Listening to Endemic Racism, Bearing Witness; and, How Civilizations Heal
The theatre is my home. I’ve worked in community theatres, nonprofit theatres, summer stock theatres, repertory theatres, touring theatres, Off-Broadway theatres, Broadway theatres, West End Theatres. My theatre work has taken my attention from Rio to Toronto to Sydney to London to New York to Los Angeles to Phoenix to Ohio and back again.
I write a series of mystery novels, The Mex Mysteries, all of which take place around a musical. When there is writing in the press by or about the theatre, I read it. I never know when I’m going to find a little theatre tidbit that will be useful in a mystery plot. The solve to each of the mysteries is found in the lyrics of the musical.
Theatre and its messages have held a lifelong fascination for me.
I know the theatre world — from amateur to professional — has a case of endemic racism. Without question, I have experienced rampant sexism in the industry. I am far from the only one. It should not surprise me that institutional racism plagues the business, and it doesn’t, but it does disappoint me.
Director Kenny Leon said in yesterday’s Times: “I have a radical optimism, built in my heart, that says right is going to win, and we are going to get there. I’m not giving up on regional theater, I’m not giving up on Off Broadway theater, I’m not giving up on Broadway theater, I’m not giving up on America and I’m not giving up on our world. But I think it’s going to take listening. It’s going to take all of us.”
The effervescent Billy Porter, in his Message to America on Instagram, net-nets to the same conclusion: “Finally. Listen to us.”
Playwright Lydia R. Diamond maintains “My experiences of the theater are no different from my experiences of the world at large, which is that it’s very difficult to navigate in a racist and sexist world. Sometimes I think that theater thinks it’s somehow immune to being complicit in the intrinsic racism of our world. What I’ve seen over the course of my career is institutional racism and sexism at every level of the American theater. And that saddens me.”
Bear witness to her sadness.
Artistic Director of the Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul, Minnesota, sister city to Minneapolis, echoes her peers, “But I think people are listening. I see people taking care of each other and the community mobilizing. That’s not getting reported, but I’m heartened by the ways that people are showing up for each other. More and more, I think we need to focus deeply on racial healing and attend to the most vulnerable.”
Theater artist Jelani Alladin says the same. “I would like there to be more communication between blacks, artists of color, and whites; an investment in listening, and not listening to hear, but listening to understand. A conversation is a talk where news and ideas are exchanged; not looted, not stolen, exchanged, which means to give something and receive something.”
An investment in listening. Not listening to hear. Listening to understand. I’d add, and asking for more, no matter how uncomfortable-making, until understanding is achieved.
Conversation. Just like good theatre is a conversation — between the production and the audience. It’s an exchange, and when it’s good, the exchange merits every superlative of wonderful that exists.
Exchange. To give something and to receive something. We white theatremakers need to receive the experiences that people of color report to us. This is not always easy, but it is always worth it. Theatremakers have an inherent, intuitive sense when that true exchange has occurred. There’s nothing like it. It’s what keeps us going to the theatre night after night.
Michael Paulson writes, “On Monday night, 300 artists challenged “White American Theater” in a blistering statement. This week the Broadway Advocacy Coalition is holding a forum on racism in the industry.”
Found here on We See You, White American Theatre, the letter is a chilling indictment of conditions for persons of color throughout the industry.
“We see you. We have always seen you. We have watched you pretend not to see us.”
They say toward the end: “We have always seen you. And now you will see us.”
May it be so.
The president of Montefiore Medical Systems, Dr. Philip O. Ozuah wrote in “I Fought Two Plagues and Only Beat One,” “It’s hard to find comfort in this troubling time. But I see rare hope that these twin disasters disproportionately hurting minorities — one a brand-new virus and the other a virus as old as the country itself — could finally prove the true strength of our shared humanity.”
It’s our shared humanity that is the backbone of the theatre not only in America but the Grande Dame herself, The Theatre.
How could we have let this systemic racism infiltrate our hallowed numbers? Isn’t artistry the common denominator? Doesn’t art trump all? It should, but it seems that it doesn’t. Or it could, but it hasn’t.
Jennifer Finney Boylan, no stranger to discrimination herself, wrote in her essay this week,
“There have always been two Americas — the one we aspire to, a place of idealism and revolution and freedom. And then there’s the other America, the one we actually live in. The disconnect between those two ideas has rarely been clearer than in this tumultuous spring, with the country wracked by disease and economic ruin, and police violence and protests against systemic racism convulsing the nation from coast to coast.”
Can the same be said of the theatre? I think so. There have always been two theatres. The speech-taking awe of what we present, and the arcane underbelly of what goes on behind the scenes which we don’t trot out or advertise to our patrons. Which, at the same time, creates an intimacy like no other. Being an insider in the professional theatre is a much-sought-after prize.
Playwright Lydia R. Diamond names the curve in this curveball. “It’s every production at every institution — with an acknowledgment that even within those institutions, I have been supported and nurtured and given an artistic home. Because that’s the [expletive] of racism in our country. The people that you’re working with love you, often. And you love them, often. And the country is entrenched in institutional, societal racism.”
We love them. They love us. We’re in this together might be the subtext, and we are — until we’re not. What a painful reality check.
Ms. Diamond again, “On the first day of a rehearsal, the whole theater company comes into the room and you do the meet-and-greet, and then you read the play. Always those rooms are at least 98 percent white people. The institutions aren’t diverse in any way. … But there’s not a real investment in it. There just isn’t. And that’s how our country has functioned. We talk a good game about it. All of the institutions are writing letters about how they stand in solidarity. But until you show me institutional change, I don’t want to hear it.”
