Of the theater companies that went through an internal reckoning in the last 19 months, the Flea Theater has had some of the most public turmoil. Last June, after a former member of its acting company called out the institution for its hypocrisy in supporting the Black Lives Matter movement while perpetrating exclusionary labor practices, the Off–Off Broadway theater promised to start paying its resident non-Equity company. Then, in December, the theater suddenly announced plans to close its resident artist programs in order to remake itself. As Vulture reported last year, that drew ire from many formerly Flea-affiliated artists who were skeptical of the board’s intent, and the organization seemed to be on the verge of imploding.
Now the Flea has emerged to present a metamorphosed version of itself. In a statement, the theater said that its board has endorsed a new mission, with a focus on “investing in experimental work by Black, brown, and queer folks” and “providing space, financial support, and producing partnership so the artistic companies may develop and share their vision in community with audiences.” “We have been evolving our work over the past several months, digging deep into our identity and listening to community members. And today, we are happy to be unveiling our new direction as a transformational moment in our history,” Niegel Smith, a playwright who is the Flea’s artistic director, said.
The theater has also brought in five new board members — with Nona Hendryx, chair during its shutdown, as its new co-chair — and announced a partnership with the Fled Collective, the group of former resident artists who publicly criticized the theater last year, demanding that it “hand over the keys.” They will become what it’s calling a Key Resident Company, with a three-year program that will have them present work and receive $10,000 in cash support, $50,000 space rental credits, and other forms of development support.
“The Collective is interested in finding solutions that offer alternatives to cancel culture and instead lean on restorative justice principles that may create lasting change,” Dolores Avery Pereira, an actor and community leader of The Fled, said. “That is not to say we are ignorant to the fact that all wounds have not been healed. Acknowledging that is what keeps us in the room. Rather than putting our differences aside, we’ve put them on the table and intend to work through the hurt with empathy as our guide.” The Flea is also offering residencies to other organizations, starting with Emerge 125, a Black woman–led modern dance troupe.
The Flea is planning a 2022 season based around its new mission statement; early in the year, it will present Arden: A Ritual for Love and Liberation, a large-scale theatrical experience that “centers a plurality of voices” based on As You Like It’s forest of Arden. From June 13 through June 19, The Flea will also host a week of public art with four personal reflections on Juneteenth by the artists Imani Uzuri, Chanon Judson, James Scruggs, and Niegel Smith.