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"What does it mean to be a woman of color and in leadership?"

A Conversation with Nicole Brewer and Sophia Skiles

Sophia Skiles: The impulse to reach out to you for a conversation was to prepare and be really clear-eyed about what I was walking into, in terms of assuming a leadership role—in my case, as the incoming head of acting for the Brown/Trinity MFA program. What does that mean in the context of this field-wide mandate of change? How would it sit in my body and what is the exposure that leadership involves? I wanted to have that conversation with folks who are going through it, and with you specifically, as you recently joined the acting faculty at the Yale School of Drama.

I am so deeply inspired by your leadership, which has been a long time coming. How are you navigating? Are you getting what you need, given that in this moment institutions are “lifting up” the leadership of folx of color, women of color? And there’s upheaval around that. What does it mean to be in those spaces where the architecture is changing in terms of people? How do you actually bring cultural change as you encounter resistance—often by the very folks or institutions who are there to lift you?

Nicole Brewer: I appreciate this effort to connect back to our bodies as people with a certain set of lived experiences coming into this work. For me, that’s a restoration of humanity. I am not above the pain and suffering I live with and through every day. I am also navigating analyses of institution, racism, gender, body, life experience, and self-determination within the positionality of leadership and creating the container for folks to be present in the fullness of themselves. How do we, as leaders, do that?

The question I’m thinking about in my current position is how to give students space to make decisions that make sense for them, which of course is going to impact their training. I was trained not to question the training. I believe it was Stella Adler who brought a throne-like chair into the classroom. That’s what I inherited, that idea of literal elevation. The master teacher who taught in my program, who I refuse to name because of her role in my erasure, was literally on a platform—that’s where her little desk was.

Sophia: I have also refused to name someone in my training experience. The person who took my time is not credited in any of my narrative. I do not include that person. And there’s joy in that reclamation, but my goodness, there’s pain.

What is that other way of training? There’s got to be another way.

I’m always trying to encourage people to develop their artistry based on who they are in that moment. The phraseology I use is: “What’s your most forward-facing identity?”

Nicole: There are many other ways. I’m always trying to encourage people to develop their artistry based on who they are in that moment. The phraseology I use is: “What’s your most forward-facing identity?” As people gain new life experiences, as they have identities thrust upon them, what’s the most forward-facing? And, therefore, what are the questions and analyses they have? Especially in a setting of “study.” What are they dealing with? What are they actually able to hear in the moment?

As human beings we are concerned with ourselves and what’s happening for us. What about people who are in a place of study who are dealing with issues of their sexuality or issues around their gender? First of all, they’re looking for representation, confirmation, and corroboration that their experience is valid. Representation is an important factor, as is space to unpack how identities inform your craft. How does training provide that? This is a question I’ve been chewing on for a solid decade around cross-cultural collaborations. How do curriculums support the most impacted folks? How do cross-cultural curriculums become the norm?

Sophia: Being open and finding ways to connect—that is a skill set, a muscle I have developed through my journey as an artist. That can be the way to fuel training. Where I have experienced marginalization, as a woman, as an Asian American, as a daughter of immigrants, there is also insight, power, points of connection though the violence of assimilation has threatened to erase my superpowers. Those are the things I can offer—as a teacher, a creative artist, and citizen—which I can take from marginalized spaces and reclaim as center.

My role as the head of acting for the Brown/Trinity Rep MFA program is ahead of me. I’m not in it yet, so I’m using this time to fortify myself, to look at models of leadership and look at ways to protect myself. That’s something Lauren Turner talks about in her essay on racialized trauma, “The American Theatre Was Killing Me.” Lauren’s telling of her experience as a Black woman working in a predominantly white cultural institution is revelatory. The challenges she describes are so intimate yet systemic. Things were happening so quickly she didn’t have time to process, to reclaim her center, to stabilize herself. So, in my new situation, what can I do to interrupt that and also stay sane?

a large group posing for a photo

Sophia Skiles with students from her Fundamentals of Acting and Scene Study courses at State University of New York at Purchase, Theatre and Performance after a performance of National Asian American Theater Company's Henry VI, directed by Stephen Brown-Fried. Photo courtesy of Sophia Skiles.

Nicole: I’m also thinking about how we are dealing with inherited trauma as leaders and how we can adapt the same kind of methodologies and strategies that are used in movement work and organizing so we don’t have to go it alone and re-envision our roles.

These days, I’m operating from the vapors of me. In my freelance work as a facilitator and teacher of anti-racist theatre, I’m now saying, “I’ve got to step back.” I probably should have said this months ago, but I thought, Better do it now because who knows if this is still going to be available to me in a few months. Not selfishly, but I was literally asking myself, How much can I do for my beloved community right now before the winds change and folks are onto something else and have completely forgotten the work of this moment?

Because I’m in a cycle of needing to rest and pull back, I’m asking a lot more questions about where organizations are in their process before I agree to work with them. In my online trainings, I’ve adapted this recently to help people ascertain where they or their organization is within the process of becoming anti-racist: The recognition period? The stage of undoing? Or is it at the stage of rooting new structures, which requires a radical amount of effort and energy from everybody? People have to be conscious about new rooting. Where are the anti-racist, anti-oppressive practices, strategies, policies, ideas, ways of being? When do those become self-sustaining so that people can come and go but the anti-racist structures remain? Because with racism, even if everybody behaving badly left, the structure is so normalized it persists. People pick it back up. They can’t envision or imagine outside of it.

