The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2020

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JUL-AUG 2020 Issue

Theater Must Hold

On June 29, the Broadway League announced that it will hire an outside company to “survey diversity in all aspects of the industry,” the latest in a multifaceted and ongoing response by the theater industry to the calls for BIPOC allyship, sparked by the May 25 murder of George Floyd.

It is a convenient time to turn inward: on the same day, the League announced that Broadway houses will remain dark through the end of the calendar year, the longest closure extension since playhouses cancelled performances on March 12. As smaller theater organizations have looked to Broadway as a litmus for New York’s theatrical actions in the past, it feels all but certain that this announcement will serve as a roadmap to theater reopenings across the city.

But we are a long way from a return to the theater landscape we deserve. Theater faces a long-overdue reckoning with the systems of oppression it has upheld in its institutions, its management, and its programming for generations. In light of the singular opportunity for pause that the pandemic has offered us, I propose we abandon our vision of reopening altogether: until antiracist measures and practices that actively dismantle traditions of white supremacy are implemented within theater spaces and companies, theater has no business reopening. To truly demonstrate solidarity, theater must be put on hold.

What does a Theater Hold look like in lockdown? No different, I suspect, on the outside—but institutions that have vowed solidarity with their BIPOC communities should prioritize rising to that commitment ahead of making plans to reopen.

And what does a Theater Hold mean after lockdown? It means that, unless a theater institution or organization can demonstrate a sustained practice of that commitment—that means putting people of color in positions of leadership, that means programming that does not subject artists to being diversity tokens, and that means moving on from individuals that refuse to support this change—it does not reopen.

What right do I have to demand of my industry that it remain offline until we fix its equity problems? As a playwright, performer, and arts facilitator, I am yearning for the day theater returns; literally dreaming of the moment that COVID-19-induced professional and financial uncertainties are worries of the past. I have had countless heartbreaking conversations with friends—friends who, like me, entered the professional phase of their arts careers on the dismal crest of the 2008 recession—about theater’s essentiality, exploring the hypothetical sacrilege of quitting theater altogether. My adult life has been crafted on the assumption that theater will triumph, against all odds, long into the future. Be certain that I do not want the industry to stall any longer than it must; be certain that, beyond my own feelings, I recognize the disastrous toll this shutdown has had on the spirit and livelihoods of members of my community. If we are out of work much longer—and many of us will be—that cursed hypothetical could become a collective doomed reality.

But, as the last several months have made clear, there is another doom that looms for us—for me, as a Black playwright, performer, and arts facilitator, and for you, whomever you are—if life as we know it returns once the threat of COVID-19 is tempered. Returning to the status quo guarantees that racism and white supremacy will continue to pervade every facet of each of our lives.

The pandemic has revealed the depth of the racial inequity in our country. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that COVID-19 disproportionately affects people of color, across age groups, nationally. These individuals are our nurses, our supermarket cashiers, our Lyft drivers, our USPS carriers, our factory workers; individuals whose lives have been caught in the intersection between the virus and the safety of the so-called WFH class.

It feels impossible to not consider the lives of these individuals with every pet food order and every grocery run. Yet these reports, first issued in early May, seemed to precipitate an inverse response—protests against quarantine—from certain regions of the United States. In the weeks before George Floyd’s murder, I found myself on the phone, furious, with friends, Black and non-Black: “Is it just me, or do you feel that these ‘lockdown protests’ only started after the news reported that more Black folks were dying from the disease?” Like so many other national identity crises (see kneeling during the national anthem; see the removal of statues depicting confederate leaders) the call for liberation from lockdown smacks of willful disregard for the lives and safety of individuals of color.

But for those not equating mask-wearing to the abandonment of their constitutional freedoms, the mission of abolishing white supremacy has taken center stage. Allies— furloughed, unemployed, and more in touch with their empathy thanks to a season of global crisis—at long last took this mission to heart and took to the streets. The marches that began after Mr. Floyd’s murder surged in June and continue today, lifting Black Lives Matter as the largest social movement in American history.

