"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?"
In 2009 it was my very first TCG conference. The days leading up to it I’d been a part of a workshop series developed specifically for Young Leaders of Color. We left each session buried deep in conversation. A group of varied tones in both skin and voice, we hurried down stormy streets. At each event we’d arrive soaked and hoarse voiced from the excitement of finding both like-minded and exacting peers. For every agreement there were two doubly fierce challenges. Being one of the new voices in this two year-old program I was giddy at the thought of having these conversations with the national theatre community in the coming days.
Now I don't consider myself naive to race. My father was a Black Panther and mother a white suburbanite whose grandfather brought Piggly Wiggly to the Midwest. I was raised by the merging of cultural groups. I was surprised, however, by the repetitive statement I heard cross from room to room. In spaces filled with our nations theatrical leaders I heard the same question:
“I don’t understand, we do the Black play, and then the black audiences don’t stay. What are we suppose to do?”
What stands out to you about this comment? Answer for yourself before reading ahead, because your reaction to it matters in our conversation. Don’t rush yourself. Get real honest here. Do you agree with it? Can you understand the perspective? Are there words you would change to better fit your opinion? Maybe the concept is familiar? Does it put you off? Does it send you running for a soapbox? Does it make you mad?
Okay. Ready for my reaction? First of all, “The Black play…”? This creates an automatic and unnecessary separation between you and an audience you say you are interested in cultivating. If you believe you are doing a group a favor by producing work that represents its voice then you are claiming superiority. We all gain from the shared experience of theatre, whether it is the exact story of our lives of one that took place across the world from us. Theatre is a window to understanding. Doing a play outside of your cultural norm benefits you. It is not a favor. Secondly, why would an audience stay when you have not made room it? Third, “What are we suppose to do?” I’m glad you asked, because this is a very important question and I have set out in the years that followed to answer it.
So, I’m an action step kind of girl. I believe the time for rhetoric has passed so let’s take a close look at people who have addressed this question are achieving success.
At the 2011 Theatre of the Oppressed Conference, I had the great pleasure of hearing Omi Osun Joni L. Jones Ph.D. present about allyship. She spoke about the importance of allies, identifying our own privilege, and how to apply these ideas to organizations. Dr. Jones is an Associate Professor of Theatre and Dance and of African Diaspora Studies at The University of Texas at Austin.
She broke the “What are we suppose to do?” question down into 6 Rules for Allies. Below I have given a shortened version of these six rules, but I have also included a link where she goes into more depth on each. The first thing you can do is read the full explanation of the rules with your organization and have an open conversation about your reactions to them.
6 Rules for Allies
- Allies know that it is not sufficient to be liberal.
- Be loud and crazy so Black folks won’t have to be. Speak up! Say it! Name it!
- Do not tell anyone in any Oppressed group to be patient.
- Recognize the new racism, the new sexism, and the old homophobia.
- When called out about your racism, sexism and homophobia, don’t cower in embarrassment, don’t cry, and don’t silently think “she’s crazy” and vow never to interact with her again.
- Allies actively support alternative possibilities.
Now, you may be saying, that is lovely Khanisha, but we are a theatre not a University. How do we apply these things to specific productions? I’m glad you asked that too. You don’t. At least you don’t solely apply them to productions. You cannot truly give voice to change by hiring a few actors of color for one production every couple of years. If you are honestly interested in inclusion and diversity then a systemic change is in order. A theatre has to be dedicated on every level.
Now, I may have just caused a flood of fear, anxiety, and feelings of impossibility in you, but never fear, I have brought you a working model that is already in place! Yes ladies and gentlemen, let’s take a look at a dedicated process.
I had the honor to present a panel called Allies Eliminating Racism in Theatre with the ground breaking Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) at the 2012 TCG Conference. OSF has spent the past several years dedicating themselves to diversity and inclusion. They have been working with Carmen Morgan the Director of Leadership Development in Interethnic Relations. Carmen and the leadership of OSF including Paul Nicholson, Freda Casillas, Sharifa Johka and many others have created a Manifesto dedicated to diversity that is to be applied on every level of their organization.
I would encourage you to reach out to OSF and ask for a copy of this manifesto. It’s good, really good. Then I would hope you would read it out loud as an organization as well and embrace the discussion that follows. After 4 years, OSF have not only seen documented changes in their staff, on their stage, and in their audience, they have also seen a shift in the demographic of people who live around the theatre, pretty incredible. Here we have a theatre that defines itself on classical works, it is placed in a predominantly white demographic, and it’s audience has lacked diversity and yet they made a commitment to diversity and inclusion on every level of the organization. It takes away excuses for the rest of us.
After our session at TCG, we made a list of the top 5 things theaters can do to make a change:
5 things you can do:
- Create a document/toolkit for your organization that can be pulled out and referred to. This will ensure that issues are dealt with on every level and not swept under the rug.
- You must have full buy in from leadership. If this is difficult in your organization feel free to anonymously send them the copy of OSF’s manifesto.
- Ally. Be one find one.
- Realize your own privilege and don’t be afraid to name the problem.
- Make structural and institutional changes. Do not just espouse ideas.
So, you have a lot to start with here, but it’s all missing two elements that I consider to be the most important when exploring multicultural work, joy and curiosity. As a multicultural woman I have been blessed with the ability to be a listener in different rooms. I have heard the similarities, the judgments, the opposition, the rhythms, the laughter with a child’s unbiased ears. There is so much we can learn from each other if we can shelve our fears and learn to revel in curiosity, learn to listen for joy.