Sophia: Can I just appreciate a million things? One: the separation of self and institution. I am not the institution in ways that traditional leadership has performed itself—the notion that the leader is the embodiment of the institution, the vision, almost by force of personality. And that’s connected to how these institutions have the power to legitimize. They have the power of prestige, to make me someone else because I’m associated or affiliated with them. Whereas I am still myself. I made myself before, during, and after. I want to hold onto that as much as I possibly can.

I’m just going to be super frank: I don’t want to be defined by this institutional position. I don’t want to be defined by the opportunity, as a way to model for students. That is a gift I can hold onto and give, that no one is defined by what they are working on or if they are working. There’s got to be an independence of spirit that does not hold anyone hostage to those things.

There’s a part of me that is going for broke. I wonder what that would do in terms of liberating myself from the things that would do me harm. It’s hard not to police myself. But look, I want to be the free person that I wish myself to be—and I want the students and colleagues with whom I work to be the free people, the free artists, they have a right to be.

I’m learning I can make decisions that aren’t wrapped in fear around the financial implications of showing up in the fullness of myself. I am more brazen about asking for what I need.

Nicole: One thing I made very clear before I accepted my current position was divorcing the Yale School of Drama as currency. Where do I minimize myself or my needs because the institution’s name is currency? The same for the students. How are students making sure they have an analysis so they can move in choice, instead of having these unstated assumptions, which are accepted as truth, driving how they show up? For example, if someone was part of the most impacted Black and Brown communities and was accepted into a theatre program, they might think the program was ready for them to be there. But that person then finds out, through many instances of erasure, tokenism, and overt and covert racism, that the program brought them into a culture that harms them in order to train them.

I’m learning I can make decisions that aren’t wrapped in fear around the financial implications of showing up in the fullness of myself. I am more brazen about asking for what I need. Before making a decision I ask: Which part of this interaction is being subsidized with the institution as currency? Which part of this is the fear that I will never be able to have this opportunity again?

Sophia: Yes, that dependency on institutions doesn’t have to exist, and that independence is threatening to how power and influence are traditionally held and hoarded. I also feel really deeply the pressure of representation. This is something Lauren said in her essay when she talks about tokenizing: “I didn’t understand I was going to become the face of this community engagement programming, and that I was the only one (…) who had something to lose. I was wagering my own personal relationships with folks in a way that no one else in the organization had to.” That intense accountability to those personal relationships is real and important to me.

And yet, I think representation is one first step. I want to get beyond representation, but there’s something really deep about seeing someone who looks like you succeed, and seeing someone who looks like you appear to fail. I feel a psychic cost connected to that. There’s an opportunity in being a “first”—particularly in roles of leadership. And yet folks have been ready to lead for some time; it’s the institutions that are playing catch up. Part of my job is to make sure I’m not the last. That’s the kind of deep internal work I want to attend to.

zoom video chat

Nicole Brewer facilitating her Anti-Racist Theatre Foundational Course over Zoom on 28 July 2020.

Nicole: I’m deeply meditating on harm as energy. Just like truth has a vibration, harm does not just go to the person who it was intended for but actually impacts everything. I’m looking at the manifestations of unresolved harm and the work of going back to go forward. Collateral damage is happening because someone feels they haven’t been heard and, more importantly, attended to. How does that become an inherited part of leadership when you come into a place that is tender, that is still very raw and wounded?

How are we looking at their resolutions from past harm? Do people actually feel like those resolutions attended to their needs, even in hindsight? I made an assumption that I’m coming in as Nicole Brewer. In my mind, I’m not a part of what happened in the past. I’m a part of what’s happening now, and so I’m coming in with a clean slate. But there are some people who immediately experience me as part of the organization. There is no delineation of past organization to present organization.

As you’re entering your role, what is your analysis around people who will be seeing you that way? There will be people who will meet you where you are now, and there will be other people who will connect you to what was.

I am imagining acting training that involves power with folks, while so much of what has been inscribed in our bodies is how to create by having power over each other.

Sophia: Yes. They see the power and not the person. And that power is now embodied by a woman of color. It can be deeply confusing.

Nicole: Yes, yes.

Sophia: It’s going to present differently on me. It’s going to present differently on you. Just because we cleaned the wound doesn’t mean we healed it.

Stepping into these roles and moving into these institutional spaces opens up a deeply vulnerable moment because someone is actually attending to the thing. What does it mean to hold someone new responsible for something historical? I want to enter into power differently. I want to understand what it means to have shared leadership. We don’t know what that is, because we’ve never experienced it. I am imagining acting training that involves power with folks, while so much of what has been inscribed in our bodies is how to create by having power over each other.

