Theater for Change
Pittsburghers are adept at transitions. Industries have come and gone. From glass, to steel, to robotics and technology, this town has worn many masks over the years, and the people who grew up here (most never leave and if they do a large percent return) know how to weather storms. Pittsburgh is Possible was my motto when I first arrived here seven summers ago. I’ve accomplished more here in a few years than I did in a decade “treading the boards” in New York. For two years in a row Pittsburgh has been named America’s “most livable city” and if your skin is of a certain hue then that’s absolutely true.
Oops, what did I just say? Am I saying that this is the “most livable city” but only if you happen to be white? Yes, I am. Pittsburgh is depressingly segregated. The topography lends itself to isolation. The rivers and bridges connect us, but the ethnic pockets that congregated here hundreds of years ago remain largely intact. If you thought getting someone from Manhattan to visit Queens was a miracle try asking someone from Cranberry to come downtown (for something other than Wicked). And, if you’re white and only want to coexist with people who look like you, it’s entirely possible to do that here.
August Wilson once said “confront the dark parts of ourselves and work to banish them with illumination and forgiveness.” The play was our crowbar, prying open the wounds and a glimpse into the systematic supremacy imbedded in our community.
Let’s break it down: Bloomfield is 85% white, Larimer is 88% black, Regent Square is 94% white, The Hill is 97% black, Shadyside is 77% white and East Liberty is 73% black. White people make up 66% of Pittsburgh’s total population. The economic discrepancies between the black and white neighborhoods are cause enough to challenge the title of “most livable.” We don’t connect, we don’t congregate and unless you make it your business too, we don’t collaborate. There are of course exceptions to the rule, The Black and White Festival at Pittsburgh Playwright’s Theatre Company, The Kelly Strayhorn presents some cross-cultural collaborations, Quantum Theatre works to expand our borders, and The Waffle Shop offers a smattering of events beyond the pale, but generally speaking we tend to hover in our separate corners.
There’s so much to love about this city: affordable housing, a thriving arts community, incredible foundation support, stellar universities and a couple of championship professional sports teams. Did I mention three rivers and more bridges than Venice? But, the divide between the white communities and the communities of color makes all that “livability” hard to stomach. We (Bricolage, the company I run with my husband, Jeffrey Carpenter) decided to confront this issue head on. This spring we produced one of the most provocative plays about race we’d ever read: Dutchman by LeRoi Jones. And instead of pairing it with another one-act, we decided to host nightly conversations about race relations in Pittsburgh. We called the project Between the Lines, and every night we invited the audience onto the set to talk. Personally, I crave environments where I can learn new things, where I’m granted exposure to different cultures. At Bricolage, it’s our mission to make real connections with our audience by giving them a seat at the creative table, and for this project it was paramount we reach the most disparate audience possible.
We advertised in all corners of our city. We gathered a dynamic group of “conversation starters” to help guide our audience and facilitate the dialogue. Throughout thirteen evenings and three student matinees, our diverse audience sat with us speaking openly and honestly about racism. It was not easy. In fact it was painful. The legacy left behind by slavery seems almost insurmountable. There are people blind with rage and others so clueless it’s frightening, and in between there’s the choir trying its best to stay in tune. What is the remedy? How do we heal?
I began this project with a sense of optimism. It felt right and good to wake a sleeping giant. Some would argue that the ugly head of racism is hardly asleep, that it is festering right before our eyes. Six months ago I rarely talked about racism. I didn’t have to for one simple reason: I’m white—a privilege in this world. My privilege supports my absence from the conversation. My privilege keeps me ignorant and detached. I realize now, the optimism I began with was simply wishful thinking. That sleeping giant is not racism itself but the denial that it even exists. The delusion that we live in a post-racial society has become a battle cry for people afraid to face the truth. Listening to my fellow Pittsburghers speak of their pain, neglect and invisibility, I heard people protest, apologize and beg for solutions; I celebrated unlikely connections between seemingly disparate men—but the only real comfort I found was that there are others out there doing this work on a regular basis. After sixteen incredible, enlightening and life changing conversations I still don’t have any answers. In fact, I have more questions.
August Wilson once said “confront the dark parts of ourselves and work to banish them with illumination and forgiveness.” The play was our crowbar, prying open the wounds and a glimpse into the systematic supremacy imbedded in our community. Without the play this dialogue would not have been possible. Art is the great reflector. It’s meant to agitate, expose, alter and encourage dialogue—to foster connections and alter perceptions. Who are we? Why are we here? What do we want? How do we connect?
Theater is my prayer. Everything I know about the world I’ve learned through it, and I believe in its power to combat ignorance and fear. This most collaborative of art forms brings people together with the possibility of building the requisite relationships needed to change hearts. I believe theater can create the necessary space for change. To ask the questions we’re afraid to ask. For my Pittsburgh, with its long history of reinventing itself, my question is this: is it possible to evolve into a city that welcomes, retains and attracts people of color? It is my responsibility as an artist to generate more questions and to create opportunities to explore the answers. But is Pittsburgh ready to face this truth?