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The Soul Work of Theatre with Sharia Benn

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Sharia Benn: How you handle communities of color that come to your show, how you greet us in the lobby areas, you've got to be in touch with your own biases and just opening your doors and saying, "We're going to discount tickets because we want all communities to come." Things like that, I'm like, "What makes you think we can't afford the tickets? Why do you think it's the ticket price that stops Black folks from coming from in our community?"

Yura Sapi: You are listening to Building Our Own Tables, a podcast produced for HowlRound Theatre Commons, a free and open platform for theatremakers worldwide. I'm your host, Yura Sapi, and I'm the founder of various organizations and projects, including a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, a six-hectare farm and food sovereignty project, an LGBTQ+ healing and art space. And I've helped numerous creatives, leaders, and other founders unleash their excellence into the world through my programs, workshops, and coaching services.

In this podcast, I'm showcasing the high vibration solutions for you as a visionary leader to implement into your own practice and thrive. Stay tuned this season to hear from other founders who have built their own tables for their communities and for the world in this evolutionary time on earth. You are here for a reason and I am so honored and grateful to support you on your journey, so stay tuned and enjoy.

"Why do you all need your own theatre company?" Imagine being said that. Or maybe it sounds familiar to you. This is what Sharia Benn and I get into in today's episode, diving into the history, present moment, and future manifesting of Sankofa African American Theatre Company. Imagine someone questioning the importance of theatre companies that are founded, created, owned by Black, indigenous, and people of color. This is exactly why the Building Our Own Tables podcast exists because we are showcasing the impacts, the benefits, that so many have experienced from being able to create our own spaces, not only because of the business context. When you look at what it means to have a Black-owned business, a Latina-owned business, an Indigenous-owned business, Middle Eastern-owned companies. When we really look at beyond the business case, which it is—we know we see minority women-owned business certifications that a lot of the for-profit industry works off of and really is able to uplift in terms of what it means to be supporting these companies and the impact that it can make on our communities.

Beyond the business side of it all, a lot of us, if not all of us, really, who do this type of work of creating our own organizations are also driven by a larger vision and calling to really affect change through the work of our representation, not only on stage, but in the different aspects of production, in the way that audiences are affected, changing the funding models, donors, designers, and directors, and all of the people that are a part of making an arts event happen. That's why this podcast is so important because we're really gathering this coalition of individuals who are making a collective impact through our individual local work.

In today's episode, we dive into this with Sharia. We discuss some of these frustrating, challenging aspects of doing something that no one has done before. We discuss the challenges of stereotypes of limiting beliefs, of conditioning of society, and some ways that you might overcome them if you start to feel them creep in and become a part of who you are. And it was just such an inspiring, uplifting conversation that really helps us bring forth the power of what it is we're doing in this act of building our own tables of creating our own spaces and having agency in a local, national, and even international conversation around what it means to be a person of color producing, creating, leading in communities and spaces in countries where the dominant is not that, where the power has been held in different spaces for so long.

It's such an honor to introduce you or further offer a platform for you to get to know Sharia Benn, founder of Sankofa African American Theatre Company, which exists to engage and enrich the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania region around African American perspectives on these relevant issues of the human experience through thought-provoking theatre that reflects the same artistic excellence. Sharia has been working on something big in this very specific community of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. It's just so exciting to get to spotlight and understand more about her journey, kind of pulling back the curtain a bit on some of the very real life truths of what it means to build these types of movements of change.

I know you're going to be inspired. I know you'll get gems of wisdom and I'm so excited to hear what you think. So definitely check in in the comments, post a rating, write reviews, and let's keep this discussion open because this is really the work. We are all here together making this real. Most of all, enjoy this episode.

Before we get into this episode, go ahead and hit subscribe on this podcast. This is the best way to stay updated on new episodes and it helps build a thriving planet where all beings experience joy and harmony with each other and Mother Earth. So go ahead and hit subscribe and keep this good energy flowing.

Welcome to the podcast, Sharia. Thank you so much for being here.

Sharia: Thank you so much for having me. I am honored to come to the table and talk to you, so thank you.

Yura: Yeah, such a amazing table today to feature Sankofa African American Theatre Company. I am starting off this season checking in with folks to hear about your origin story. So tell us about what is that pivotal moment that really led you to go ahead and forge your own path and build your own table?

