More than 300 theater artists - black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) - published a letter addressed to “White American Theater” decrying racial injustice in their industry online on Monday.
You can read the entire letter below. But before that, I want to comment on the broader context of embedded, institutionalized racism in America.
If, like me, you are white and consider yourself an ally of social justice in America, please don’t talk about “defining moments” and “turning points” unless you are willing to roll up your sleeves and do some of the heavy lifting in order to truly “define” and “turn.”
Talk, even talk filled with outrage and empathy, won’t move this country in another direction if we simply go back to business as usual and suck our teeth and roll our eyes and scream at the TV set.
One of the best-expressed statements I’ve heard lately is this: It’s not that America is broken. It is functioning the way it is by intent and design, just as it always has, with some but not remotely enough progress over the course of 244 years as a nation, and even before that, dating to 1619 and the arrival of the first known slave ship with a cargo of slaves to sell to the colonist
If you are reading this, I believe it is likely you understand that there are issues of institutionalized racism that encompass political, legislative, governing, financial, educational, housing, jobs, salaries, health, nutrition, the creative and performing arts, and accessibility to all of these and more. I’ll be thinking more about what I can do.
Meanwhile, might I suggest watching Oprah’s Town Hall on Race? Part I last night laid the groundwork. Tonight’s focus is on where we go from here.
And, as promised, here is the letter that is garnering even more signatures and support as I post this:
Dear White American Theater,
We come together as a community of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) theatremakers, in the legacy of August Wilson’s “The Ground on Which I Stand,” to let you know exactly what ground we stand on in the wake of our nation’s civic unrest.
We see you. We have always seen you. We have watched you pretend not to see us.
We have watched you un-challenge your white privilege, inviting us to traffic in the very racism and patriarchy that festers in our bodies, while we protest against it on your stages. We see you.
We have watched you program play after play, written, directed, cast, choreographed, designed, acted, dramaturged and produced by your rosters of white theatermakers for white audiences, while relegating a token, if any, slot for a BIPOC play. We see you.
We have watched you amplify our voices when we are heralded by the press, but refuse to defend our aesthetic when we are not, allowing our livelihoods to be destroyed by a monolithic and racist critical culture. We see you.
We have watched you inadequately compare us to each other, allowing the failure of entire productions to be attributed to decisions you forced upon us for the comfort of your theater’s white patrons. Meanwhile, you continue to deprioritize the broadening of your audiences by building NO relationship with our communities. We see you.
We have watched you harm your BIPOC staff members, asking us to do your emotional labor by writing your Equity, Diversity and Inclusion statements. When we demanded you live up to your own creeds, you cowered behind old racist laments of feeling threatened, and then discarded us along with the values you claim to uphold. We see you.
We have watched you discredit the contributions of BIPOC theatres, only to co-opt and annex our work, our scholars, our talent, and our funding. We see you.
We have watched you turn a blind eye as unions refuse to confront their racism and integrate their ranks, muting the authenticity of our culture and only reserving space for us to shine out front on your stages but never behind them. We see you.
We have watched you dangle opportunities like carrots before emerging BIPOC artists, using the power of development, production, and awards to quiet us into obedience at the expense of our art and integrity. We see you.
We have watched you use our BIPOC faces on your brochures, asking us to politely shuffle at your galas, talkbacks, panels, board meetings, and donor dinners, in rooms full of white faces, without being willing to defend the sanctity of our bodies beyond the stages you make us jump through hoops to be considered for. We see you.
We have watched you hustle for local, federal, foundation and private funding on our backs, only to redirect the funds into general operating accounts to cover your deficits from years of fiscal mismanagement. We see you.
We have watched you hire the first BIPOC artists in executive leadership, only to undermine our innovations and vision of creating equitable institutions, by suffocating our efforts with your fear, inadequacy, and mediocrity. We see you.
We have watched you attend one “undoing racism workshop,” espousing to funders you are doing the work, without any changes to your programming or leadership. You’ve been unwilling to even say the words “anti-racism” to your boards out of fear of them divesting from your institutions, prioritizing their privilege over our safety. We see you.
We have watched you promote anti-Blackness again and again. We see you.
We have watched you say things like – I may be white, but I’m a woman. Or, I may be white, but I’m gay. As if oppression isn’t multi-layered. We see you.
We have watched you exploit us, shame us, diminish us, and exclude us. We see you.
We have always seen you.
And now you will see us.
We stand on this ground as BIPOC theatremakers, multi-generational, at varied stages in our careers, but fiercely in love with the Theatre. Too much to continue it under abuse. We will wrap the least privileged among us in protection, and fearlessly share our many truths.
About theatres, executive leaders, critics, casting directors, agents, unions, commercial producers, universities and training programs. You are all a part of this house of cards built on white fragility and supremacy. And this is a house that will not stand.
This ends TODAY.
We are about to introduce you...to yourself.
The Ground We Stand On