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Putting Out the American Theatre Dumpster Fire Through White Abolition

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It is obvious we have a problem in the American theatre. For decades and in many permutations, initiatives by white institutions that reach out to, interview, and hire Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC)—predominantly women—to join theatre environments under the auspices of equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) have literally died on the vine all over the country. These programs have not been sustainable over lengths of time due to BIPOC women ending up burnt out, forced to resign, or fired.

Let me take a step back. Some initiatives have kind of worked for a minute. The typical story is that white leadership of an institution catches heat for being a racist organization, throws up their hands, and decides to apply for grant money to bring a person of color into an incredibly panicked environment full of fragility to “fix” a system that is steeped in the machinations of Jim Crow. These non-allied white leaders think it is absolutely fine to dump their grievances onto this one person, offer little to no support in the way of funding or assistance, and then wait expectantly for the “magical BIPOC fixing” to happen. Of course it does not happen—the person of color is microaggressed into exhaustion and ends up leaving the institution. (In the generous and often harrowing replay of her experiences in a predominantly white institution, Lauren E. Turner’s recount is devastating.) The grant money runs out, the white folx throw up their hands again and say, “Well, we tried, but it just didn’t work, so let’s just go back to doing another production of Our Town or Showboat because that’s what our audience wants.”

These dumpster fires are burning all over the United States and there is no end in sight.

three headshots

Tavia Jefferson and Marisa Kennedy with Ann James of Black Bee Entertainment

As an Afrocentric intimacy specialist working with arts institutions all over the country, it is my observation that white people are frustrated, exasperated, and living in fear of being called out or cancelled due to the systemic racism in their organizations. Understandably, the allies in these institutions are reaching out to and calling in their more “traditional” counterparts, taking anti-racist classes and reading appropriately titled books, but it is not enough. Recently, I spoke with an established dance company in the DC area that’s struggling to keep lines of communication open with their BIPOC company members. When the letters of discord started flowing into their leadership’s mailboxes, they called me in as a consultant to strategize about how to rebalance the heightened emotions and find holistic solutions based on intimacy best practices. They asked, “Who should we hire? Where can we find a healing place?”

My response to them was twofold, and I believe it is a radical way for every white-led organization to find healing. I charged the leadership of this institution to stop reaching out to BIPOC staff and company for solutions to their institutional problem and to dig deep and do some serious work on healing the racism within themselves and their organization—all the way back to their personal ancestral trauma. They needed to do the work outside the BIPOC gaze and be laser-focused on their own personal relationships to prejudice, gatekeeping, microaggressions, gaslighting, and “othering” rather than place the onus on someone of color in their company to fix what is intrinsically a white problem. Because racism is a white problem.

Over the course of two meetings, my clients and I got through the blank stares, the silences for deep listening, and the tears to a place of understanding that it is no longer okay for predominantly white institutions to hire people of color into toxic, performatively anti-racist places to be harmed and traumatized by unfair practices and passive-aggressive rules of engagement. It is time for those in power to face inward and build the scaffolding to healing without BIPOC staff anywhere in sight.

I charged the leadership of this institution to stop reaching out to BIPOC staff and company for solutions to their institutional problem and to dig deep and do some serious work on healing the racism within themselves and their organization.

An encouraging example of how this healing can happen from within is the powerful action ART/New York is taking to balance the scales of racial justice within their organization and throughout their membership. The current white leadership demonstrates the brave steps to take in order to place the labor of rebuilding after one of the most public callouts in recent history unequivocally fell in their own laps. They are investing in a company called BlackBee Entertainment, an outside team of experienced Black professionals in race, diversity, and institutional intimacy, to parse out new areas of growth and understanding for their over three-hundred-theatre strong membership without expectation that their BIPOC staff should bear this load alone in addition to their staff responsibilities. This example of allied leadership, which stands in alignment and solidarity with its BIPOC staff by softening their load in unpacking systemic damage, is revolutionary.

We can certainly celebrate when flames are diminished to embers and ashes, but where do these fires begin? Truth be told, this is a problem that runs through the halls and classrooms of our university programs and conservatories. My company, Intimacy Coordinators of Color, has created an educational division in order to mine stories of departmental injustices in the collegial BIPOC space to try and capture where the ideas of white artistic supremacy begin. So far we have found that BIPOC erasure often begins during the freshman year at colleges that have very high rates of success yet leave many BIPOC students wanting and needing more inclusive education for the money they pay. In a brilliant article by Ciara Diane recently published in American Theatre Magazine, she proposes, quoting Katie Do, “School leaders ‘need to take our notes, because we spent a lot of money taking notes from them and came out, especially the BIPOC students, especially our Black students, with a lot of trauma.’”

