A Theatre Statement
George Floyd was murdered on May 25. Since that day, this country has gone through four weeks of reckoning with its history, its policies, its systems, and its future. There have been constant protests in all fifty states. There were riots. There have been some legislative changes. There has been more and more police violence against protestors, journalists, and of course more unarmed and innocent Black people.
Since May 25, I’ve had a lot of feelings. For longer, really, because of the ongoing pandemic. For longer, because wearing a mask in public is a frightening prospect for a black man in this country. For longer, because I’ve been dealing with the lack of consequences for the deaths of black men in this country for as long as I can remember.
Since May 25, I have needed the theatre. I have spent my life in the theatre. It’s more than just my work. Theatre is how I interpret the world around me. It’s where I feel whole and grounded. It’s the place and the means by which I teach others. It’s how I channel and process my emotions. And since May 25, I’ve had a lot to process.
So I’ve been thinking about the theatre a lot lately. And reading statements. A lot of statements. From schools and libraries and department stores and sports teams. And from every theatre company in Charleston.
Some were better than others. Most were the standard, boilerplate “Stand with you” message, coupled with the denouncement of racism. A few went as far as to actually say Black Lives Matter. But one statement (from Charleston’s most commercial and tourist-friendly stage) was so empty, so nonspecific to the moment, so self-congratulatory and self-serving, that it has completely consumed my thinking since it arrived in my email inbox.
That statement made me take a critical eye to all the others from the Charleston theatre community. It made me think of what was missing from all the statements I’d read. It brought into question how the statements were crafted, and by who. It made me want to hold everyone accountable for an insidious and really obvious shortcoming that I’d really always noticed, but now couldn’t ignore. So, in that one very specific way, that terrible statement was highly successful. It has certainly motivated some action on my part.
“We stand with you” as a statement is, ultimately, pretty empty. It’s passive. What does it do? How does it help long term? How is it any different from the “thoughts and prayers” trope that gets thrown around after every school shooting? It’s a show of support and comfort, sure. But listen when I tell you: Black people don’t want your comfort right now, they want you working towards changes. Real, substantive, permanent, and effective changes. We’ll all be plenty comfortable then.
I saw a few people, in the weeks following George Floyd’s murder, question why they hadn’t heard from any of the theatre companies in Charleston. A fair question. I know exactly what was taking so long at Pure Theatre. Sharon Graci wasn’t just prepping a statement. She was consulting with Joy Vandervort-Cobb, Douglas Streater, Joel Watson and myself, the Pure core members of color. She wanted our opinions on what Pure’s statement should be and, more importantly, she wanted to know from us how Pure should follow up with ACTIONS.
So I know that that statement, and Pure’s direction since, have the input of Black artists at their root. I can’t speak to any of the other statements for certain, but from what I’ve read, I have my doubts. Were actors, designers, directors, writers, or board members of color consulted at other companies? Having looked over the About Us pages of all the theatre companies in town, I have no choice but to assume that those statements were crafted by White faces without any input from us. How is this “standing with me?”
If we want the theatre to connect people and help explain the human condition, then local theatre companies need to do a better job of involving the Black community. When I see artistic directors proudly promote acting ensembles that are entirely white, it says to me that that company doesn’t work with artists of color enough to allow them a seat at the table. Whether this is intentional or incidental, I don’t know. How could any artist of color know?
If you truly want to “Stand with me,” then hire more Black artists. Not just the one time a season (if that) where you decide to tackle the struggles of the Black experience, but all season long. Black People can and should be allowed to explore the entirety of the human experience on your stages. We do not only exist in the context of racism and oppression. It’s insane to me that Sudden Spontaneous Event, a play in which Joy and I played mother and son without our race being mentioned once, counts as rather radical casting.
Black People contain magnitudes, and if your theatre company only casts us to exploit our pain but ignores us when it’s time to explore the rest of the human experience, you are contributing to the idea that White experiences are universal in a way that ours are not. You are contributing to keeping White narratives at the center of culture. You are, to be blunt, bolstering White Supremacy.
If you’re reading this and you feel like I’m calling you out, if you’re feeling hurt or embarrassed or angry at my words, ask yourself why. What was your statement lacking? Did you consult any Black artists while crafting it? Do you employ Black artists on a regular basis, onstage and off? Have you ever hired any Black directors or done any works by Black playwrights? Do you have Black board members or administrators? If the answer is no to any of these questions, you have work to do. If you need help understanding what that work is, you know where to find me.
Since May 25, as I cope with the anger and fear and anxiety that is being Black in America, I have been asking those around me to take action. I am asking all those who purport to Stand with Me to do more. The theatre is not immune. People come to us to learn about the world. Let’s lead by example. Let’s hold up that mirror to society, but first we must hold it up to ourselves. We must truly let everyone into the room where it happens if the theatre is going to be a part of substantial social change.
If you Stand with Me, then get to work.