Sharia: So my origin story is really based in the lack of representation that I encountered when I moved to Harrisburg from Baltimore. So I came to Harrisburg a little over twenty-five years ago, and I came for a job. In Baltimore, I worked in the insurance industry. When I would get off from work, I'd be able to go and experience theatre as an audience member and also participate in it as an actor, so whether it was community theatre or the many other professional theatres and cultural outlets, and I was included, and I saw me.

When I moved to Harrisburg for a promotion, I came into this place where it's the capital of Pennsylvania. And when I would get off from work, there wasn't anything that connected with me to do culturally or in the theatre space. After years and years, I found one opportunity and it took me to this theatre company that was doing a February piece. I auditioned, I got in. And after that, every February they would do a piece, an August Wilson piece. So they wanted to do the August Wilson cycle. This was a white theatre company. Every year the Black cast would come together and in the green room talk about, "We should have more of this." And after seven years of talking about it, "Let's stop talking and let's do it because we are worthy of theatre and representation outside of February."

That really was the pivotal moment when I just said, "Let's do it." And I didn't even know what it was. I just knew that it was time to move and stop talking. I really would say the spirit of Sankofa swooped down and turned on its wings, that mythical bird, and said, "You know what? I've got you. You just hold on and we will fly to together." That was the pivotal moment for me.

Yura: Wow, that’s beautiful. So that was seven years with an idea of something kind of brewing. How long has it been since that moment now?

Sharia: Seven years.

Yura: Oh wow.

Sharia: There is significance in numbers. Seven is the number of completion. Eight for me is the number associated with new birth. So we've been a theatre company, Sankofa African American Theatre Company, going into our seventh year. It's taken seven years for us to gain credibility, trust in the community. It was all the things that I've learned on the business side in insurance, in my positions and career span. I was able to bring into the creation and the birthing of Sankofa.

So starting with intent and mission and vision down to our name, Sankofa. Coming from Baltimore, I thought everyone knew what Sankofa was. When we first started, others in our founding committee are like, "What is Sankofa?" They were leaning towards naming the company things like Voices of Color and I step back and say, "No, I want to be very intentional about who we are." And so thus it is not only just Sankofa, but it's Sankofa African American Theatre company. We could have been Sankofa Theatre or just Sankofa. I knew that it was a risk because every time I write Sankofa African American Theatre Company on a grant application or request for sponsorship, there is no doubt of our identity. And forming the company prior to Floyd and We See You, White Theatre and those movements, it was a calculated risk, but it was also about trust and being true to our mission and vision of representation and highlighting and focusing on African American culture, experience, history. It was really important for us seven years ago to start that journey and be the only African American dedicated theatre company in this space.

Yura: Yeah. Can you share more about some of the biggest challenges you've faced and how you've been able to overcome them or maybe reframe their understanding as something else beyond a challenge?

Sharia: Yeah. When we first... The idea was getting out because by this time I had started to work as an actor in a lot of the theatre spaces here. So when I say a lot, there are really three major ones in Harrisburg. So the question came up with, "Why do you all need your own theatre company?"

Yura: You all?

I want you to see my color and my culture and I want to be in charge. Our community should be in charge of handling our stories so that we can tell them well and that we can bring the beauty and the joy of our culture to the stage and to the community.

Sharia: I said, “Because you asked that question.” That's the answer. The theatre's spaces here aren't doing our stories and, “We'll just do more Black theatre. We'll do some colorblind casting and that will give you representation.” I said, "No, I want you to see my color and my culture and I want to be in charge. Our community should be in charge of handling our stories so that we can tell them well and that we can bring the beauty and the joy of our culture to the stage and to the community.” That was the first challenge, really questioning, “Why do you all... You really don't need your own agency. You don't need to own this. We can continue to tell your stories and own them. We'll just do more of them. And that equates to representation.” No. Sankofa's model. We don't have a physical space, and that was by design, one, for sustainability.

Getting funding for any nonprofit, any new organization is difficult. Being a BIPOC organization is near impossible. I also recognize that the work here is in existing spaces. And when I talk about that work, the theatre audience in this community was 98 percent white. The work was really going into those spaces, to those audiences and using theatre as a vehicle to engage around African American culture and history. They are in community when we do theatre like they would not have been if we weren't in these spaces. So it's not even just going into these spaces physically and doing shows, but actually going into spaces and working with the directors and executives, the administrators in these theatre spaces and saying, "Hey, look, this is what it really means to be inclusive, to foster belonging. It's not just about colorblind casting."

