Creating Theatre for Our Future, Together
Oftentimes, when we look back on our past, we are appalled and horrified at what our predecessors said and did. We say, “I would never have done that!” And then we feel better about what we are doing today because we have distanced ourselves from what our relatives did yesterday.
Now, in 2021—in the midst of a global pandemic, and following a summer of social justice progress inspired by Black Lives Matter, a summer then immediately followed by an insanely troubling attack on our democracy led by individuals who refuse to accept the results of an election where voters of color came out in record numbers to support progressive candidates—we find ourselves at a crossroads. This past summer, our communities demanded accountability for the historic figures we revere and hold in high regard, as we witnessed the toppling of numerous statues of Christopher Columbus and Confederate Army generals, and many others who promoted genocide and slavery.
So I ask my fellow American theatre colleagues: Will the American theatre follow suit? Or will we continue to exclusively promote whitewashed narratives that perpetuate the historic approval for the slavery and genocide that our white leaders promoted? For those of us who are citizens of Tribal Nations that pre-date the creation of the United States, we have waited generations to watch our fellow Americans ask these important questions.
As we look to our future, I truly believe, as a Cherokee woman and author, that the American theatre will arrive at a place where theatre practitioners place a greater value on the authentic stories of American Indians than the stories that romanticize the American leaders who successfully killed and murdered us. But so far the American theatre has attributed greater value to celebrating the leaders who sought our extermination than our own Native leaders who ensured our survival.
As we look back on the last year’s events, and as we collectively recognize that we must change and discard the narratives that supported the 6 January insurrection, I predict that the American theatre will devise a future where theatrical storytelling does not directly contribute to white supremacy. The American theatre will do this in four main ways.
So far the American theatre has attributed greater value to celebrating the leaders who sought our extermination than our own Native leaders who ensured our survival.
First: By retiring performances such as Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson that use redface to dehumanize Native Americans. Shows like this that dehumanize Natives won’t be “cancelled” because of their racism (or it would have happened by now). Instead, they will fade away from the stage because there will be no commercial appetite compelling their production. It is true that redface has been insanely popular with white audiences ever since its creation on the Broadway stage in the late 1820s (when Jackson won the presidency based on a promise he would exterminate Tribal Nations and their citizens). But the Americans who have enjoyed and used redface over the last several decades have never understood its origins or when the performance became popular and why.
This, however, is already beginning to change. Just this past summer, as the Black Lives Matter movement began to raise the collective consciousness of America, several corporations decided they would no longer sponsor the Washington Football Team’s use of redface. Suddenly, Dan Snyder, the team’s owner, could no longer afford, economically, to be racist. For purely economic reasons, he decided to finally remove the team’s genocidal “R**skins” name and replace his team’s redface logo with something that does not dehumanize Natives. If Snyder can stop using redface, the “more woke” artistic directors of the American theatre should be able to recognize that America’s appetite for redface is waning. In the future, the use of redface will not be censored. Non-Native artists will still have the right to dehumanize Natives in their plays and musicals, should they choose to do so. But Americans won’t want to see those plays or musicals. Simply put, in the future, redface won’t sell tickets.
Second: By including, instead of erasing, Natives in the telling of our collective histories. Even though Natives were, historically, center stage during the formation of the United States, we are not even mentioned in plays such as Hamilton. I am not suggesting we cancel shows like Hamilton where Natives are not dehumanized but, instead, erased. To be sure, we must keep them. Hamilton is critical to the American theatre because it shattered the myth that artists of color cannot perform intellectual aspects of American history and sell tickets. Hamilton also provided a critical challenge to the current (and racist) dehumanization of immigrants in this country. But Hamilton has been criticized recently for its shallow treatment of slavery. Many of the characters promoted and profited from slavery—namely Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, as well as many others. Hamilton also ignores genocide and erases the contributions our Tribal Nations made to American democracy when founding fathers like Benjamin Franklin took indigenous concepts of local democracy from tribal governments and embedded them in the United States Constitution.
Personally, I do not believe we should expect our artists of color to challenge every racist notion in America in every single play. We certainly do not place those expectations on our white artists. And if we put those expectations on our artists of color, none of our plays will ever be acceptable because none of us are capable of critiquing everything that’s racist about the United States in a single play. Instead, we must create space for all communities of color in the American theatre. If a theatre is going to produce a play that challenges the racist narrative that immigrants do not belong in the United States but offers no real critique of slavery or genocide, then that theatre should also be simultaneously engaged in producing plays by artists from the communities that have survived those atrocities—perhaps in the very same season, or in one very close by.
Looking to our collective future, I see an American theatre that welcomes all. I see an American theatre that produces plays by all marginalized voices—including differently-abled voices, LGTBQ/two-spirit voices, women, immigrants, any group whose story has been silenced.
Looking to our collective future (...) I see an American theatre that produces plays by all marginalized voices—including differently abled voices, LGTBQ/two-spirit voices, women, immigrants, any group whose story has been silenced.
Third: By hiring more artists of color in every position in our theatres. As of 2021, we are starting to figure out that if a particular theatre has never produced a single play by a Native playwright, that is bad and embarrassing. We are seeing a record number of theatres producing their first Native plays, ever. And while that’s truly wonderful, in the future theatres will have figured out that we need Natives (and other artists of color and artists from marginalized communities) as stage managers, as costume designers, as literary managers, and in the box office.
Sure, the playwright is in many ways the most visible and will give the theatre the most bang for buck in the “woke” category, but in the future we will have figured out that trying to be visibly woke is not as important as altering the makeup of a theatre from the inside to ensure it reflects the America we live in as opposed to a hierarchy from the past. The diversity of voices within the American theatre will reinvigorate the theatre, infusing an unprecedented amount of creativity into theatrical storytelling. This new creativity, coupled with Americans’ desire to truly connect post-pandemic, will inject a resurgence in attendance at live theatre that will save the American theatre from its currently dwindling numbers.
Fourth: By making theatre more affordable—not just for audience members who cannot afford to pay $100 for a seat at a regional theatre, but also for our artists who cannot afford to live on poverty wages. Discussions of economics in the theatre often begin and end quickly, with folks throwing their hands up in the air, stating, “It’s impossible to figure out, we don’t have the funding.” And while the pandemic shutdown has many folks in a panic about how theatres will ever reopen to paying audiences again, the forced pause on the old way of doing things is the perfect opportunity to stop, dream, and envision a new way. I do not profess to have the magic formula, and I am not an economist. But I do know that telling ourselves we cannot change or problem solve has, historically, proven to be nothing more than a dangerous self-fulfilling prophecy.
The pandemic has been horribly tragic, but it has also forced us to stop. And with that comes the opportunity to think. I truly believe humans need theatre like fish need water. We will find a way to come back together again. But the last year has taught us many lessons and I know we have changed. We have progressed.
When we come back together to tell stories again, we are going to be conscious and intentional about choosing the stories to tell and who we invite to create them. There will be space for everyone at the table. And as for the stories that dehumanize… well, they just won’t seem so interesting anymore. Because we will have heard the alternative, and we will prefer the truth.