Social media is in no uncertain terms responsible for the visibility of the current moment, enabling celebrities, brands, corporations, and arts institutions to broadcast their support of BLM. By the time the #OpenYourLobby initiative (which called on COVID-shuttered theaters to open their ground-floor spaces to protestors) was launched in early June, countless statements of solidarity had flooded subscriber inboxes and social media feeds. “We see you.” “We hear you.” “Black Lives Matter.” In the viral era, this seemed like the natural progression of public-facing response.

As well-meaning as these public declarations of support may have been, many members of the Black theater community feel they were too little, too late after generations of industry-wide indifference. As theater managers Kelvin Dinkins, Jr. and Al Heartley write in a June 11 opinion piece posted to, “We were not waiting on statements. We were—and still are—waiting on proof.” In the case of the TriBeCa-based Flea Theater, the community of “The Bats” (the Flea’s resident company of emerging actors) have brought their call to action home, addressing the “intimidation, disrespect, abuse, or in some cases, deliberate acts of sabotage and retaliation masked as punishment for non-compliance” against its Black artists. (This open letter followed actor/singer/producer and former Bat Bryn Carter’s public response to an initial solidarity post on The Flea’s Instagram account.) A follow-up post on the company’s feed vows to “seek and implement the recommendations of [their] community members,” and states that they will “pause for as long as it takes to align [their] development and producing model with [their] values.”

Pause—hold—for as long as it takes.

As a society, we are unfamiliar with how to navigate the dismantling of white supremacy. We are undereducated on the trauma of racism. Rescuing theater from systemic oppression calls for an admission that every member of our community is implicated in the toxic effects of white supremacy, that every member of our community has a responsibility to envision and enact a new structure of theater. As Audre Lorde wrote: “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Saving theater from systemic racism calls for an imagination beyond the realm of what we have been told is possible.

Fortunately, we are theatermakers, storytellers, worldbuilders. And fortunately, the support is here among us, to hold each other and our institutions accountable. Producer Marie Cisco launched a public Google Sheet titled Theatres Not Speaking Out (TSNO) which invited the community to “add names to this document who have not made a statement against injustices toward black people.” The document went live on May 30 and presently includes nearly 500 venues. An open letter, Dear White American Theater, was collaboratively written and released by over 300 BIPOC artists on June 8. Within 24 hours, the letter, which demanded “substantive change” in American Theater, had received over 50,000 signatures. (At press time, a 31-page follow-up "living document" - an "omnibus declaration of interlinked strategies, comprehensive but by no means exhaustive," had just been published; consider making it the very next thing you read.)

Theatermakers are also expert listeners. In mid-June, the Broadway Advocacy Coalition hosted a three-day virtual forum, Broadway for Black Lives Matter Again (the original BWAY4BLM took place in August 2016, a little less than a month after the back-to-back slayings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castille by police). The event, which presented panels of Black actors, directors, facilitators, producers, and artistic directors, offered testimonials and proposed equitable practices for the industry. A.R.T./New York hosted a Healing Circles for Racial Trauma and Allyship series which facilitated virtual community spaces for Black, non-Black POC, and White theatremakers. On July 10, Black Theatre Girl Magic and The Joy-Jackson Initiative are cohosting a virtual Town Hall to address equity in the arts for Black, Indigenous, and non-Black People of Color.

These are the types of initiatives that must continue so that the grievances and hopes of the community can be spoken and laid bare before industry powers. These initiatives take time. But we have time, here and now.

My dream is that this type of inclusionary action will extend its focus to all marginalized members of our community so that we can rebuild our industry with our mutual health and talents in mind. Theatre has everything it needs to reinvent itself. If we all want the industry to change, let’s make sure it has no other choice.


Elinor T Vanderburg

is a African American writer, performer, designer, and voiceover artist born in Washington, D.C. She is a Co-Creative Director with Fresh Ground Pepper, a writer-in-residence with Exquisite Corpse Company, the Art Director of SheNYC, and one half of the illusory theater company, underlords. Elinor lives and works in Bushwick, Brooklyn, with her partner Drew. / @raisehelinor


The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2020

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