Doing the work with those creatives so that they make their spaces inclusive, safe, and respectful for BIPOC creatives. We've been successful in doing that by collaborating, meaningful collaborations where Sankofa and the theatre that we're collaborating with, we jointly own everything, all the production costs, the revenue from the box, the work that's done, but they also allow me to come in and handle very carefully, lovingly, truthfully, the story. It's been a unique and gratifying, but really tough journey because there are people in this space, white people who believe they already know that they're open and that they are inclusive, but we aren't coming.

“BIPOC people just don't come to our shows. They're not auditioning. “ So it's changing mindsets and transforming and opening eyes and spirits and hearts and saying, “We would come if you invited us and invited us well, that it wasn't empty and open and it feels unsafe.” So that's where the work for the last seven years really has been in helping this community of primarily white theatre spaces understand Blackness and what needs to happen to bring us into their spaces and to tell our stories well.

When Sankofa does productions, our audiences are now almost 50/50, white, people of color, multi-generational, and that is the beauty when you see the work that we're doing is taking hold in the community. We're in spaces and touching lives, transforming lives that would not have happened had Sankofa not been here and operating the model that we have.

Yura: That's an incredible story. It's just so inspiring and it really brings along the possibilities because we're talking about theatre, but you're using it as one example of so many aspects of our world, of our concerns and both on the stage when we're talking about seeing our stories and seeing the human experience, but also when you look at this business aspect, a theatre company of having a business as people of color, as Black indigenous people of color. Yeah, when you said that comment about this resistance to, “Why do you need to start a business? Why do you need to start a company? Why do you have to own it? Why do you have to be separate?,” just that initial question seems to come from a place of fear because it's not this question of “What can we do to help?” or “That's great. Yeah, come join. Do you need any support?” There's a different response there that could have been.

And so I think, yeah, just uplifting what you're saying about noticing clear challenges, shifting these perspectives and shifting these understandings of what is possible. And it's about the artists on stage, the actors, but it doesn't stop there at all. It's about the audiences, it's about the donors, it's about the people who are running the organization and all of the other people that could eventually be a part of it. There's this large scale transformation that's going on that you're getting to do in a specific community that also is this portal, this offering, this opportunity to then share what you're doing for many other groups that can be doing this in their local space. And then ultimately we're all coming together and sharing this in a larger kind of movement of change. Yeah, I just want to affirm that you're doing amazing work.

Sharia: Yeah, I love that. When you said portal, that really spoke to me. And also that this is a business venture. So for me, part of my origin story is—I did not go to school for theatre. Theatre is my outlet. It was like people go to the gym. If I could go into that theatre space and see a play or be cast in something, that was the way for me to process and get through life.

So part of the origin story for me is I didn't have an MFA. I don't have an MFA. I don't have a degree in theatre. I bring what I've learned on the stage, what I've learned living in life, what I've learned in corporate America. I just bring it. I've learned that if I don't have it, it's in me though. I was feeling afraid. I was feeling fearful. I was feeling “this is a territorial waters that I should not go in and navigate because I am not equipped because I don't have what they have, I don't have the credentials that they have and the norms say I should have in order to do this work.” And what divine and innately and then ancestrally was placed in me was: you got to go beyond that because what you are going to do, what you have been created to do, it hasn't been done.

So you can't credential something that hasn't existed. And that's how innovators, inventors, and foragers work. Don't rely on what an institution says you should have to give credibility to the work that you are doing or going to do. That's been something that I've shared with people, especially Black indigenous people of color who have not had access to school or funding.

When I grew up, going to school for theatre was a luxury, and my parents were like, “Oh, no. Yes, we know that you're talented, but you need to go to school and get something that's going to earn you a living because that theatre and arts, it's just for fun.” I have taken that and used that as a learning opportunity and also as what I share with other people that, “You know what...” And what we should do is that theatre can be, should be, and it is essential. All of the creatives that are out there, especially, not especially but creatives, human beings, but really I focus on the BIPOC actors, should make a living wage. Your work should be valued, you should be paid. And part of our guiding principles is that Sankofa will pay you more than the other theatres. We got a lot community theatres or theatres that don't pay the actors. The creatives do it because they love the art, but for even when we do something and our actors expect, they're like, "Oh, what? You're going to pay me to do this?" Absolutely.

