theater

Building Trust After Inclusivity Failed: Lessons for the Theater

Photo: We See You White American Theater

The theater is an iceberg. An audience only ever sees the one surface facet; we sense but do not see the laboring hulk just beneath. And theater organizations are icebergs too. Below each public-facing performance, there’s a gigantic mass of administration and funding and marketing and programming. That hidden part, down in the cold water, can be difficult to grasp, let alone call to account.

Not anymore. In less than two days, over 63,000 people have signed a change.org petition called “demand change for BIPOC theatremakers,” asserting the rights and anger of black and indigenous people and those of color in an industry that has often talked about inclusion while failing to meaningfully diversify. The petition’s attached statement is a ringing condemnation of producers, critics, unions, marketers, development departments, everyone in “this house of cards built on white fragility and supremacy.” After the huge collective actions in the streets protesting police brutality and anti-blackness in civil society, the field has turned, inevitably, to cast the beam out of its own eye.

Or, rather, it wasn’t the protests that prompted this sudden public accounting. It was the institutional response to the protests. Theatermakers tune their ears for the false note, and expressions of solidarity with BLM from several major establishment venues either came tardily or struck some listeners as unconvincing. How has, say, Lincoln Center Theater stood behind the principles espoused by Black Lives Matter, beyond its beautifully worded statement? On the one hand, it has featured important black writers on its Off Broadway stages the Mitzi Newhouse and the Claire Tow—Lynn Nottage’s Intimate Apparel opera will open when the pandemic passes, and Dominique Morisseau’s Pipeline, Antoinette Nwandu’s Pass Over, and Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Marys Seacole all found a home there. LCT certainly boasts a diverse list of resident writers. But its top artistic staff is and has always been entirely white. And the Vivian Beaumont, LCT’s premier Broadway theater, last programmed a black playwright in … 1987. (That was Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman. Apart from a one-man show by Brian Stokes Mitchell and a blues revue, there has never been a black American playwright’s work on that particular stage since LCT’s launch in 1985.)

LCT isn’t, of course, the only place like that. Large theaters all over New York are being called out by their stakeholders — galas have been canceled, all-staff Zoom meetings have been arranged. Being a “major Establishment venue,” of course, is deeply intertwined with whiteness. Whiteness pervades legacy leadership (often handed from artistic director to protégé), commercial producers and nonprofit boards (filled with the wealthy), criticism (attention is never neutral), audience (particularly in the subscriber model), and civic priorities — Robert Moses cleared the way for Lincoln Center by razing a black neighborhood. There is a web of racialized power structures in theater, and as a white critic, I know I’m part of it.

So what can the field not just learn but do? Given the years of promise-making and promise-breaking, where are the paths forward? There clearly needs to be restructuring. Suddenly, after decades of inaction, theaters are casting around for models they can imitate.

First, there must be a true accounting. Jelani Alladin — who played Kristoff in Frozen on Broadway and Hercules in Central Park — has publicly spoken about the pain of white silence during the protests. He goes further: “You wonder why black people or people of color have so many underlying conditions? Because we have been forced for so long to swallow pain,” he says. “I’ve been spoken to in ways, I’ve simply been looked at … or someone has talked about me behind my back, and it’s gotten back to me. That happened at Frozen! I swallowed the pain and showed up the next day and said ‘Good morning, How are you?’ to that person. I just swallowed it.”

But Alladin has also thought deeply about what, after years of lip service to inclusion efforts, could actually be done to either reform or, better yet, revolutionize the industry. He thinks that first there should be a deep communal apology and confession and then a root-and-branch reaccounting of how each organization functions. “Nobody is saying ‘get rid of all the white people in theater,’” he says. “Unlike them, blacks, indigenous, and other persons of color don’t choose to eradicate or murder anyone. But what we are suggesting is a true partnership, an accountability, a lifelong promise to share.”

