Support for LAist comes from
Made of L.A.
Stay Connected

Share This

Arts and Entertainment

Leader In Asian American Theater To Take Helm At LA Cultural Institution

A portrait of a South Asian man in his early 40s wearing a collared white shirt and a charcoal gray blazer.
Incoming Center Theatre Group Artistic Director Snehal Desai.
(Kim Newmoney)
Our June member drive is live: protect this resource!
Right now, we need your help during our short June member drive to keep the local news you read here every day going. This has been a challenging year, but with your help, we can get one step closer to closing our budget gap. Today, put a dollar value on the trustworthy reporting you rely on all year long. We can't hold those in power accountable and uplift voices from the community without your partnership.

When news broke Friday that Snehal Desai had been named the Center Theatre Group’s first leader of color, his friends and colleagues in the Los Angeles theater world rejoiced.

It’s been a struggle to refill theaters emptied by the pandemic, and racial injustices have strengthened the call to broaden offerings that would appeal beyond largely white, wealthy audiences.

Desai, the producing artistic director of Little Tokyo’s East West Players theater company, has a record of drawing theater-goers with productions that center the experiences of Asian Americans such as Allegiance, a musical about Japanese American incarceration during WWII.

He also championed intersectionality with the recent production of The Great Jheri Curl Debate, set in a Black beauty supply shop with a Korean owner.

Support for LAist comes from

“If theater is going to head in a direction where it still exists and looks like the people of L.A., it needs a leader like him behind it,” said L.A. performance artist Kristina Wong.

Desai was selected out of more than 100 applicants by the board of the Center Theatre Group, one of the largest nonprofit theater groups in the country. Some 3,000 seats are spread among three venues — the Mark Taper Forum and the Ahmanson and Kirk Douglas theaters.

'Historic journey'

Desai, who will start his new job in August and lead the organization with managing director Meghan Pressman, noted that he’ll be moving less than a mile from East West’s 240-seat theater to Center Theatre Group’s downtown offices.

“But it's a historic journey that I'm making in terms of an Asian American at the head of a lored institution, someone from a theater of color going to an organization like CTG,” he said.

The son of Indian immigrants born and raised in Pennsylvania, Desai attended the Yale School of Drama, where he grew frustrated by the focus on “white Western canon.”

“I wasn't seeing myself reflected in the stories nor connecting to some of the work,” Desai recalled. “And that's where I really started to study Asian American artists.”

His mentors and professors encouraged him to create his own work, so he wrote and acted in a solo show called Finding Ways To Prove You're Not An Al Qaeda Terrorist When You're Brown.

A strong voice against anti-Asian discrimination

Desai moved from New York to L.A. about 10 years ago to take a job as the East West Players’ literary manager.

Support for LAist comes from

Three years later, he was promoted to producing artistic director, the first South Asian American to fill the role. He used his position to take a firm stand against anti-Asian discrimination.

Notably, he became the first leader to pull their theater out of the L.A. Stage Alliance after multiple blunders at its Ovation Awards show, including Asian nominee Jully Lee having her name mispronounced as the image of castmate Monica Hong flashed onscreen.

Desai also called out the alliance for failing to recognize theaters of color during the event for their role in co-productions.

"The Ovation Awards are set up to recognize White Excellence, if we are being brutally honest,” Desai wrote in a statement at the time.

Other theaters followed Desai’s lead and the alliance’s board of directors shut it down.

As he looks ahead to his new job, Desai said he would like to see more collaboration between the Center Theatre Group and other theaters throughout L.A.

He pointed to Wong’s one-woman show Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord, which ran earlier this year at the Kirk Douglas Theatre as a co-production of the Center Theatre Group and East West Players.

“I hope to take the work that we've been doing at EWP and just expand that so that all communities of color feel welcome at our cultural institutions, and that we all see ourselves represented on the stage and our stories told,” Desai said.

Have a question about Southern California's Asian American communities?
Josie Huang reports on the intersection of being Asian and American and the impact of those growing communities in Southern California.

Most Read