It’s all about “open dialogue in a judgment-free zone,” says Mary Braxton-Joseph.

Image: Everett Dennison 

As a journalist and media consultant, Mary Braxton-Joseph often told stories about people of color, including producing documentaries on apartheid, race and reconciliation while she and her husband, James Joseph, the former U.S. Ambassador to South Africa, lived in that country. But since the couple retired to Sarasota in 2012, the filmmaker is sharing stories about diversity through live theater.

Braxton-Joseph chairs Asolo Repertory Theatre’s IllumiNation program, which reaches out to new and diverse audiences through pre-show receptions and post-show conversations. Under her leadership, attendance at IllumiNation events has more than doubled this season, reaching an all-time high.

She became involved with Asolo Rep after her husband was invited to speak on a panel following a performance of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, about an interracial couple in the 1960s. “I was just amazed at the level of discussion,” she recalls. “I was also touched by the magic of live theater.”

The IllumiNation series, founded in 2015, seeks to promote cross-cultural connections and explore issues of race, gender, identity and cultural intersection. Selected plays, like this season’s The Crucible, A Doll’s House, Part 2, Sweat and The Cake, are chosen for further discussion, in what Braxton-Joseph calls “a venue for open dialogue in a judgment-free zone.”

As a former manager of community affairs and editorials for the ABC network affiliate in Washington, D.C., Braxton-Joseph—who is quick to praise Asolo rep staff and her committee members for their contributions—was well primed to bring together people of different races, religions, genders and personal histories here.

“We often have more than 100 people turn out, sometimes as many as 200,” for a show and discussion, she says. “If you participate, you will be uplifted. If you had told me when we bought a home here that I’d be gaga over live theater, I’d say, ‘I don’t know about that.’ But it’s so extraordinary, the caliber of the work here. And we have so many newcomers and so much more diversity in the community now. I’m happy to be part of that change. I wanted to move the conversation forward.”

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