So how far down does the dumpster fire burn? It is seemingly bottomless. People who go to college theatre programs learn what they know by how they are treated in their university settings. Board members of the future are born out of these educational institutions and very well may end up serving on boards at predominantly white theatres across this country. White people upholding the status quo of supremacy and denying there is a problem keeps adding fuel to the fire. This is systemic and generational. And in some cases it is ancestral, depending on how deeply an institution’s history is embedded in Plymouth Rock.

I have a few notes of my own to our allies. I see you out there trying to make sense of it all. I know you have been exposed to absolute fuckery in board meetings and casting meetings and season selection meetings. I know you have just as much side eye game as I do, if not more, and that you do not have the numbers in your ranks to fight. But I also say with my whole chest voice: It is up to you, white ally, to find what you need deep down in order to stand up and stop placing talented, gifted, inspirationally driven BIPOC arts professionals in harm’s way at your workplace. Flip that allyship into abolition.

It is up to you, white ally, to find what you need deep down in order to stand up and stop placing talented, gifted, inspirationally driven BIPOC arts professionals in harm’s way at your workplace.

Very little can change without radical abolition of white supremacy at the top of the American artistic food chain. Right now BIPOC individuals do not hold the most power, so white people who want change (called “abolitionists” instead of “allies” for their deep commitment to transformational justice) are the key.

Here is a starter list of actions for the “newly minted” abolitionist:

  • Write anonymous letters of financial transparency to funding organizations that keep feeding money to your institution—which tokenizes BIPOC hires who are not emotionally supported in their work—to turn your organization around.
  • Cease and desist from hiring solo Black directors to direct “the Black play” in toxic, isolating environments and instead advocate for hungry mid-career BIPOC director clusters to direct whole seasons at your theatre.
  • Stop using resumes as a primary determining factor in your hiring process. Rather, look at letters of recommendation from BIPOC applicants as a primary source of your decision-making because BIPOC artists have not had near the exposure to the opportunities of your white applicants.
  • Stop the energy behind expecting EDI hires to “bring in” the BIPOC audiences. Get off your duff and reach out to the small and struggling BIPOC companies in your city, because the big bucks your organization siphons off may be holding them back from building the BIPOC arts community that may come see your programming.
  • Open your mind and heart just a little further to understanding that feeding these BIPOC arts organizations will work miracles in their communities—particularly in theatre education, which creates lifelong arts appreciation, sparks interest in theatre as a career very early on in a child’s development, and can even extend out to better grades in school and aid in the collapse of the school-to-prison pipeline in some of our largest cities.
  • Finally, question your board about why it is so very white. If this questioning doesn’t get you fired, it will start a conversation. That might also get you fired. But seriously, do you have that much investment in toxicity that you fear being ejected from a dumpster fire? Let them implode so we can start over. Ashes are a useful ingredient to making concrete new systems that will provide equitable access to the arts for all of us.

And to my BIPOC family, specifically the Black women: These arts institutions aren’t paying you enough. Periot. Ask for your worth, and ask high. If you are being called in to create new programming, write meaningful anti-racist curriculum, or create space for white folx to learn more about us… The salary number in your head? Double it. Include a weekly therapist session. Include a support animal. Get a bigger office and a BIPOC intern. Ask for more sick days and mental health days. Freeze the job description for your first year of employment. Make them make it right for you or walk away. Solid requirements around pay and benefits and environment will create a conversation and it will be crystal clear in your interviews if that institution is a safe place for you to grow. This is the way forward.

Being uncomfortable in this new era of theatre is not a bad thing. Learning is happening, but it is taking too long because the systemic power-holders are not going gracefully. The fires are still raging and will be for a while. But our craft will survive. It will change, it will rip apart and be sewn back together again, but it can bloom like we have never seen it do before. I believe this. If BIPOC partnered with white abolitionist power leading the way and holding the hose, the American theatre would crumble to ashes and be rebuilt the way we collectively envision, because we are artists, we demand transformational justice, and we just do not have it in us to quit.

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