The Future Requires Faith: A Conversation on Trust, Transparency, and Transformation
Rika Iino: So, CIPA chose us to talk about our relationship, because apparently, we exemplify the intertwined and intersectional relationship as artist and creative producer…
Marc Bamuthi Joseph: What an honor. Do you have a memory of when we started working together and how?
Rika: I do. You might have a different memory, but I remember it being back in 2006—it was actually my very first producing gig. Wiley Hausam invited me and the amazing writer and scholar Jason King to curate a hip-hop festival at NYU Skirball Center. I didn't know you at that time but in my research for a festival opener, your name quickly came up. We ended up actually booking The Coup.
But shortly after that, I got to see you live—I think it was
Marc: It’s great that you referenced the break/s, because maybe another thing that brings us together is elasticity and rule breaking. What I remember about the break/s, besides it being a deeply personal work, was how tired I was at the end of every show. During my first ten years performing, a lot of my aesthetic was based on exhaustion. I was taking myself and an audience through a narrative journey that exercised multiple forms: the form of the body, body language, spoken language, visual medium, etc. But it was also a moment of witnessing somebody slowly lose their own form.
Exhaustion isn't as central in my personal aesthetic now, but those elements
We are aware that an organization that is engaging with us wants to do something more than have a performance on stage. They want to have an impact. For that to happen, they have to trust us pedagogically and logistically.
Marc: From the beginning, our working relationship was built on being integrated into institutional machines while also maintaining an aesthetic. Our process-based and values-led work was a different kind of cellular agent within the broader institution. There's certain ways of being that are very organic within the context of our relationship. Our positionality relative to the institution is very similar and aligned. So once I get what you want and once you get what I want, then the modalities are easy.
Rika: Right. The modalities just sort of fall into place and that's also where the trust inherently drives the creation or collaboration. We know that if one of us brings someone or something to the table, there's this belief and faith that there is a reason. Our work is about building that level of trust with our presenting partners and funders. We can design and build a show but let’s also design and build that larger container for relationships and impact beyond the theater based on trust.
Marc: Yes, and who it is that we welcome into that space matters too. The whole crew at Sozo follows your lead in terms of trust. You run an agency that looks—at least from the outside—to be very emotionally healthy. How trust plays a part in our working dynamic is reflected by how the folks you work with trust you. That is an ingredient in how people trust one another; witnessing how they work in their silos and other spaces.
Rika: It’s emotional safety. It's a designed environment. I believe so firmly in creation of safe space
Marc: There’s the trust that we have between one another, the trust that we have with our collaborating partners, and the trust that institutions and corporations have in us to do something more than performance. There are scores of incredibly talented artists that can rock out on stage and there are dozens of competent, highly intelligent creative producers. People trust us to make cultural hacks that extend beyond the screen or the proscenium. We are aware that an organization that is engaging with us wants to do something more than have a performance on stage. They want to have an impact. For that to happen, they have to trust us pedagogically and logistically.
Rika: And contractually.
Marc: Exactly. Another part of the trust dynamic is that we understand the stakes and take them seriously.
Rika: It's shared risks. I will say that there's another layer that wraps around trust and transparency
Marc: Yeah. I was just reading a book
But these are actually future issues. Can we envision the future that we want to see?
Rika: Absolutely. I went to a great Afrofuturism exhibit at the Oakland Museum of California last weekend and found a quote by poet and activist Jim Jordan: “If mankind is to have not only a future but destiny, it must consciously and deliberately be designed.”
That’s what we're here to do. People can do that through a show, online curriculum, or working in partnership with institutions on their social impact–facing programs. I think that when
Marc: Yes. Our working relationship uses all the items that you just mentioned to make a future together. The end product for some is a puzzle piece for us.
Rika: We talked about curriculum and our relationship with institutions. Maybe we can expand on that and share what we've done with The Just and the Blind.