In New York, you can almost hear the engines groaning as theaters pivot from strategizing around the pandemic to a crisis of identity and accountability. The nonprofit theater tends to believe it occupies high moral ground — certainly our pleas to funders and the Feds over the last several months have been predicated on communality, truth, and inclusivity. The performer-playwright Daniel Alexander Jones is a little wry about it. Plenty of theaters aren’t having this particular crisis, he points out. “My allegiance has been to people of color and queer institutions,” he says. “I represent a lineage of artists who sought that kind of sovereignty.” You notice how theaters like Penumbra Theatre in Minneapolis or the National Black Theatre in Harlem aren’t panicking like the white-led ones are? W.E.B. Du Bois called for a black theater that was “by us, for us, about us, near us.” You can always, Jones says, support the organizations that are already doing the work.

But he does think there’s a way for historically white-led theaters to hew closer to their ideals. “What I’m seeing now is a kind of delicious skepticism of invitation from predominantly white institutions,” Jones says, noting that there’s been a long period of gatekeepers raising up single artists of color as a “genius” without ever changing their organization’s racial makeup. There has been, in the past week, a sudden attempt to build bridges, but now “there’s a different kind of negotiation happening, and [they] understand that the price of that ticket is a high one.” Jones encourages us to look for those theaters where the lobby is a meeting place, not a gate. “What’s happening right now in New York is a reckoning — theaters are being faced with a mirror about exactly what it is that they believe this art form is supposed to be doing in relation to civic life,” Jones says.

So how do you reestablish trust that has been so profoundly broken? Just as Alladin does, Jones proposes a “kind of ceremony, a renaming, a reframing, a really sacred reimagining of the kinds of engagements that we can have. No, it is not our work to do y’all’s work, and we don’t have trust, but we still have to move forward.” We can bury the old ways, he says, and use ceremony to “hold space until new action and the duration of those new actions create the ground where we build a new kind of trust.” When I think of recent plays like Drury’s Fairview and James Ijames’s TJ Loves Sally 4 Ever and Aleshea Harris’s What to Send Up When It Goes Down, there is an element of shared ceremony at the heart of each of them — either in the way the audience is asked or invited to cross over a portal into the black-defined world onstage (Fairview and TJ), or in the way Harris creates a healing circle for nonwhite love, what Jones calls “radical self-regard.” If a ritual is needed, then at least ritual is right in black theater-makers’ wheelhouse.

If the “do a panel, program a show, add an equity, diversity, and inclusion coordinator” format isn’t working, where can New York theaters look for a model that does? It’s galling to see how the regional theaters outstrip the New York theaters of similar size in diversifying their artistic directorships. You get above a $5 million budget in New York, and the artistic-directorship diversity number plummets to — if my GuideStar searches are correct — zero. But at least the regions can show one way to change. Anti-racist leadership has been under way in some of these theaters for years: For instance, Stephanie Ybarra, the head of Baltimore Center Stage (and onetime director of special projects at the Public Theater), has made it a central tenet of her artistic directorship. (She succeeded Kwame Kwei-Armah, who set the anti-oppression labor very much in motion.)

Ybarra committed herself to anti-racism in 2017. After the election, she and Roberta Pereira (of the Playwrights Realm) took “Undoing Racism” training through the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, and “it was like unplugging from the Matrix,” she says. “You can’t unsee it, and your reality is never the same.” The two women, with David Roberts (formerly of the Stage Directors and Choreographers Foundation) and Sol Project founder Jacob Padrón (now the artistic director at Long Wharf), formed the Artists’ Anti-Racism Coalition. They too were focused on theaters not living up to their stated ideals: They collected data on the predominance of white work in theaters that claimed to be developing artists of color and then they handed that information both to the institutions and to their philanthropic funders. “And it’s not just about representation onstage,” she says. “It is about economic power. Who has the jobs?”

