The American Theatre Was Killing Me
Healing from Racialized Trauma in an Art Workspace
For those unfamiliar with the term “racialized trauma,” counselor Ayanna Molina of True Love Movement explains: “Trauma is hurtful, emotionally damaging situations that you cannot control. [With my clients], the racialized component is that [they] happen specifically because you are Black.” Racialized trauma happens because of the system of white supremacy we live in, which is detrimental, out of control, and disturbing socially, emotionally, behaviorally, and/or mentally. White supremacy culture, says Molina, makes it is very difficult to isolate this kind of trauma, since racism exists in every part of the system.
Resmaa Menakem, another trauma-specialized counselor and author of My Grandmother’s Hands, concurs. “When I think about institutions and organizations, white-body supremacy is allowed to sustain itself through standard operating procedure,” he says. “Institutional things are decontextualized over time.” According to him, superficial equity, diversity, and inclusion work is insufficient and is not getting at the fact that every institution in the United States that exists has been built through the efforts of enslaved people, on ground gotten through genocide.
As a microcosm of our nation, American theatre cannot evolve to truly embody the values of equity, diversity, and inclusion that artists and arts administrators are rushing to embrace without doing the long, hard work of confronting the ingrained systems of oppression embedded in the field. In the following conversation, theatremaker Lauren E. Turner recounts her courageous healing journey from the depths of sustained racialized trauma working in a New Orleans theatre to the launching of her own theatre company, No Dream Deferred, into its first season this fall. Given the persistence of racialized trauma in white theatre institutions, we interrogate how—and if—people of color feel they have a place within them.
Amelia: Can you describe the role theatre has played in your life?
Lauren: I am from Raleigh, North Carolina, and I was raised through the arts. I went to a performing arts high school, and I had very real role models in the arts. When I was a kid, my mother created a non-profit organization for black children to have access to black professional artists, where I learned African dance from Chuck Davis, who ran African American Dance Ensemble, and was taught voice by black opera singers who were my mom’s friends. Beverly Botsford would teach African drumming.
I was taught creating space was my duty. The idea of what was out there and available for performers of color was accessible, and I knew there was power in being able to tell a different story in different ways.
Had I not had that experience, I would have just assumed theatre was strictly for white people. I was able to take what I knew to be true from a predominantly white high school, where I was the only person of color in advanced theatre courses, to a historically black university theatre program, where what I knew to be true was met with affirmation, all the way to my graduate program, where I was the only African American woman and one of two students of color.
I was able to share the information I had with the black undergraduate students who were hoping for it, and I’ve carried that with me. What guides me even now in my work is knowing there’s another possibility than a white-dominated theatre field, and I’m really grateful for that, because I don’t know how I’d be able to stay in this field if I didn’t know that for sure.
Amelia: We’ve spoken a little bit about the mentality of being a trailblazer and holding the door open for others, and the generational differences in what it means to be a person of color working in the American theatre. Can you talk to me about how you perceive that?
Lauren: Although I was born in 1983, I don’t consider myself a millennial, I consider myself a “xennial”—someone who’s caught between two shifts in generational thinking, both that have merit. My mother is of the generation where people were literally kicking down doors for future generations, having been raised by people who kicked down doors, people who were putting their bodies on the line. I consider my mother’s generation the “make good” generation. So you have my grandmother, who was on the line, and then you have her children, who had to make good on the work she started.
Then you have our generation, who were taught by the make-gooders to do the same thing, that our job is to get into these spaces we were denied entry to, and our job is to hold the door open. And then you have the generation I consider right below me, which has been reexamining the cost of that, because a lot of times what happens is that while you’re holding that door open, you’re being verbally abused, harmed, and traumatized in those spaces.
While the previous generation’s motto was “Stay there, stay strong, and hold this door open,” the millennial generation is asking, “Do I even want to be in this building? Do I even want access to this space that isn’t for me?” It’s revolutionized the way I think about myself moving forward. I’ve been letting go of the idea that it’s my job to hold the door open, which has been really hard. But it’s also opened up a lot of possibilities.
