Do not be deceived into thinking otherwise: The summer of 2020 will go down in history as a once-in-a-generation uprising against the police brutalization of people of Black descent in the United States. Fueled by the video-capture of the nonchalant murder of 46-year-old George Floyd after Minneapolis Police Department officer Derek Chauvin knelt on the victim’s neck for eight minutes as three other officers sporting a thousand-yard stare looked on, a siege of ongoing protests and civil unrest sparked and raged—and continues to rage—across the nation.
Following Floyd’s death, the identities of several martyrs began trending on social media: Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old African-American emergency medical technician in Louisville, and Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old African-American man in Georgia’s Glynn County, among them. Both cases prompted dialogues around racial inequality and racial profiling, as well as anti-Blackness and the value of Black life in the US and abroad, with Black Lives Matter leading the charge. Ultimately, the demands for justice by Black Lives Matter began to trickle into conversations surrounding workplace discrimination as well as a lack of representation and equal opportunity in myriad industries.
Theatre is one of those industries.
For better or worse, longstanding American theatrical institutions with problematic histories began virtue-signaling and woke-washing, re-branding their websites and social media accounts with resources to fight against systemic racism. The reaction incited a political storm, provoking artists who identify as Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) to share their own experiences. The despair birthed platforms such as the We See You White American Theater movement, which produced a 31-page document of demands written on behalf of BIPOC theatre-makers taking issues with companies and individuals seeking to profit from the culture war. That document addresses “the necessary redistribution of power and funding.”
Enter NEW Black Mutual Aid.
The brainchild of activist Nzinga Williams, NEW Black Mutual Aid Fund (NBMA) strives “to create the safety net and financial support for Black Theater Professionals through a time of revolution and pandemic,” per the Google doc Williams created where Black theatre folx can privately request funds.1 Those funds support everything from protest supplies, bail, and lawyer fees (for protesters) to dinner, rent support, plant care, and more.
Williams, who earns a living as Company Manager at Atlantic Theater Company, says the project was birthed between March and May—the beginning of quarantine, when she also tested positive for COVID-19.
“I started getting better right around the time that George Floyd was murdered,” Williams said, noting that many of her friends and loved ones took to the street, risking their health at the price of justice.
“I wanted to create a support system for us. For the Black people on and off stage that give themselves tirelessly to tell stories. We needed a safety net. They needed to feel like they could go out and protest and someone was going to have their backs. These often incredibly empathic and creative folx who have been mined for their talents (on and off stage) over and over again deserved that support system. Wealth, access, and resources are so often influenced by race and gender. I spent a lot of time thinking about how to affect change on a microlevel in our community.”
Joining the anti-racist groundswell in the American theatre, Williams said the times felt especially fraught being both an Aquarius (the humanitarian of the Zodiac chart) and a Black woman, expressing that it is difficult to ask for help when you need it, as Black women are taught from an early age to persevere and take care of others at the expense of themselves.
“NBMA is about redistributing wealth in order to put it into Black theater folx,” Williams shared. “Funds aren’t allocated for anything specific; people are allowed to request multiple weeks in a row. It is a first-come, first-serve model. We are here to help create just a little extra help, no matter what that looks like, for our community.”
Money comes into the NBMA, and then money goes out—usually via CashApp or Venmo. Those who are able to give, and then those who are in need request. From there, Williams gets to work in fielding the Google docs and their requests.
She noted NBMA is for all Black theater professionals, regardless of gender expression and outright need, illuminating the fact that most theater professions, including Williams, are out of work until at least January 2021, when theaters can reopen.
“This is true for people from all walks of life in theater, but unfortunately due to the systemic racism that is prevalent in both our industry and government, this is adversely impacting Black theatre-makers more,” Williams said. “There are people like me who do not have the option to move ‘home’ but also cannot afford to pay rent without a job. If NBMA can help with groceries one week or transportation to and from protests, maybe even a bit towards rent, we can keep Black theater artists alive. And truly in this climate, staying alive is an act of radical resistance.”
Williams stated none of the work would be possible were it not for her particular administrative and stage managerial experience built up over time from working in nonprofits, which has single-handedly produced the fruits of her labor. She elucidated that her knowledge of surveys and spreadsheets have kept things organized, while her ability to manage people has helped her be transparent and manage expectations. She also noted that her networking skills and inventory of close friends helped, especially in enlisting financial advisors for the fund, creating an LLC, and crafting a logo.
The hard work paid off. Not only has the fund seen strong online traffic (check out the buzzing Instagram account @newblackmutualaid), but Williams has also been tapped by industry leaders to participate in events like the inaugural Antonyo Awards, created by Andrew Shade of Broadway Black.
Presenting lighting and scenic design prizes with friend and stage manager Cody Renard Richard, Williams said she had an amazing time participating, despite her nerves—Williams usually prefers to work behind the scenes.
“I do not have a ring light so my cellphone was balancing on my windowsill in order to get the best light, and we had to hold multiple times when my downstairs neighbor decided to blast the newest Bad Bunny album, which is fire by the way,” she laughed. “Watching all my amazing friends and family was an added bonus. There was so much Black theatre joy on Juneteenth this year and it really filled my soul.”
Although a lot of positivity has come out of her efforts, Williams is highly aware that she is only at the tip of the iceberg with regards to fighting police brutality and creating pathways toward justice. With the recent loss of civil rights icons John Lewis and C. T. Vivian, Black liberation has become imperative for emerging BIPOC activists like Williams who believe the nation is in the midst of a revolution.
“In a revolution, it is necessary to have several lanes. No revolution was ever won by one means of protest,” Williams said. “Being in the streets is necessary to get people’s attention. It is necessary for creating community. It is necessary for keeping pressure on systems and individual people. That is the power of protest.”
“We need people talking about political reform and driving that as much as we need the people physically sitting in in Louisville and taking to the streets in Portland, New York, Seattle, et cetera,” she added. “Anti-Blackness and racism are pervasive. It has subtly stained so many factions of our life. I believe we need to fight it everywhere we can.”
If you are interested and want to know more or get involved, Nzinga Williams would like you to follow these accounts, to name a few: @Justiceforgeorgenyc, @Warriorsinthegarden, and @Untilfreedom.