Can you blame her? I can’t. I haven’t experienced it as she has, but I hear the truth in her words. Can’t you?
She clarifies, “But that means real institutional change. For real. Not a program where you now have three interns who are black. And I have not a lot of faith that the theater structure, the way it’s built right now, wants that. The institutions are still not as they should be. And it’s crushing.”
It is crushing. We theatremakers are better than this. Or are we? Billy Porter maintains, “We are not nor have we ever been better than this. We have tried.”
Okay, we’ve tried. Now all sorts of theatremakers are claiming that we stand in solidarity with what We See You names BIPOC — Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. Trying is nice, but trying and gesture don’t count any more.
Mr. Leon makes a plea. “To my white friends and colleagues: I want their help to create a more just world. My experiences have led me to know that if white citizens were honest with themselves, they can remember incidents where moments of racism entered into the atmosphere and they didn’t say anything about it.”
I can think of several from theatres of my past.
He continues: “[E]specially for Broadway, it has to be a dialogue and it can no longer be one way. There hasn’t been enough listening with my well-intentioned white friends. There needs to be more diversity in the theater. There needs to be more diversity of storytelling. Money should not always lead the discussion. We need different voices at all of the tables, and I think we can do that.”
Ms. Diamond, “The theater world is made up of really smart people. You figured out how to make people buy seats at between $150 to $500. You can figure out how to not be racist. I wrote a play called ‘Smart People.’ It was at Second Stage, Off Broadway. At the heart of it was this idea that if white leaders of institutions, and white people in general, could just acknowledge the depths of their embracing a kind of white supremacy that allows them to allow institutions to be not inclusive and not equitable, maybe we could fix it.”
Maybe we could.
Sarah Bellamy says, “I differentiate between black theater and plays with black people in them. Black theater always has a social justice imperative and community uplift embedded in it, whereas plays with black people in them might actually be injurious or do harm to the black community.
“If white institutions would be willing to take up the work to involve, educate and activate white audiences, that would go a long way in helping us move forward. Activate your white audiences to talk about whiteness. Say, ‘We are going to roll up our sleeves, and we’re going to work with our white folks to support racial equity, to fight white supremacy and anti-blackness.’ That would be tremendously powerful. Whether or not they’re willing to do that work, I don’t know, because it’s hard.”
It is hard. Hardest of all is to gather a group, like a theatre audience, which, despite all the demographics and data and statistics we bandy about, are still just a group of strangers watching other strangers be human. Making a group of strangers cohere is truly an art.
As the powerful Toni Morrison was quoted on Instagram yesterday, “This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.”
And that, Beloved, is exactly what is at stake: civilization. Continuing to deny, ignore, and dismiss the inherent racism in anything, any industry, any microcosm, at this point, is a toxic invitation to continued disease and death.
Jelani Alladin is an actor who recently played the title role in “Hercules.” He asks, “How do we start again? How do we right this wrong? We come to the table with demands. And for me, it’s about three words: communication, collaboration and care.”
His call for communication is above. His call for collaboration and more opportunity for BIPOC is necessary, and his call for care is simply heart-breaking.
“Lastly, I would love to see more care. That may sound simple and trite, but it’s a basic human decency often passed over. I need you to take care in the way you choose to speak to me. I need you to take care in the construction of the sentences you choose to say to me.
“I also need you to take care in your actions. That can be as simple as greeting me when you see me for the first time that day; or not as simple as considering for yourself, if asking a black man to steal an item onstage from a store is really pushing forward the appropriate narrative, before handing me this new addition to the story. … More care.”
Basic human decency is what he’s talking about.
“An Eyesore Becomes An Icon” brought me hope for the transformation of the theatre in all its costumes, makeup, and lights. “WASHINGTON — In its brief life, the black chain-link fence surrounding the White House has gone from reviled to beloved to something of a capital landmark, however temporary. As with so much in America these days, perspectives change fast.”
Fences have two purposes: to keep things is, and to keep things out.
“[Adele] McClure, of Arlington, Va., said her perspective had shifted rapidly about the fence. ‘At first I thought it was messed up,’ she said. It was a sign of a leader who was isolating himself behind a fortress. But she now views the structure — which was installed to protect the White House from people demonstrating against the killing caught on video of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, in police custody — as a symbol of hope, beauty and ‘people coming together to transcend walls.’”
There has been an artificial but very real division in the theatre, really, since its inception. Yes, I mean you, Aeschylus, and you, Sophocles. We stand at the edge of the stage, theatremakers. The footlights are up. So are the house lights. We get to look at how each one of us has contributed to the racism endemic in our artform.
Mr. Alladin finishes, “Each person’s experience with the systematic racism of the Great White Way is unique. They are all valid. They must all be communicated, in hopes of successful and inclusive collaboration led with care.
“It is possible.”
I agree with him. It is possible. It must be. We would not be standing at this threshold, listening, bearing witness, if it were not. The theatre is always a part of the healing of civilization. It has been since the dawn of time, and it will remain so, as we remain true to the Spirit of Truth which animates every line, every scene, every act.
Dr. Susan Corso is a metaphysician and medical intuitive with a private counseling practice for more than 35 years. She has written too many books to list here. Her website is www.susancorso.com
© Dr. Susan Corso 2020 All rights reserved.