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The Ambassadors Defining Culture

The JUBILEE is a yearlong, nationwide initiative where theatres across the United States are asked to produce full seasons of work generated by people who have traditionally been excluded from the field—including, but not limited to, artists of color; Native American, Indigenous, and First Nations artists; women; non-binary and gender nonconforming artists; LGBTQIA2+ artists; Deaf artists; and artists with disabilities. As part of the celebrations, the JUBILEE organizing committee, which I am a part of, has created an initiative to highlight institutions in the country that have been doing this work all along, giving them the distinguished title of “cultural architect.” This is an act of working against the grain of white supremacy to enable a celebration of the forebears who designed and built the “culturally vibrant” and “diverse” moment we are currently having. It is a way to acknowledge this moment did not just happen—it has been a durational practice that was started and has been stewarded by marginalized, people of color, queer, and disabled theatrical organizations.

When I think about culture, I am reminded it is an ever-evolving mechanism—one of the fundamental tools within our society; something we, as humanity, help shape. Culture helps identify whose tribe someone is kin to, where they come from, and what practices they take part in in order to express their singular or multiple identities. It is a unique vibration that establishes the identity of the self, and, simultaneously, a community. An architect, on the other hand, is primarily a builder—an individual who defines and shapes space to tell a story, illuminate nature, and sometimes defy the norms. In order to do this effectively, an architect must get to know the codes and laws hidden or visible that make this world function—like gravity, balance, shape, and form. Once those rules are intimately learned, the laws and rules of “man”—like urban planning, Section 8 housing, race, and capitalism—can be broken, revamped, or interrogated. This is where possibility lies and the idea of alchemy begins.

four people seated

Jonathan McCrory speaking with other Jubilee participants at the Committee for the Jubilee: Planning for a Nation-Wide Festival in Boston, Massachusetts from 9—10 December 2017.

Brought together, these two words help to define what a cultural architect can be, yet the term originated for us during a Theatre Communications Group (TCG) conference, centered on revolutionizing the way theatres connect to communities to build their audiences, back in 2015. There, Pastor Mike A. Walrond, a keynote speaker, addressed the crowd of leaders and decision-makers in the American theatre, at one point saying:

You are reimagining what life can look like. You’re reimagining what life can be. Through your gift, through your art, through your touch, you help people see what they may not have been able to see. You help people become what they believe about themselves. You help people be the change they want to see. That is what you do and what a tremendous calling, to be a cultural architect. What a powerful calling to be the person who inspires generations to reimagine their lives and see themselves differently.

These words birthed, for many of us in the room, a nuanced way of participating within our collective communities and contextualizing our work as practitioners. Fast forward to 2017, to the JUBILEE convening co-produced by HowlRound in Boston, when a group of practitioners from around the country, including me, utilized the inspiration conjured within Pastor Mike’s words to think of how the JUBILEE could spotlight the institutions, organizations, and companies in the American theatre that have long been cultivating cultural diversity not because it is sexy or trendy, but because it is a necessity.

It is through their unwavering commitment that society learns how to unite, uplift, and undo anti-phobic work.

The JUBILEE’s completely volunteer-based cohort envisioned to establish an essential initiative highlighting these cultural architects. Cultural architects are organizations that have been producing work of historically marginalized voices for twenty-years or more—with the exception of Native theatre organizations, which, given the historic barrier to their creation, only need to have been around for five years to be considered. They have an unwavering commitment to center, as depicted in their vision or mission, one or more of the communities identified by the JUBILEE. It is through their unwavering commitment that society learns how to unite, uplift, and undo anti-phobic work. The work these inspirational organizations produce and the space they provide for community to converge encourages a cultural exchange and will leave behind a legacy. Simply put: they enrich lives.

A prime example of this enrichment, which I know all too well, is National Black Theatre (NBT), an institution I currently helm as artistic director. NBT—founded fifty-one years ago by a Black women, Dr. Barabara Ann Teer—helped steward, shape, and cultivate space for Black artists. Yielding over three hundred productions, NBT has been a leading voice of the Black Arts Movement, giving birth and sustaining a cultural space for Black creative production in the nation no matter when it was trendy. Without it and institutions like it, so many voices, ideas, and innovations would not have had a home or even possibly been created.

The ambassadors of culture that have historically been marginalized should be able to proclaim their rightful place as cultural architects.

To date, the JUBILEE has been able to recognize twenty-four theatrical entities to be celebrated as cultural architects—and we know there are many more. Before the term “diversity” became a buzzword, these forebears were carving out space with the resources they had to be the ambassadors needed in society, helping people learn, experience, and document the many different ways humanity has loved, expressed joy, struggled, and simply lived. This labor has provided individuals the opportunity to grow and humanity the chance to evolve, and we have an obligation to not whitewash history. The JUBILEE is asking that we as a community—and, particularly, predominantly white institutions (PWIs)—gracefully share the spotlight and provide an asé (thank you) for the ones that labored when the PWIs were too fixated on only reflecting themselves.

These organizations are the ones questioning: How do we allow the true practice of the word “diversity” to be amplified within the American theatre? What does it mean to really hold space for who we are as complex humans to show up? What does it mean to provide space for a particular group of people who have been ignored and allow for their unique brilliance to be recognized as valuable? What does it mean to lead with courage that allows for the human heart to awaken? The way we honor these institutions—which have labored to protect the vulnerable, unseen, and sometimes-erased members of society, and which have really lived these questions—is important.

two people standing

Participants at the Committee for the Jubilee: Planning for a Nation-Wide Festival in Boston, Massachusetts from 9—10 December 2017.

The ambassadors of culture that have historically been marginalized should be able to proclaim their rightful place as cultural architects. By recognizing their work, the JUBILEE offers an opportunity for the American theatre to celebrate these organizations now, rather than only adding them in as footnotes to history. We at the JUBILEE want to turn the sometimes-invisible work done by these organizations visible, and to generate space for the community to see these organizations as valuable assets—ones people can invest in by being patrons of the work, practitioners who help develop the work, philanthropists who donate so the organization can gain thrivability rather than just survive, and more. These esteemed theatres should not only be written about as historical benchmarks but should be fortified as active spaces for cultural production now.

If you helm an institution that is a cultural architect, thank you! The labor you have done has provided this world an undeniable gift that should be celebrated. We hope you feel seen by this act and that people continue to see you and invest in your vision.