When it comes to raising funds and writing grants and doing appeals, I don't do as much work as I would love to do because of that guiding principle. So if it means we can only do two works or three works, and I don't even have a season, I'm like, “I'm not going to be locked into a season,” I am going to move forward because this is life-changing work. Emergency rooms and hospitals and other places don't have a season of when they treat people, when they make them better. They're there so when people show up, wounded, hurt and need to be resuscitated, they can respond. So that's what we're doing. It can vary non-traditional, but sustaining, giving life-sustaining work to the human beings that are doing it, but also our culture and our history.

Yura: Yeah. Yeah, so much powerful offerings. I actually do want to go back to that practice of being able to notice when there's a limiting belief coming into our mind. So for example, something that maybe we've heard from, like you said, an institution or our parents or our conditioning of how we ended up where we are. I love being able to go identify that when that's coming up and then go ahead and see how can I respond to that with self-compassion? How can I actually change the narrative? And when I say I love to do this, I love it when it's done. It doesn't always mean that it's something enjoyable in the moment because it doesn't necessarily feel possible, yet maybe.

But yeah, I've been learning more about the way stereotypes work and that actually when you're in a place where a lot of people are holding a specific belief, a stereotype for example around you, that there's actually this effect of taking it on just from what everyone else is thinking. And so you can internalize it. And one of the top things that you could do in those moments is to notice that it's happening. Notice that you've actually started to believe and find the ways to really separate yourself from the fact that other people's thoughts are coming into yours and really find that grounding in your affirmations, in your understanding of a different story.

So whether that's having a really strong, for example, meditation practice, having ways in which you're putting up an energetic boundary when needing to be around these spaces or finding out what is it that you want to replace with these toxic thoughts that are coming through and maybe toxic people for specifically what you're trying to do. What are the power thoughts that you want to replace that with? What are the power people that you want to be surrounding yourself with?

So it can be difficult especially when you haven't seen other things. So I know for me, a huge important part of my journey was actually going to Ecuador in Colombia where I also hold citizenship and just experiencing the world from a different country, from a different experience, different language that I was speaking. And so that really allowed me to open my mind and body up to a different way of being and knowing that there is actually a lot that we might think that is set in stone that is completely open and that really everything is possible.

Sharia: Yes, I so identify with that. One of the experiences and things that I came to realize is that because I've been so conditioned and also my personality is one that I want peace, I conform, that's part of who I am and that's what makes me great. It makes me a good facilitator and collaborator when I'm operating in those things in a strength mode coming from a place of strength and awareness.

So as I was going along on this path, I wasn't even aware of when I was allowing and being a portal for all of those negative thoughts and all of those stereotypes. All of those biases were coming in and I didn't realize how I was processing it. So a strategy that I have is to align myself with and surround myself, almost create this barrier and shield with people who I trust, who I've been able to share and become very vulnerable about my strengths and my weaknesses and my personality's strengths and things that would not help me be my fullest because it's who I am and it's a part of my psyche and also my experiences and what I was told, and they know all of these things.

So it's almost like they act as interpreters and I have them with me in these spaces. They have license. I have given them license because we have a relationship in the trust to say, “Oh, you're operating in, you let that in. I saw how something that was said or done triggered you and you are now operating in this path that is not your strongest. Oh, did you hear when that was said or did you know that you received that into your psyche?” So it's really important to surround yourself with people who can help because you don't always hear it. You don't always know it. And that helps. It's just operating in community, and that's what I love.

One of the things I love about doing this work, you develop this community. And then in turn, I am that for others. It's this continuum of moving, affirming, protecting and just helping each other in this circle, birth our greatness, birth the possibilities. I love from For Colored Girls, there's a heart in there in one of the monologues. “Let her be born. Let her be born and handled warmly.”

Yura: Yeah.

Sharia: We're doulas. Let me be born and then handle me as a human being. Because human beings, we are warm blooded. Yeah.

Yura: That's beautiful. I keep seeing this image of seedlings because I also am a farmer, a gardener, and—

Sharia: Love it.

Yura: Yeah, I'm just thinking about these seeds, especially now at least here in the northeast where I'm currently calling, there's this time of sowing the seed and planting the seeds and letting them grow. There's so much that we can do to really set those seeds up for success for growth. Whether it's the soil, it's the sunlight, it's the potting, it's the time with the moon when we plant it, all these things that can go into play that we can really be intentional about. And so I definitely think when we are considering our leadership, it's about change. It's about we're trying to really make a change. And change can be very difficult to do. And so we want to be really intentional about that and know what is it we're saying to different people at different moments? Who are we letting in?