Nicole: I’m with you with that. I want to underscore, underline, put in eighty-point font and in bold: What does it mean to be a woman of color and in leadership? Is the hiring organization even ready to be led by such a human being? It is everybody’s responsibility to ask themselves that question personally, to ask, “What is it about this body that may create the conditions for me to sabotage their leadership, their ideas, and their worth?”

I’m also negotiating that and asking myself, “What part of my gender, what part of my Blackness, is ingrained in a way where familiar patterns of respect are negotiable? When with other bodies, specifically white bodies, that respect is a given?” I’m talking to the people who are already in organizations bringing in a body that is different than a white one for a leadership position. They are setting themselves up for some really harsh realities around who they thought they were versus what they do.

seven actors onstage

Sophia Skiles (center) as a member of the Chorus in Ellen McLaughlin's adaptation of The Oresteia at the Shakespeare Theater Company, directed by Michael Kahn. Also pictured left to right: Corey Allen, Franchelle Stewart Dorn, Patrena Murray, Helen Carey, Jonathan Louis Dent, Kati Brazda. Photo by Scott Suchman.

Sophia: There are a lot of drum rolls around, “This is something we are proud of,” right? But I’m reminded of that question you asked earlier, “At what stage is your organization?” Maybe the organization has worked with women of color, but in what dynamic and in what relationship? Chances are this is going to be different. It has to be. So the people involved need to get ready for something they haven’t done before, I can get ready for something I haven’t done before, and we can get ready for something we have not done before.

Nicole: Absofuckinglutely. Carmen Morgan, executive director of artEquity, said that the white body is not neutral, and people need an analysis of that as a real variable in their day-to-day existence. If you are a white-identifying person and I am a Black person, when I receive critique and feedback from you, it’s like: “Wait a minute. What’s happening with me? Where am I constricting in these moments?” You’ve got to have that analysis, because that person’s body’s not neutral. Knowing that, how can I adjust to meet what happens with me and also what’s being offered or forced?

I want to talk about consensual relationships and how that comes in to play in terms of leadership. There is a violation that happens when folks do not have an awareness around the impact they bring into any space. I encourage people to do the bare minimum work, making sure they are not allowing buzzwords or a feeling that they are an ally shield them from harm they are inflicting on others.

I want to underscore, underline, put in eighty-point font and in bold: What does it mean to be a woman of color and in leadership?

Sophia: There are scripts around that particular dynamic of how folks of color, women of color, Black women, Asian women, are used for those purposes. I would be lying if I didn’t say I’m afraid of playing that role. That when all is said and done in this position, I am reinscribing my own oppression, and because of my positionality in the role, there appears to be some consent. I want to vision something different where I can exist inside of an acting studio that is not dependent on those dynamics of approval or permission.

What would that look like? Where can I hold what I know and be honest about what I don’t know? My job is to create the conditions where students can experience their full dignity, that they create from a sense of non-negotiable worth. How can I be of service in that process for students? That is what I would have wanted for myself, but I found it in different ways, in-between more formal spaces. And that’s why I’m still here, but barely.

It’s okay to be really clear about the conditions in which I am here. Some people say, “I quit acting” or “I quit theatre.” No, acting quit me. Theatre quit me. And as volatile and violent as this political moment is, it feels right and necessary that these changes in leadership are in response to, are of a piece of, this moment. These cultural changes should carry that kind of weight. These changes are political acts! It makes me long for the way in which I want to be represented by my elected officials. I wonder what it would be like to be an acting teacher who works as a public servant in that way.

Nicole: That’s so beautiful. Each person should answer for themselves the question, “What are the conditions in which I am here?” as a way to be clear about the conditions in which they are being invited into a space or asked to do their work, and as a radical way of protecting themselves. Speak clearly and straightforwardly about the gaps and the subsidies that are being asked of your body.

But we must also divorce ourselves of certain myths and narratives, like when white supremacy says, “Come on in. We’re universal. We welcome everybody.” It’s so dangerous when I buy into that, and then, when the promise is broken repeatedly, what that does for my spirit and my soul. Versus, “Let me come into this as clear as possible so that I can be in choice and negotiate and navigate my needs,” and be able to do it in a way where I do not apologize or minimize myself for the comfort of the institution.

Sophia: I so value lifting the veil with you. I support your self-preservation so deeply. I draw a lot of inspiration from seeing folks say no. We can sustain ourselves by setting boundaries. I appreciated Lesley Lokko’s resignation letter, which I know you did too. There’s an example of an institution that was unwilling or incapable of making the internal anti-racist evolution that the hiring of a new leader, Lesley, was supposed to signal externally. By declaring that her “resignation was a profound act of self-preservation,” Lesley is sending a message. You don’t have to stay in places that do not value you. Who can create or lead under conditions that are functionally unsupportive? It is a kind of perversion of training to train in a way where you sustain harm. So if I last a couple months, and I’m in and out, I’m happy to deliver that gift of integrity, which is our core as artists. Lesley was there for less than a year. It doesn’t take long to find out where people are.

Nicole: I look forward to supporting and uplifting your brilliancy. I want to be in a program where someone is asking these questions. Not of someone else, but of themselves.

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thank you for this. I feel fortunate to learn from your dialogue, and grateful to be able to share it with others.