project, and did a turn as a Shirelle in "Beautiful" The Carol King Musical" at the Woodminster Amphitheater.

In directing, too, Baptiste has sought out material that she connects to on a personal level. "Group Therapy" is the second play by Oakland-based LaGrone that she's helmed for Theatre Rhinoceros, following an online pandemic production of his "Pillow Talk."

"I love the way he writes about the queer BIPOC experience," Baptiste says, pointing to a complex emotional realism that evokes the work of screenwriter/director John Singleton for her.

"All of the characters in this play are about to turn 40. They're taking stock of their past and trying to find their way into next phase of their lives through this therapy group. I'm 38 myself and I recognize a lot of their experiences."

Baptiste's work at Theatre Rhino on this production is underwritten by an Arts Leadership Residency Grant from Theatre Bay Area.

"Crystal Liu, The Rhino's Director of Development, is such a star. She encouraged me to apply for this with them, and the grant is part of why I've been able completely focus on theater work this year. It's the third year in a row I've been able to be a theater artist full time. I plan to keep it that way."

Tanika Baptiste in SF Playhouse's 'Nollywood Dreams' (photo: Jessica Palopoli)  

Opportunity and optimism
Baptiste says that one of the reasons she moved to the Bay Area in 2017 was the opportunity she saw in the local theater community for Black women.

While the theater industry nationwide has publicly wrestled with issues of diversity, equity and inclusion in recent years, Baptiste gives the Bay Area credit for being ahead of the curve.

"In San Diego, there just weren't parts. I came up to the Bay Area and the first month I was here, there were like seven productions with Black woman leads. And there are so many companies to work with here."

That said, Baptiste still harbors a dream to perform on or off-Broadway in New York.

"I have the first three weeks of January off before I go into rehearsal for 'Dirty White Teslas Make Me Sad' at The Magic," she said. "It's my first real break in a long time and I'm going to try to start bicycling, watch some trash reality TV and just chill. But after that, I am going to try to navigate my time and energy a bit differently. I want to challenge myself, to work in markets outside the Bay to get that experience. I just submitted to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for the first time." (Among Baptiste's dream roles is Lady MacBeth).

"And I am going to go to New York. I want to be able to say I made a goal for myself and achieved it. I have younger siblings and nieces and nephews and I want them all to see that if you work hard and stay consistent, anything is possible. Like Will Smith once said, 'I'm not afraid to die on the treadmill.'

"I'm not going to lie: I've visualized myself winning a Tony. I think everybody does that at the beginning of their careers, but I can still see it. The way I've been supported in the Bay Area, people have made me feel like I am so magical and powerful. And maybe I am, you know."

'Group Therapy;' Note: Opening Night is postponed to November 18; through Dec. 3. $17.50-$35. Theatre Rhinoceros, 4229 18th St. (415) 552-4100 www.therhino.org

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