And so it's this energy of what are we feeding this dream with. We don't want to just put the seedling out to anywhere in the street and people will step on it. So there's that intentional offering of saying, "I'm going to be selective about who I'm sharing this seed with to help grow." And for me, recently, it's really been a beautiful awakening to me of this world of coaching, which I think it's something that has always happened and now it's becoming more of an industry because of the time of transformation. When we're transforming, it's really helpful to have coaches. It's really helpful to have people who are carrying of our seeds in this way. I've been trained and certified as a coach now.

As a client, as someone receiving coaching, you get to receive this supportive energy of someone who is 100 percent believing in your dreams because they've also experienced them and have seen the power of making goals happen. That can be such a game changer. Maybe you've been surrounding yourself by people who don't believe that your specific dream or goal is possible just because of their own conditioning and their own understanding, and that's actually really what might be holding you back from making it real because you're not around anybody who believes that it's real, who can tell you, “This is the way that it can happen,” or “Here are some examples,” or “Here are some things you can do to move forward in the direction of your goal.”

Sharia: That was one of the best things I've done to invest in my self-care is get a wellness coach. And in this process, learning the difference between a counselor and a coach. My coach is my cheerleader saying, “Okay, you own this. And I'm coming and walking beside you to help you get to your goals and then also process things like what might be holding you back or what can you do.” It's just this constant challenge. We just need that challenge of rethink that or imagine the possibly. Who are you and how do you become your fullest self and how do you take care of yourself? How do you breathe? How are you eating? How are you existing in all of this as opposed to living with roles that weren't formed for me to be my fullest?

I was hesitant at first. I want to do this. It's another thing I have to add into my schedule and my budget, but it has been one of the best investments and it uplifts me and my business. So that's a really great thing. Thank you for being a certified coach and helping people become their best, but also aware of where you are in the spaces that you are, because again, we're multifaceted, we're intersectional. All of those things. So many layers of youth.

For me with Sankofa, I'm constantly processing a need to be aware of who I am as an individual in relation to the institution of theatre, of arts and all of the other institutions in this artistic space, my commitment as an individual, as Sankofa, as an institution to my community. And who is my community? My community is layered. And who do I owe and what do I owe? So it's these constant conversations that my coach and those that are in my inner circle are constantly having. It's intentional.

Everything that I do, it's with thought and intention and it helps me along this path. Down to seeing myself as the guardian of a legacy, I am creating this. I didn't choose this path. The path chose me. I am very aware that I am creating this company. I'm starting this to hand it off. I am the first leg in the relay race and I've got the baton. I ran track when I was in high school and I'm just...

Yura: Me too.

Sharia: ... digging in. Yeah, I am the first leg and I am digging in. And I am making sure that I do the fastest time so that when I hand that baton off, there is a lead, and that's what I'm doing. I'm creating this.

One of the things in our community that's happening, we have a lot of talent, but it's not mined. So people don't even know they have talent because they don't have opportunities. But when they do, they leave and they never come back. We mine the talent. So we meet people where they are. Literally, come as you are and then we'll find a place for you because there is a place for everybody in Sankofa. We think about this as work on stage or you're an actor. Or at most we might say, you're in tech, you do the light. No, I need everyone who knows numbers. If you like numbers, there's a place for you here. There's our treasurer, there's our back office, there's our box. Whatever you have been created to do whatever gifts and talents you have, I need you to come. So that's what we're doing.

And then I'd say, I need you to go. Wherever it is, go and get it. Go and learn it. And then I need you to come back. That's the power and the principle of Sankofa. Go back and claim and get everything that is part of you, your story, your history. Get it, claim it. Bring it into your present so that you can own it, you can reckon with it so that you can learn from it. And then you can move forward with power and purpose.

That's what I'm doing in this theatre company. It's not only the stories that we tell. We found a niche where we are telling very significant and impactful stories in our community along with we have a great cannon of work to pull from, which was another challenge. People say, “There's not going to be enough work. How much work is out there that's going to sustain seasons of this?” Again, it's coming as you are, finding and nurturing who you were created to be and then leaving and coming back better than when you ever first encountered me or Sankofa. Claim it.

