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And It Feels Good

The Responsibility of Theatre, and the Imagining of a World Without Oppression

Before theatre was thought of as a commercial machine, before the great theatrical amphitheaters of Greece, there were the storytelling traditions of Africa that demonstrated the direct connection between art and spirituality. These traditions also demonstrated the ways in which artists, being holders of the spiritual heart of the community, were often taken care of and revered.

In the roots of theatre is the groundwork of what can help us discern a possible future, because art is not simply about speaking to where we were or are, but prophesying where we wish to be.

The Struggling

Before I can imagine the future of theatre I must acknowledge the great work still in need of doing, particularly given theatre institutions’ relationships to those most impacted by structural oppression. We must be willing to dispel the notion that the politics of theatre institutions are insular and not in fact a microcosm of the systems of oppression that plague many of its Black, Indigenous, and Brown artists outside of them.

Racism, transphobia, xenophobia, fatphobia, classism, ableism, homophobia, and other systematic oppressions are baked into the foundation of the United States. A country born from genocide, theft, murder, and slavery. These oppressions often find themselves within theatrical institutions masquerading as white-savior plays, cis-centered casting processes, anti-racist training with no hope of accountability, trauma porn, predominantly white creative teams and casts, white cis male playwrights being produced more than other playwrights, dangerous rehearsal practices, microaggressions, macroaggressions, work that centers the white cis gaze, the erasure of Black, Indigenous, and Brown artists’ contributions and experiences and much more.

During 2020 we witnessed some regional theatres attempt to answer the call to struggle against these oppressive systems and examine their role in the violence impacting Black, Indigenous, and Brown communities. Some hid behind the illusion of helplessness, while others released statements in support for movements like the one for Black lives but continued to hold fast to a rigid hierarchical nature within their institution—simply a mirror for the white supremacist hierarchal system outside of it. Broadway, as an institution, seemed nowhere to be found in these conversations. However, like regional theatres before it, Broadway is now facing its own reckoning (shout out to the recent March on Broadway).

Meanwhile outside of theatrical institutes there are currently at least eleven states attempting to pass anti-trans legislation and countless other states attempting to suppress the votes of Black, Indigenous, Brown, and economically oppressed communities, and between the war on truth and daily updates of children being bombed I think, What right do I have to pontificate about a new world?

And then I am reminded of my own words that theatre is not the institution, but is in fact the artists themselves. And artists are people. And people deserve the right to not only demand a better world but dream of one too.

And then I am reminded of my own words that theatre is not the institution, but is in fact the artists themselves.

The Hoping

I am a Black trans woman, which connects me directly to Black trans spirit workers who have come before—those of song, and dance, and drum, and dreaming. Those who demonstrated what it meant to imagine oneself into being. Those whose dreams were filled with me. Perhaps, as I desperately try to imagine what a theatre of care and community would be like, I can also imagine a world in which prioritizing care is possible too.

Black trans people have been utilizing the power of imagining longer than the existence of theatrical institutions. Within that power to imagine we find the power to conjure what an equitable theatre structure could be.

First, let me ask: What does a less oppressive theatre system feel like?

I am reminded of what Nina Simone once said in response to an interviewer asking her what freedom is: “No fear.” I feel that now, in my own imagining of our tomorrow. Then an absence of fear gives way to another feeling: unbridled joy. And as I think on that joy, I ask myself, Why? Why do I feel joy in this moment? And I reply, It’s because I feel affirmed, I feel cared for, I feel loved. Then I ask myself: What does feeling these things give me space to do? And I reply: Create art fearlessly. And it is good. And theatre is good. And we are good.

A Black woman with her hair wrapped on the top of her head and her right hand up.

An illustration by Wripley M. Bennet inspired by the essay.

In this new theatre, everyone is paid a thriving wage. Theatres are part of the community as well as being in community with one another. No one has to fight for funding because there is the recognition that there is more than enough for everyone. Art is honored as a life-changing and affirming vocation, not a frivolous job. Structural power is equitable and institutions work to be at the forefront of social change, not resistant to it. Black, Indigenous, and Brown artists are celebrated and centered in the work, not tokenized or erased. Money is not used as a control tactic to keep artists from naming harm. Conflict is worked out through conversation, and restorative justice becomes the framework by which matters of harm are sorted. Theatre institutions are in right relationship to the land and they honor Indigenous sovereignty. Everyone is committed to dismantling their own internalized white supremacy, patriarchy, transphobia, homophobia, classism, racism, fatphobia, and ableism, and we are all united in the struggle against systematic forms of oppression. Boards and producers do not wield their positions like oligarchs demanding to be entertained but are just as committed as artists to cultivating a community of care.

Outside of the institution of theatre, there are no murders of Black, Indigenous, and Brown trans women. There are no threats from the police. Governments care for and love their people. Abuse is no more. And when anyone is hurt, the community cares for them. Land is given back to Indigenous peoples. Reparations are paid to Black peoples. White supremacy is dead.

Trauma porn is no more, and stories of Black joy are celebrated just as much as stories of Black pain.

The roots of theatre call us to never forget the ancestors who taught us the gift of manifesting, who taught us the importance of what we call liberation. We are individuals. We are a community. There is love—so much love that abundance vibrates through lifetimes, vibrates through the air, and births joy. There is no oppression in the world, no oppression in our theatres, no oppression in our relationships. And the world is good. Community is good. We are good.

The roots of theatre call us to never forget the ancestors who taught us the gift of manifesting, who taught us the importance of what we call liberation.

The Getting There

I think it is imperative in our envisioning of the future that we recognize it cannot come by ignoring how theatre institutions have, for too long, disregarded their higher calling of being at the forefront of social change. The politics of theatre does not exist separately from the harsh realities of the world, but it also doesn’t exist separately from the great responsibility to celebrate and protect those most impacted by structural oppression, and from the great possibility of a world free of oppression, which has been seeded by Black, Indigenous, and Brown ancestors and elders and continues in several different liberation movements now.

Institutions must begin to experience themselves as members of the community, not tombs of dying ideologies. Institutions must create communities of care that recognize artists are more than deserving of equitable engagement. Institutions must cultivate healthy relationships with the land and the Indigenous peoples of them. Theatre institutions must shift from a model of tokenization and operate within a framework of affirmation.

Theatre artists must understand that without artists the institutions will fade.

Everyone must commit to the work of actively dismantling white supremacy and its henchmen internally and systematically, not only in the places where we work but in the world that we live in.

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Thoughts from the curator

It's 2021 and we're amid multiple pandemics that are revealing the structural failures, challenges, and opportunities facing the nonprofit theatre. Where do we go from here? What are we bringing with us through the portal, and what are we making anew? The Devising Our Future series asks theatremakers to consider a future theatre field where resources and power are shared equitably in all directions, contributing to a more just and sustainable world. This series is curated by HowlRound Theatre Commons as part of our tenth anniversary celebration.

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