If my job isn’t to hold the door open, and my job isn’t to endure abuse from the institution so that someone else can come in and endure the same abuse, then what is my role? How do I lead from the outside? How do I create a space that is the opposite of that, where people can feel equally or even better than what is being presented to them in these other predominantly white institutions and organizations?
It’s changed the way I think about so many things, but especially when it comes to caring for myself. When I was having a particularly hard time, my mother said, “You have to decide if you’re willing to be a martyr.” That never left me, because that is the decision that has to be made by so many people of color who are the first and the only: “Am I going to martyr myself?” I decided I didn’t want to be that.
Racialized trauma happens because of the system of white supremacy we live in, which is detrimental, out of control, and disturbing socially, emotionally, behaviorally, and/or mentally.
Amelia: How did you come to realize that?
Lauren: Three years ago, I was awarded a grant to join the staff of a theatre in New Orleans, working in community engagement. It happened at a time when the theatre—a predominantly white arts institution—was moving to a historically black neighborhood. My arrival was a huge benefit to them. For the first year I was there, due to my salary being covered by the grant, I felt they were able to associate the work I was doing with being beneficial, but not having any worth. Because of that, the power dynamic was already way off—I’m still struggling with how that works, but since we live under capitalism, I believe if you don’t allocate resources to something yourself then you don’t feel like it has value.
I was so used to being the only person of color in theatre spaces that I didn’t understand what being the “only” in New Orleans theatre implied. I had just accepted that this is a field where I may end up in rooms and be the only person of color, and that’s just the way it is. Being in a city that’s 60 percent black, and that, before Hurricane Katrina, was 70 percent black, a blind spot I was not examining was how and why this art space has remained monocultural, all white. How is that even possible? Had I stopped to ask myself what people have to do to maintain the whiteness of a space in a city like New Orleans, I would have been able to foresee a lot of problems in the future. I also would have been able to understand the value of who I am and how that impacts the work I’m doing, and what that would bring to the organization I was working for.
Another blind spot I had was around being tokenized. I didn’t understand I was going to become the face of this community engagement programming, and that I was the only one, as far as the black community was concerned, who had something to lose. I was wagering my own personal relationships with folks in a way that no one else in the organization had to. If programming was a success or failure, it was being attributed to me personally. That added to some of my anxiety. This was my community, and if I screwed it up, I was basically ostracizing myself from it.
Throughout my two-plus years at the theatre, going from being a grant-funded person to an employee, I faced a tremendous amount of microaggressions. I realized some folks at the theatre didn’t care about any of the things we’d been discussing at all. They were looking at black people as props who could be manipulated and looking at my role as bringing black people to the theatre. They were not expanding the vision around equity, diversity, and inclusion.
Here are a few examples of the microaggressions I experienced. Every time I would write something for new programming, there was this huge delay around putting it out because there were questions about the quality of my writing. I would be told that basically everyone at the company had to review and edit the piece before it could go out, because I did not have a firm understanding of the brand. It made me question my own ability.
The office was very small, so if I received an email and I didn’t respond within ten minutes, someone would come ask me why. If I wasn’t smiling, someone would ask me what was wrong. I had to respond to the microaggressions that were happening on a daily basis in real time. I didn’t have any processing space, and I was on display every day, 24/7. One of the employees used to come up and rub my head and say I reminded them of a little kid. That would have to be processed in that moment. There were tons of times where I felt like people were looking to me to bring up the obvious, but I was also reprimanded for doing so.
The biggest thing that happened there, which kind of shook me to the core, was at a staff meeting after the black community had some very public actors say they were not happy with the way things were going, because equity, diversity, and inclusion promises had been made when the theatre moved into the new space, but none of those promises were made good. We had a meeting where everyone asked me what we should do, and I said, “Well, we still have three full-time positions available, and we should really prioritize hiring a person from the neighborhood or a person of color, preferably both, but at least one.” One person responded that what they heard me saying was that we had to fire all the white people, and another expressed that they felt like some people wouldn’t be happy until a black woman replaced them, and that that was never going to happen.