Yura: Are you ready to step into who you were born to be? As a certified soul purpose or dharma and spiritual life coach, I am so ready to guide you in this powerful transformation of your life. As a successful social entrepreneur, social innovator, I am so excited to support others along this journey, because ultimately, when we all thrive in our respective communities, our impact really multiplies exponentially. And it brings me so much joy to help creators and leaders like you unleash your incredible talents, skills, and destiny of who you're meant to be for our planet in this time.

I get to bring together all of my training in business and arts management, the climate justice sector, and healing and shamanic energy work to really bring you into alignment.

In my three-month coaching program, instead of thinking only of the worst case scenario, we bring in the energy of the best case scenario. We address what is holding you back. What are those toxic habits, people, and thoughts that are really stopping you from making this future version of yourself and of the world that you're calling in impossible? We'll address them, heal them, and alchemize this energy into something that is useful for you.

We’ll dive into your soul purpose, and this is such an important and sacred aspect of the process to know who you are, to know more about your passion, to know what is it that you are meant to be doing right now. Then we move into integration helping you create a strategic plan and understanding of how this vision will become real in the next weeks to month to years.

I'm ready to help you unlock these codes and manifest your abundant success where you reach all of your dreams and beyond. I'm so excited for you and the amazing positive impact you're going to be making on this world. You are such a powerful leader and I'm so excited to support you. So go ahead and check out my coaching services at liberarteinc.org and you can find the link in the show notes as well. Talk to you soon.

So we talked about the pre-seven years, the seven years just passed. What about the seven years coming forth? What are you working on in these next seven years? What really interests me is, what are the challenges of the industry that are frustrating you the most and then the work that you're doing to overcome them?

If we get one person in that audience to see us in a different manner and perspective…if they hire someone because of something they've seen on a Sankofa stage or part of a Sankofa engagement, we've transformed a whole life, a whole family. 

Sharia: Great question, because there is a lot that frustrates me. And if I had to group it in a category, it's inequity, injustice, a disregard for the sanctity of BIPOC culture and experience, the lack of commitment to and recognition of how significant race and culture contributes to in developing, constructing the things that we do in the theatre space. The shows that we perform, it just frustrating this notion that theatre companies, primarily white theatre companies, can't get around in terms of representation, thinking that colorblind casting is acceptable. That's the work that they have to do. No, there is trauma there. If you are going to bring people of color into your spaces, you just can't insert a human being who does not have the same experience and has come from such a traumatic and violent and inequitable history background.

It's in our DNA. And it's not for that human being to change. It's for you and your institutions to change even how you direct and how you approach the work that you do, how you market your work, how you handle communities of color that come to your show, how you greet us in the lobby areas, what you think. You've got to be in touch with your own biases and just opening your doors and saying, "We're going to discount tickets because we want all communities to come." Things like that, I'm like, "What makes you think we can't afford the tickets? Why do you think it's the ticket price that stops Black folks from coming from in our community?" Just constantly having to challenge the existing status quo in the theatres. It's frustrating. But it's also, I understand it's the work that I've taken on and it's what I've created to do.

We just keep having the conversations and call it out. And also do it in a way where I've learned and I know the people I'm working with because I want to get results. It's less about how combative or confrontational I was and more about “I need to get the results.” I need to get the results. Not my personality to be combative. It's more, again, collaborative, also being truthful in that and knowing when it's not going to work and when to quit. That's another part of this.

So some things I just have to say, “I'm not going to continue doing this work with this entity because there has been no change and no desire to change.” This is soul work that we're doing. We're saving lives. Because if we get one person in that audience to see us in a different manner and perspective, that one person, if they hire someone because of something they've seen on a Sankofa stage or part of a Sankofa engagement, we've transformed a whole life, a whole family. If they are in the room with decision-makers and funders and all of those people there, if I have one person who's in authority that doesn't pull over someone because they've been profiling them, but now they understand the story and the truth, we've saved the life. That's soul work. That's what we're doing.

Yura: Yeah, I'm very interested in that work with my organization, LiberArte, because we talk about doing racial, social, and climate justice through the arts. And our vision is this thriving planet where all beings experience joy and harmony with each other and Mother Earth. And for me, really, the core problem that I'm experiencing for the world is this disconnection. So we've experienced a disconnection to ourselves, to each other, and to the earth. We look at all of the world's problems. If we were actually genuinely connected in right relation in this feeling of harmony with each other and joy, we wouldn't have these types of clashes and misunderstandings and violence, all these things that are happening both with humans and with the earth and to ourselves too, because ultimately when you look at what it means to hate someone else, it's really a reflection of what one hates within themselves.

