"How do institutions and artists negotiate between sincere attempts at 'bridge-building' and creating productive 'multicultural' explorations without falling into the potential traps of audience pandering or cliché?"
This Burden Called My Queer Black Theatre?
The nation's largest black theater, Penumbra Theatre in Minneapolis, in difficult financial straits. Latinos at odds with TheaterWorks' color blind production of Stephen Adly Guirgis’ unequivocally color conscious play The Motherfucker With the Hat. Asian American Performers Action Coalition armed with empirical data and in full Saul Alinsky organizing mode in efforts to compel centers of influence – on and off Broadway -- to listen and to change.
It would seem these days that to be of, for, and by identity theater, brings with it a host of burdens that our white, heterosexual, economically privileged and all of the above peers just don't have to be bothered with. In the circles that I travel in, I could make what I like to call the "separate and burdened" case 'til the cows come home without one peep of disagreement. Colleagues and friends around the cafe table and on my Facebook page would certainly nod and like -- as any reasonable citizen of our industry might. But it is in reflecting back on amen corner scenes like these that I ask: are we more than the sum of our burdens?
Recently Leviathan Lab, an emergent NYC based Asian American theater company preparing to enter into season selection processes, invited me to come in and consult with them about season selection models out there in the field. It was quite a learning experience for me to work with them and I am so thankful for organizations like Leviathan Lab – led by stage director Nelson Eusebio -- that give actors opportunities to put their dramaturgical hats on. (Talk about underused national resource people!) In the middle of that conversation, the following question sparked further meaningful inquiry: What is an identity specific theater's responsibility to produce work created and written by said identity?
Though the debates around representation at Freedom Train, an identity focused theater I founded in 2006 to expose audiences to black queer stories and theater makers, involve different specifics the questions at Leviathan Lab were not dissimilar to the ones with which Freedom Train regularly wrestles: If we are not advocates for voices from our community then who will be? How far actually are we taking this identity thing anyway? Must the playwright, stage manager and wide eyed intern all be, to borrow a culturally specific term, "family"? Does black come before queer or does queer come before black!? I mean seriously folks, no stone is left unturned.
This summer at Theatre Communications Groups' national conference in Boston, TCG Young Leader of Color Alfred Heartley, a brilliant Chicago based producer and dramaturg fresh off an artistic fellowship at Steppenwolf, shared this in one of the conference’s final breakout sessions, "Change is not necessarily for you, it is for the people who come after you." You just gotta love you some Al who in true dramaturg form succinctly reflected back the opinion nascent in the room. My take away from what Al said was that, yes, we've got problems to face up to and discrepancies to tackle that exist between our field's values and its actions. Yes, we must simultaneously participate in that work (often times by leading them) as we also make work with peers and hopefully add something new to the form and something different to the discourse. But is it just a burden though? Can our position also be seen as a… privilege? Personally whenever I see old footage of African American director Lloyd Richards reflecting back on the A Raisin in the Sun try out tour or when history comes for a visit and shows off the past heroism of her brave children of the 1960s, I lean in. I get jealous in that I wish I could have been there kind of way. You know… fighting the fight, modeling the movement, and teaching through theater. But that was then; what about the role we can play today?
I certainly don't think I have all the answers folks, and honestly some days the burdens are too much to bear and I feel as if I could easily chose a title which would not include a question mark.
Coming up for me is a speaking gig at Pratt University put on by Live Out Loud whose mission is to inspire and empower LGBT youth by connecting them with successful LGBT professionals in their community. I and several others will speak before an audience of college students about our experiences coming out and how we negotiate coming out with our careers. It goes unsaid but really needs to be said: to be young queer and living in these times is still a mark -- no matter how hard the neo-con gay marriage movement tries to put an acceptably nice middle class sheen on the gays. These kids at Pratt know better. I am beginning to outline my remarks and one question that's been front in center so far is one that is also front and center in this post: How do I share the privileges of being an out queer African American theater producer without seeming tone deaf to the realities that exist?