I remember thinking, This is something they feel is okay to say in front of me at this point. But the silence at that table from others spoke way louder than the horrible things that were actually said. That meeting shone a light on this pervasive, unjustified fear that something is going to be taken away from white institutional leadership if they let in “other” people and treat them humanely; look at what’s happening on the border right now, it’s the same fear.
After the meeting, people came up to me and were literally patting me on my back. I remember thinking, You just sat there and watched this violence happen to me, and you said nothing. I felt violated in that conversation.
Over time, these experiences created a work environment that cut at my worth and caused me shame. I had allowed myself to stay in a position where I was not only being treated harmfully, but where some of the actions the theatre was taking were harmful for my own community. I had to do a lot of work coming out of that to heal.
That meeting shone a light on this pervasive, unjustified fear that something is going to be taken away from white institutional leadership if they let in “other” people and treat them humanely.
Amelia: That risk goes much further than your work at that institution, since New Orleans is your home. I recently read an interview with playwright Jeremy O. Harris, and the interviewer asked him about his experience of regional differences of racism, because he grew up in Virginia, went to school in Chicago, and was working in New York. Is that something that resonates with your own life experience?
Lauren: Racism is racism is racism. There’s no “worse.” It’s bad any way it shows up. But every place has a different story. Even within the Deep South there are variations. There is something different about the way white folk and black folk interact in New Orleans from the way white folk and black folk interact in North Carolina. What you have going on in New Orleans is a long history of disenfranchisement of black artists. You have a city that is basically built upon the creative and artistic genius of black people. And very few of those black people are as financially successful as the city itself—and white people—for owning that genius, for owning that art.
It bleeds into the way art institutions treat or interact with black artists and black folk. There is a sense of paternalism and propriety that reigns. The theatre I was working at was worried about what I was doing with other theatres, because they felt proprietary over me.
A lot of local black artists did not understand how I got selected to work with this company, because they had been denied access there for so long. They didn’t know I had chosen to work there, they thought the company chose to work with me. I had a lot of people tell me that art institutions here tend to not want to work with local black folk, and it was because I was from somewhere else. I think that’s very specific to this place and the history of enslavement here.
For many decades, New Orleans was a place where there were more enslaved black folk and free people of color than white people, and the fear held by white people throughout history has been that black people could rise up and revolt and take over, so laws and policies were put in place to keep that from happening. Even to this day there are things that happen with that fear at its core, because there are still more black people in New Orleans than white people.
Amelia: As we all get better at seeing the structures and patterns of racism and white supremacy, it’s useful to be able to get specific and recognize local history and context. How do you think the theatre where you worked got to be so stuck in these ways?
Lauren: This particular organization is no different than any other regional theatre in the country, since I believe regional theatres were created in part as a result of white flight. White folk were fleeing cities and urban areas for suburban areas, and they wanted to maintain the cultural practices they had enjoyed in the cities, so they created regional theatres. These spaces were never built with inclusion, equity, or diversity in mind. This is reductive, but they were places where white people could be with other white folk and enjoy art.
With that as the foundation, if you don’t actively work towards dismantling all of it, you’re just going deeper and deeper and deeper—you’ve built an audience, you’ve built a board, you’re just continuing the legacy. The more time passes, the harder and harder it gets to undo it. But I think it comes from being too scared to do something drastically different. If you don’t have enough creativity to envision what a theatre could be, then this is what happens. In a city like New Orleans, I don’t see how any theatre can afford not to be thinking about changing completely.
It also becomes a system of cheating, because right now funders are interested in community impact. So it’s like, “How can we pretend what we’re doing is community work so we can continue to get the funding that we so desperately need because we don’t have ticket sales at all, because our audience is getting smaller by the minute, so we’re dependent on this grant?” There’s so much energy being put towards trying to pretend and saying the right words. “What black person can we hire to put in a position to write a narrative for this so we can get this money?” All that energy could be put into actually doing the work.
Amelia: Can you talk to me about not having a generous leadership model as part of the systemic problem?
Lauren: This connects to scarcity, holding onto the old ways of doing things, where a single artistic vision leads us forward. No leader will survive this way. It’s impossible because each success but also each failure is attributed to that person. It’s harmful to the person in charge.