So for me, that's really where the arts can unlock a key. And I think it's something that we as humans knew, but now in these later thousands of years, it seems that we've lost that connection to the power of what it means to be in community and gathering in spaces where we can really see each other and be with the earth.

And so I'm definitely very curious about what you're talking about in terms of the ways in which we can really measure our impact and our results, because there are ways that people have created to measure sustainability standards in being able to say, “These certain practices will eventually help you stop things like flooding or oil spills.” And so there's a way that then it also translates to this understanding of it's going to affect your business, the money that's made. This type of saying, these are the ways that the arts is affecting real time change in terms of how people are able to, after an experience of seeing each other, connecting with each other, connecting with themselves, connecting with the earth, which is why I love to do outdoor events as well, that we actually see shifts happening for our community in the world in terms of shifts of perspectives, shifts of tracking, of different instances of clashes, of violence, of encounters with the police and this type of disharmonious situations.

I think the other thing that we are overlooking is the power of joy, the power of awe, the power of gratitude and laughter. I think people know about it in different ways. There are maybe disparate studies out there around how humor breaks tension. And when you start off a meeting with gratitude, it just brings in a whole other energy. And so there's definitely ways that we can start to really make this larger case for support around how the arts, the gateway that we haven't tried, that the politicians aren't really focusing on when it comes to things like climate change or racial justice.

It's almost like sometimes I feel it's a kind of add-on. Or we have an event where we're talking about climate justice or we're talking about racial justice, and then there's also a performance happening, or there's also an event that everyone goes to and it's an add-on, but we're not actually seeing how... And you can even experience it though, maybe you're at this event and they have conversations and then a performance happens. And then there's conversations again. The second time the conversations are actually more dynamic and people are more open and people are really connecting. And I think there's an opportunity there to really say, “Why did that happen?” This is why it happened. What if we keep investing in this? What if we keep uplifting the importance of the arts and everyone that's a part of it, which are the artists and the art producers and the creators and everyone that is a part of making that happen. Yeah, this is something that I'm definitely very excited about, and what I'm looking towards is a big solution for it.

Sharia: Yeah. I think you’re right on. Last year, Sankofa, myself, we were part of a collaborative with journalists who were doing research and studies around climate justice, climate solutions. And so we had this cohort of journalists. It was really a journalistic project. But our cohort, they bought in me. And okay, and I’m thinking, I love the conversations. I know there’s work for us to do around the climate, and we were all trying to figure out what was Sankofa’s in this, and I said, “I’m here to learn. I’m also here to help you as journalists reach a community that you otherwise would not be able to reach and are not interested in. But in this community, brown and Black folks are highly impacted by this.” What ended up happening, it was a two-year project, but I took the stories that they researched and they wrote and they published and created theatrical piece, bringing all those stories together, but also our community. Giving that a life and an audience who would not read those pieces or felt that this impacted them.

We put on this production for a weekend. It was very well received. But what was really important about that is continuing the conversation. So Sankofa, we have a talkback or a post-show discussion with every performance. When I look at the matrix, so I’m always thinking about what are the performance or the key indicators of success that we are making inroads, that we’re making a difference? And I haven’t come up with anything except talking to people, but also being able to talk to the same people.

So over seven years, I’ve been able to engage with many people, the same people over and talk to them over and over. So basically you end up having more or less a listening session And those people, they’re telling you, they’re showing you the change, the outcomes. They keep coming back, and now they have more questions. And they’re linking the first time they came into the space and engaged with Sankofa to now they’re here and they’re sharing, “Oh, this is how it’s impacted me. A year ago, two years ago, five years ago, this is where I was, and this is what I saw on stage. This is what I experienced coming into the space that Sankofa was inhabiting, and this is where I am now.”

Those are human story, metrics. And also if we want to do an analysis and some analytics on it, I’m looking at the people that keep coming back and they’re leaving with actionable items. So I am like, “This is my call to action for this production. Now you come back and you tell me what you’ve done.” That’s how I’ve been able to gauge the metrics that I’m using, because numbers don’t tell the full story. People tell the full story.

