OCEANSIDE — Oceanside Chamber of Commerce Board Member Rushell Gordon sought out Oceanside Historical Society’s Kristi Hawthorne for answers to a simple question: “What can you tell me about Oceanside’s other black business owners?”
The response to that inquiry turned into an interactive multi-media exploration celebrating the black entrepreneurs who had a formational impact on the city of Oceanside.
“Generational Black Pioneers – Featuring Oceanside Entrepreneurs” recreates poignant moments throughout the 140 years of this seaside military town’s history through non-fictional narratives and theatrical dramatization based on the lives of the community’s black leaders.
Presented by Oceanside Theatre Company and Oceanside Historical Society, the event takes place on Feb. 11 at 7:30 pm at the Brooks Theatre.
“In the Black community, history was often passed down through story telling,” explained Gordon. “Sitting on the porch or at the dinner table the elders would share their stories.”
The “Black Pioneers” production started as a desire to create a program for Black History Month telling the stories of local black history. The only problem was that, despite having authored two books on Oceanside’s history — “Oceanside: Where Life is Worth Living” (2000) and “The History of Oceanside” (2022) — Hawthorne found that there was a lack of documentation of black business owners. So Gordon, Hawthorne, and businesswoman Robbie Hass began to reach out to the community for answers.
“When I met with Kristi, we felt a sense of urgency around doing this now, because black people migrated to Oceanside around the 1940s when Camp Pendleton was built. We had to get the stories now, because these elders would not be with us much longer,” said Gordon, the show’s producer.
“Collaborating with businesswoman Rushell Gordon has provided so many wonderful opportunities,” said Hawthorne. “It has sparked the imagination of many long time residents who are excited to share their own history and that of their family’s. Our outreach for information then was the catalyst for residents such as Yolanda Mitchell, Glenda Howard, Eddie Parks and others to share their memories and photos and in turn to reach out to others, providing a beautiful wellspring of information.”
Their research resulted in the creation of a series of creative vignettes covering the lives of a diverse group of talents including Charles Tapsico, an auto mechanic who settled in Oceanside at the beginning of World War I, and Charles Etta Reece, founder of the North County NAACP and Oceanside Girls Club, whose catering service expanded into the opening of her own restaurant in 1948.
“The parts of the stories that are important to me are the pulse, the lives of the non-fictional characters — making them authentic and honest. Their challenges, their joy, their fears, their relationships to others and to the times they lived in,” said the show’s director, Linda Bisesti, who helped write the script.
“Generational Black Pioneers” also tells the stories of George Mitchell, Roosevelt Campbell, and Oscar Culp, who owned and operated what is believed to be the first storefront and commercial property in Oceanside — a TV repair shop turned furniture store — for 60 years. The contributions of Adele Foreman and Pearl Duncan, two trailblazers in the beauty parlor and barber shop industry, are also honored in the storytelling.
“There is an undeniable force that propels this project forward. It’s bigger than all of us. We stand on the shoulders of those who came before us,” said Gordon. “We pick up the torch and ‘Black Pioneers’ is born. Their strength and perseverance inspires me, and I hope that these stories will fuel the next generation of entrepreneurs. We honor the ancestors that we have the opportunity to celebrate this year and the many we hope to celebrate in the future.”
Of course, a history of Oceanside’s entrepreneurs would not be complete without the story of Gordon herself. Graduate of the Pepperdine University Graziadio Executive MBA program, Gordon spent 25 years as an executive for major corporations overseeing global programs before leaving to start her own business.
“God gave me the vision to create my business and I have always felt a strong ancestral influence throughout my journey,” said Gordon, who opened Bliss Tea & Treats in Downtown Oceanside on May 8, 2020. Actively involved in the community, she is passionate about creating services and programs that uplift and advance the growth of Oceanside as the best place to work, play, and have tea.
She’s also harnessed her years of corporate experience and talent for networking to pique interest in “Generational Black Pioneers – Featuring Oceanside Entrepreneurs,” gaining sponsorships from a variety of local entities including Genentech, MiraCosta College, Premier Printing, Brick Hotel, Visit Oceanside, and Minutemen Press.
To take her vision from the history books to the stage, Gordon also knew who to ask. She’d worked with Bisesti, the Artistic Director of Southern California Shakespeare Festival Guild in 2021.
“As a professional AEA actor in regional theatre, I have been in numerous productions with diverse ensembles, telling stories that celebrate the voices of marginalized populations through Shakespeare, as well as contemporary playwrights such as Lynn Nottage and many others,” said Bisesti. “Giving voice to stories that have not been heard is paramount for me as a working artist/actor.”
Bisesti, Professor Emeritus in the Department of Theatre and New Dance at Cal Poly Pomona, directs a group of her current and former theater students in the Black History Month program including San Diegan Valynsia Sims, Roslyn Samone Glasco, JoeJoe McKinney, and Myles Cox.
“I know these actors’ work, their commitment, and their desire to have their voices heard as Black artists/actors and their passion for telling stories that need to be told,” said Bisesti. “The actors and I want to celebrate the people that came before, honor them, and this project presented this opportunity!”
The creators of “Generational Black Pioneers” hope that these stories will resonate with the audience regardless of the time period, that they will feel the respect, love, anger, joy, sadness and hope that the real-life leaders felt.
“I want the audience to step into history, to imagine the lives of the people who forged through challenges and difficulties to make their own mark on Oceanside,” said Hawthorne. “I want family members to feel a sense of pride and recognition and belonging as they see their loved ones portrayed as important and relevant citizens who contributed to the success of others.”
Saturday, Feb. 11, 7:30p.m.
217 N. Coast Hwy
Oceanside CA 92054
Tickets are $15 and available at www.oceansidetheatre.org, or by calling the box office at (760) 433-8900.