Marc: Sure. This goes into future-making and the tools that get us to a place, but it’s also a part of our integrity and accountability matrix. The first point of inspiration for The Just and the Blind was the
We made this work under your producorial lead and primarily in collaboration with Daniel Bernard Roumain. We wanted to inquire about fatherhood in the age of mass incarceration; what freedom is and what freedom looks like. We knew that if we were going to have this inquiry, we also had to make medicine for families and create a structured way to involve young people in the dialogue. We worked with journalists, folks that were working with system-involved youth, and folks that were inside prisons. Through your hard work and digging, we generated support for curriculum called A Wall is Just a Wall, which is aimed at system-involved young people using poems and questions drawn from The Just and the Blind to experience a series of
On the front end, from research to performance, we were really thorough. The curriculum that developed out of that was very much in alignment with everything that we've been talking about in terms of creating tools or instruments for healing. We’ve been able to take all those different modes and modalities that we learned about institutions to think about how we impact the theatre field at the organizational level. We want to have a social impact but we also want to further equip organizations that are doing this great work and need tools.
Rika: In the past, I'd be working with artists of color, knocking on the doors of institutions and presenters and saying, “Here's what we've got. Impactful, thought-provoking art.” And they would say, “It's amazing what you're doing. It's so impactful. But our people are not ready.” For years, we heard that response. Now my mission, and the work you and I are doing, has expanded to saying to those institutions: “Let's work together so that you and your people can be ready. What are the underlying systemic issues we need to work on now so that in however many years it takes you to make your organization more inclusive, equity-centered, and BIPOC-focused, these works of art you weren’t ready for can exist authentically in your community?” My work as a producer and manager has transformed from just being a representative of these artistic works to becoming more of a conduit for greater transformation that could embody these works of art and artists.
Marc: Yeah. Organizations have to want to do the work in a way that's more than rhetorical. The change we seek is in some ways incremental, but there are any number of organizations that might be like, “If we work with folks outside of our cultural wheelhouse, are we then interlopers or cultural appropriators? Therefore, should we just neglect to do this work?” Or, “There is no dance that we're going to make that's going to end white supremacy so why should we commission a dance about it?”
I agree that the arts and cultural sector in America has
Rika: Speaking of our field, where do we see it going in terms of trust and transparency? How do funders and presenters play a role in that and in building new work?
Marc: When I was serving as a curator at
My work as a producer and manager has transformed from just being a representative of these artistic works to becoming more of a conduit for greater transformation that could embody these works of art and artists.
Rika: And artists can play a central role in that inquiry and visioning. In our world, I think it comes down to artists’ processes being aimed at that transformation. How can artists work from within? How many artists serve on your board? How many artists of color serve on your board?
Marc: And not all artists or organization are up for it or capable of it. Unfortunately, there have been climactic and iconic illustrations of what happens when an organization enlists BIPOC artists to do something ceremonial but don't have the support system to take that engagement from ceremonial to something more substantive. We've seen what happens when an organization does something with BIPOC artists to satisfy their predominantly white audiences.
Rika: It’s just symbols.
Marc: Exactly. So building that muscle requires the transparency
Rika: Risk capital and make that repeatable. Some organizations want their professional artists to just show up, do their performance, and leave. For many, it will continue to be that way. But I hope that some folks will consider alternative ways of engaging artists with a focus on emotional safe space and cultural transformation. I think more of that is starting to happen on a field-wide basis but it's only the beginning of that journey.
Marc: The field has to ask itself about its discrete and collective tipping points. For instance, an organization may decide they can achieve an organizational and a cultural shift by mandating that 25 percent of their work be
We talked about the trust and transparency that a creative producer and artist may have with a myriad of institutions. The other thing to cultivate is trust and transparency between institutions and historically stigmatized communities that have never felt a sense of belonging.
The future isn’t promised to anyone, but when a person lives in an environment that is built to hunt them, then the
irfuture is more tenuous than most.
Rika: Yes! In your recent talk at
Marc: That's really what it is. We're talking in these highfalutin and conceptual ways about the future but when a person is in danger, they are running. The future isn’t promised to anyone, but when a person lives in an environment that is built to hunt them, then the
To use the word danger is no exaggeration. Projects like The Just and the Blind and A Wall is Just a Wall aspire to make the world a little less dangerous for folks that look like us. These cultural spaces should be safe spaces for those kinds of ideas to thrive because increasingly, even schools aren't the place for those ideas to thrive. At this point, if it can't happen in schools, I don't know where else it happens if not in the cultural sector. So, do the work. If we're in the business of preserving the status quo, all right. Let's be transparent about that. But if we actually want to make our society
We've talked a lot about infrastructure for inspiration and, at the end of the day, we're talking about production
Marc: I'm so honored to be doing this with you.
Rika: Yes, and I, you. Thank you CIPA and HowlRound for inviting us into this conversation.