Yura: Wow. Yeah. I have this vision of the support that we could receive. All of the Building Our Own Tables podcast guests, all these incredible theatre leaders who have started these amazing organizations that are centering different people of color across the US, across the world sometimes, and I just see that this is a coalition that is being built through this podcast space because I think there's something there around really all of our collective data, qualitative and quantitative, and just really being able to say, “This is the impact that we've been able to have and that we are continuing to have.” I see the opportunity of being able to come together in that type of way and go ahead and present something together and saying, “This is what we've done and this is what we can do if you keep funding, if you keep supporting what we're doing.”

Sharia: It's an investment. It really is. Going back to frustrations, “Why does our work, why is it not seen as an investment with a high return on that investment?” And other work, other companies are funded and it's okay if they don't break even. It's okay. But our work is not funded. We clearly are having impact, positive impact on our community and on the human psyche and the human being aspects of it, how we qualify and quantitate that. It's just, I'd love the idea of all of us coming together and here is the compelling story and the statistics. Our work matters, and we are doing it against incredible odds. What we have to work with, I look at even the cost of our productions and how we do things. And then I see other budgets and what they project to do the same thing, and I'm like, “Man, we are resourceful and resilient people,” but that is not enough and it's not equitable to expect us to continue to operate with this.

But the greatness is we do, also, our models and our work are being copied. Those that copy, and okay, yes, that's a great compliment, but they're not able to achieve the same results. So they come back and they're like, “Hey, what makes this different?” I'm like, “What we do, it's for us to do. Now you would have more impact if you join with me to do this and not create or take. Haven't you learned that we are brilliant and that we are strong and you're already living off of our work?” So that's a whole other path to go down, but those are the things that are frustrating. And the answer, the response to that is, “Show me. Show me the numbers. Show me your results.” When we try to get funding, those are the challenges. So bring us all together as a collective. Keep moving ahead and lifting each other up in this work that we're doing. We're guardians of the legacy.

Yura: On that note, wow, what an incredible conversation. This was such an honor. Time flew by.

Sharia: Yes.

Yura: So how can we get in touch with Sankofa African American Theatre Company? What do you have on next?

Sharia: I would love for people to go to sankofatheatrehbg.com, and sign up for our newsletter and look at the work we've done. You can follow us at Sankofa Theatre on Facebook, on the Gram. If you're listening and you are in the Harrisburg or Maryland, New Jersey, New York, DC area, we have our next production, Intimate Apparel by Lynn Nottage. It's a new partnership that I have with one of the major theatres. We're going to be collaborating to do this work. I am so excited. It opens June the 14th. It will run through the end of the month. We're forging new paths, really doing things in our theatre community around respecting the individual, using resources like certified intimacy directors, bringing in and respecting traditions, meditation, and bringing all of those things into the space and making our bodies, our souls, and the work that we do as an offering to our community. So I'm excited about that.

Yura: Amazing, amazing work. Thank you so much, Sharia.

Sharia: Thank you.

Yura: Thank you for being on this podcast. It's been such a joy.

Sharia: Oh, thank you so much for all the work that you're doing. It matters and it's reaching. I've learned so much from all of the creators who have come to the table, so thank you for your work.

Yura: This podcast is produced as a contribution to HowlRound Theatre Commons. You can find more episodes of this show and other HowlRound shows wherever you find podcasts. Be sure to search with the keyword HowlRound and subscribe to receive new episodes. If you love this podcast, post a rating and write a review on those platforms. You can also find a transcript for this episode along with a lot of other progressive and disruptive content on howlround.com. Have an idea for an exciting podcast, essay, or TV event the theatre community needs to hear? Visit howlround.com and submit your idea to this digital commons.

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Thoughts from the curator

I hear talk about wanting for racially diverse populations to “get a seat at the table” or “bringing chairs to the table for POC,” meaning that we want our people to have a position at existing organizations and institutions with decision making power. For me, a few years ago, I decided to not focus on infiltrating existing organizations, but rather start my own. I know I’m not alone. With the blessing that we all have a role in the revolution, this podcast checks in and learns from BIPOC founders of various organizations in and related to the theatre industry changing the game, making new things happen within, and expanding beyond white and euro-centric experiences. We will learn from these incredible visionaries who have created their own tables of arts institutions, movements, collectives, initiatives, and more. We learn about their processes, pathways to success, and challenges they've overcome. This is an outside-the-classroom leadership learning from folks who are doing the things.

Building Our Own Tables

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