Ybarra and I spoke about organizing’s hidden pitfalls: Hierarchy concentrates power, which turns out to be very difficult to give up. In Baltimore, the anti-oppression staff group is decentralized because “subverting the hierarchical structure and encouraging staff to self-organize in this work creates shared accountability,” Ybarra says. And when it comes to the question of artistic directorship itself, Ybarra is conscious of its perils, no matter how careful the AD might be. “Centralized power is a form of white supremacy,” she says — and yet the scarcity of top jobs (in all under-resourced fields) leads to narrowing and fear. Few in New York ever willingly surrender a crown; we see very little of the healthy turnover that happens outside of the city. She refers to her work at the Public, “where Oskar [Eustis] has built out the artistic programming and staffing” as a way to devolve the terrible power of that sort of position. “Hierarchy reaffirms a supremacist state. And while I never doubted who was the boss of the Public Theater while I worked there,” she says, “that structure of having multiple program directors driving their own curatorial processes is one of the closest structures I’ve seen to a major institution with some element of decentralization operating inside of it.” (She recommends Adrienne Maree Brown’s Emergent Strategy, in which Brown, inspired by Octavia Butler’s writing, proposes adaptive, collective strategies for resistance and survival.)

And this is the kernel of all anti-racism work: reallocating power. In commercial contexts, it’s difficult to imagine the kind of surrender that came up in every conversation I had. How, exactly, would that work in for-profit Broadway? But in the nonprofit sector, it does happen. The small but mighty Off–Off Broadway space JACK was Alec Duffy’s baby, but after theatrical programming in response to Eric Garner’s 2014 murder and then Michael Brown’s death the following month, he realized that having a white male in the chief position was deeply problematic. So the theater applied for a grant for a co-director; Jordana De La Cruz and he are now co–artistic directors. The proof is there. There is a way for white leaders to dethrone themselves and grow in power — since true power flows from living your values.

Learning and unlearning in public can be embarrassing and painful. “This work requires thick skin,” says Ybarra, “and deep humility. When somebody comes and tells you ‘This is a problem,’ or ‘What you said is problematic,’ it is one of the hardest things to understand — but you can receive that as a gift, like, ‘Oh, somebody just turned on a light.’” More and more people do at least seem to be seeing that light. De La Cruz described white protesters rallying around black ones, protecting them from the police, keeping them both spiritually and physically at the rally’s center. At past protests, she remembers needing to ask for that protection; now, white allies do it as a matter of course. The vocabulary of the anti-racism movement is spreading too — and change follows language. “I don’t feel alone in using the language of anti-racism and anti-oppression and white supremacy anymore,” says Ybarra.

And in a pandemic-struck sector, in which almost all theater people are reeling from realizing their work is “inessential,” JACK and its board have the capacity to simply pivot to providing what is essential. In March, De La Cruz and Duffy turned the keys over to a mutual-aid organization that needed a space for food distribution. It cannot be a coincidence that flexibility in structure has led to resilience in mission. And even the aesthetic mission has been recharged. De La Cruz compares where she is on June 3 with where she was two weeks prior: “Many of us had to grapple with our life’s purpose — when theater is considered nonessential, that shook me to my core,” she says. “But the difference between a month ago versus now is that I realized, at the end of the day, there will be stories that need to be told about this.

And if anyone’s still worried that theater doesn’t have a place in the revolution, she has an answer. The last show she directed was TJ Loves Sally 4 Ever, which closed at JACK on February 29. At the end of that play, the actors show us an archway onstage (they break apart a wall to reveal it) and tell us that there’s a heavenly future on the other side. But to enter, each audience member must choose to deliberately enter a paradise that is equal for all. “I’m so grateful that’s the last show I worked on,” she says. “The message of that show is about collective freedom and liberation. It’s your choice to move to the future. People of color are not stopping you; they aren’t the ones saying you can or can’t join us. It’s up to you.” Art can be our silent companion, the accompanying thought as we move through the world. And so as De La Cruz has been protesting as much as she feels physically able, the message of the play “has been in my body. It’s allowed me to be more active on the streets. People showing up is giving me the strength to keep moving on.” The play and the protests are one and the same, she says. “We don’t move to the future in pieces.”