Shared leadership is something I’m currently exploring, and also sharing leadership with the community you’re in. The idea that community members might be able to assist with programming—that statement alone is enough to send some artistic directors into cardiac arrest, because they feel like they’re losing something. But if you are not programming with community in mind, what are you doing?
One of the characteristics of white supremacy is that there’s only one right way to do things. The idea that one person is right and holds all the artistic vision for the entire company is also how you get to the point where you’re creating an oppressive work environment and a work culture that can be traumatic.
I had allowed myself to stay in a position where I was not only being treated harmfully, but where some of the actions the theatre was taking were harmful for my own community.
Amelia: Let’s talk about healing. After you decided to leave the theatre, what were your first steps coming out of that experience in identifying it as trauma, seeking safety, and seeking healing? How did that look, or how does it continue to look?
Lauren: I spent a lot of time confused as to what had happened to me. Throughout my time there I had multiple breakdowns, where I would just be depressed, sobbing, and not really understanding why. At the end, I had a final massive sob, and I had this enormous sense of grief. I didn’t know what had happened to me. I knew that racist incidents had taken place, I knew I was dealing with microaggressions, but I didn’t recognize what I had been through as a trauma event.
I thought that was something completely different. I didn’t know there was something called racialized trauma that has an effect on your body, something you have to heal from. I spent a lot of time in the beginning very angry and sad, and also trying to figure out what to do about it. I wanted to immediately take action. It wasn’t until a great friend of mine told me that what I had experienced was equivalent to being in an abusive relationship—emotionally, psychologically—that I gained perspective on what had happened to me. Then I was able to put a plan together to move forward.
The first thing I had to do was name racialized trauma as the thing I had endured and accept the fact that it would be a healing process to get whole again. In order to do that, I had to let go of all the shame attached to it, the thinking that I could have done anything differently. Then I had to seek counseling. There aren’t that many people who specialize in racialized trauma in the workplace, though it is a growing field.
One of the most important things was that I had a tremendous network. Not only locally did I have friends who cared and who were there to support me, but also nationally. I had just been part of the New Orleans cohort for ArtEquity, one of the most powerful, supportive networks I could possibly be a part of. For a person who’s been in an abusive relationship, there’s nothing more comforting than being able to talk about what you went through without also having to prove you went through it at the same time. Speaking to people without having to explain or prove or convince is a tremendous blessing. It’s re-traumatizing when what you’re saying is questioned.
Amelia: Tell me about No Dream Deferred. How is that helping your healing process?
Lauren: No Dream Deferred is something I have been working on since 2016, but it is just now launching its first season. No Dream Deferred is anchored in creating theatre for this space—we’re not going to New York and seeing a bunch of shows and saying, “Let’s bring all these plays and same experiences back to New Orleans.” We’re saying, “What stories exist? What stories have yet to be written that are relevant to this place?” And we’re creating theatre experiences that make sense for the people who live here.
We are equitable in our envisioning and implementation of all of our programming, and I can honestly say I consider myself as having a doctorate in what not to do. I have insight, having experienced it myself, to build something that needs to be different. India Mack, who’s my producing partner, and I are creating the space New Orleans deserves: a place of healing for people who have had traumatic experiences in other spaces.
I’m reminded of a quote a friend of mine shared about trees: “This tree is deep and has many roots, and the best you can do is enjoy the shade in the summertime, and admire the leaves as they change, but you better have your own tree planted somewhere.” No Dream Deferred was my own tree. I look at predominantly white institutions as those trees with deep roots. It’s going to be hard—damn near impossible—to change them from within. To me, the shade is the funding, and I’m not going to harbor animosity for people who choose to enjoy the shade. Predominantly white institutions are still able to maintain the majority of the funding for the arts that exists in this country. There’s shade there, there’s funding there, people can get paid and create lives for themselves. The leaves may change, leadership may look different. There may be times where we have more leaders of color in the positions that matter. But that doesn’t change the roots, the foundation. Having my own tree planted somewhere has been a saving grace because I’ve been able to divert all of the anxious, depressed energy from what I went through into building something better.
If I didn’t have anything to look forward to, I would be like so many people of color who endure racialized trauma in art organizations where they just leave the field. And if we don’t get to the root of this and fix it, we’re going to lose people, those who are our best resources. We don’t have a lot of money, we don’t have a big audience, but we do have some really gifted and talented people, and if they’re deciding they can’t be in this field because our workspaces are toxic and harmful, we might as well go ahead and close up shop.
It’s easy to see how racialized trauma and microaggressions affect a company’s bottom line: people call out more, people are physically getting sick. Black women are dying from high blood pressure and heart disease based on the racialized trauma they’re enduring at work. Even corporate America has been able to say, “We’ve got to invest in workspaces that do not have these elements.” When is it going to be our turn to take a good hard look at this within our institutions and organizations?
If you are not programming with community in mind, what are you doing?
Amelia: In a forward-looking sense, what feels like justice? What’s the happiest resolution to this trauma in your life, and also in the bigger context of this institution existing in New Orleans?
Lauren: As far as for the trauma in my life, justice feels like complete healing, and the completion of building something that’s on its way to being the opposite of what I experienced.
It’s important that people know that institutions like the one I was at exist—they’re the majority of arts institutions in the country. The answer that’s in my heart is that they have to be dismantled. I know it sounds very revolutionary, very impossible, but that’s really what has to happen in the end. The foundations on which these institutions are built do not suit us anymore. These organizations do not serve us anymore. America is a place where we know how to redefine and reinvent ourselves probably better than any other place. Why are we holding onto a model that’s no longer serving the people who live here?
I’m going to the National Performance Network Conference soon, where I will be giving a talk about art institutions as monuments. Monuments are special because they are physical representations of what we value, what we hold dear. These institutions, similar to the Confederate monuments, need to come down because they are no longer reflective of what we value. There are tons of people talking about dismantling and what it looks like. The next conversation is, “What do we put in its place?” That’s the more interesting conversation to me. Once we dismantle something, we have to take it apart to diagnose it and then we can build something better.
Amelia: Is there anything we haven’t talked about today that you want to make sure gets into this conversation?
Lauren: I want to make sure people understand that pay inequity goes hand in hand with racialized trauma in the workplace. There’s a lot of pressure on me to talk about them as separate things, but they’re interconnected. People also need to understand that racialized trauma in the workplace doesn’t just affect people of color, it affects the entire health of that workplace. It’s not good for anyone to be experiencing racialized trauma.
And people are leaving. This isn’t a future prediction—I can name ten people right now who have left theatre for good. Specialized people, people who have their master’s degrees from top-notch institutions, who have left, citing racialized trauma in the workplace. It is very real.
Amelia: Can you talk about what your career looks like and what your relationship to institutions is, as well as the self-reflection you’ve accomplished and how scary it might be for other people, but how worthwhile as well?
Lauren: Coming out of all of this, I had to ask myself if I’m suited to work within these institutions, and the answer was no. It’s harmful to me. I can’t imagine, in thirty years, what shred of myself would be left. I don’t think I would recognize myself if I stayed in a predominantly white institution for my whole career. So I had to say, “How am I building my career if it’s not going to be measured by the same success metrics that currently exist?”
That’s really hard for folks. There aren’t other models to look at. People need to be honest with themselves about their capacity to do this work outside of what’s been established as generally successful and reexamine what success might look like. I’m trying to figure out how to lead from the outside. Some people are suited to work within these organizations, but people have to ask themselves if that’s for them.
Amelia: Absolutely. I love that terminology, “leading from the outside,” because it’s exactly what you’re doing, while recognizing there are different positions. We all have a role to serve, and people have to listen to themselves and figure out what theirs is going to be. Thank you, Lauren.
Want to learn more about racialized trauma and white supremacy culture? Resmaa Menakem suggests the following resources:
- Racial Equity toolbox
- White Supremacy workbook
- “Whiteness on the Couch”
- Unraveling Whiteness
- How to Be an Anti-Racist
- White Fragility
- The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond
- Dr. Joy Degruy
- Resmaa Menakem’s website, free e-course, and book
- Ayanna Molina
- Nicole Brewer’s anti-racist theatre work