Full Circle: a universe of theater

At TCG's national conference in Portland, people of color traded stories on how to build an American theater that includes everyone

I straddle many worlds as a journalist, writer, and media and theater artist. When I interview artists, I often have to pull back from their perspective to gain a more outside view. Yet it’s the inside look that draws me to the work of the artist, and it’s the personal I find fascinating. Crossing lines and boundaries of many worlds is in my DNA. I’m mixed-race. I’m Asian. I’m Chinese or Taiwanese or a person of color, an immigrant, an American. Like all PoCs (People of Color), I switch languages, cultures and sometimes personalities depending on the world I inhabit. I was not prepared to find the worlds presented at Full Circle, the Theatre Communications Group national conference June 8-10 at the Hilton Downtown, so welcoming and meaningful.

Theatre Communications Group’s leaders of color gather for a group shot at TCG’s national conference in Portland. Author Dmae Roberts is near the center in the second row from the top. Photo courtesy Elena Chang / TCG

I don’t generally like conferences, but lately I’ve found ones focusing on racial and cultural issues impact me the most. Last October I forged deep connections with API (Asian/Pacific Islander) theater artists at the National Asian American Theater Conference and Festival (ConFest). I honestly thought TCG would pale compared to ConFest. I was wrong.

I’ve been to enough conference sessions dealing with diversity issues to become skeptical. At one public radio conference, I recall a session on “Unintentional Bias” with great irony when a white executive director of a national radio program barged her way to the head of a line filled with PoCs waiting to comment. She felt defensive and thought nothing of interrupting a Latinx radio producer to tell everyone her network wasn’t biased.

So when I saw the TCG conference had numerous EDI sessions, I was hopeful yet cautious. Equity, diversity, and inclusion, or EDI, has become the phrase of choice when looking at changing the structures limiting the imagination when it comes to hiring practices and the kind of art that’s presented, particularly in theatre. This year’s Full Circle exceeded my expectations.

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Day 1 – June 8, 2017

On the first day of the TCG conference, I attended TCG’s Commitment to EDI session, which pretty much foreshadowed EDI as the main theme of the conference. I turned to another conference attendee and asked if this was a typical focus for the TCG conferences. The person nodded her head and said it was even more last year.

The very next session turned out to be a life-changer for me: Intergenerational Leaders of Color Meeting. In a room packed with perhaps 120 or more PoCs, I looked across the people I know seated at various tables and mouthed “this is great!” and was met with multiple thumbs-up in return. Something happens when you remove the power structures of a group. Most theaters, including in Portland, are run by a white administration. When you realize that everyone in the room has had some personal experience with racism, it changes the dynamics of EDI from a “let’s get together and build a better society” to “let’s lay it all out and talk about what keeps us from moving forward.” It was enlightening to realize, as someone who’s been trying to bring more AAPIs (Asian American/Pacific Islanders) onstage and in audiences in Portland the last three years through Theatre Diaspora, that other PoC theatre artist around the country shared similar challenges of changing the theater landscape in their home towns.

One of the meeting leaders was Emilya Cachapero, director of artistic and international programs at TCG. She told us that more than 20 years ago there were fewer PoCs at the conference, but attendees started their own meetings over lunch on a lawn under a tree. She looked across the crowded room with pride as she recounted a story about scientists trying to prove that just thinking about the “head of a penny” would affect the odds of it landing “heads” up. Then as the scientists separated people 200 miles away from the coin toss while still thinking “head of a penny, head of a penny,” the coin would land with heads up with near equal percentages. That was our analogy as we left the room. Even though we might be apart, if we just think progress, the odds will be in our favor.

Emilya Cachapero giving her penny talk at TCG’s Full Circle. Photo: Jenny Graham

After that I attended an AAPI-only session: The nail that sticks out and other tools for building change. The title was based on a Japanese proverb about conformity, implying if you’re that nail, you will be hammered down. As with many of these sessions, there was an expectation of confidentiality. But this I can tell you … when you get a room full of AAPI theater artists together, we will certainly be talking about white-washing, yellow-face and lack of representation in casting in mainstream theater. That’s the main reason I co-founded Theatre Diaspora with this year’s TCG Rising Leader of Color, Samson Syharath. Can I tell you how proud I am of this young leader?

But back to the topics. I continue to see examples of white-washing (the casting of white actors in racially specific roles, especially Asians/Middle Eastern for some reason) and yellow face (casting of non-AAPI actors in makeup to look AAPI, often done with Kabuki or “Geisha” roles) and generally the lack of AAPIs onstage. At this AAPI-only session, Snehal Desai, artistic director of East West Players in Los Angeles, and director Desdemona Chiang divided us into groups to address four scenarios of white-washing and yellow face. Guess what? I’ve encountered these types of examples in Portland—as did many of the attendees in their own regions.

Again, a request for confidentiality limits my quoting people. In general, the discussions led to some practical ways to address these casting issues within our communities. But some involved boycotts, protests, community dialogues, addressing it one-on-one or not at all, and doing your own work. All are valid options. But the main point is that theater artists of color deal with racism, stereotyping and marginalization all the time. And AAPI theatre artists also have to deal with issues of white-washing and yellow face in their own communities more than we’d like.

As great as this session was, it was unfortunate that many of the other EDI sessions occurred at the same time, including Decolonizing Theatre Practice, Beyond Diversity: Casting & Cultural Appropriation in the American Theatre and Crucial Conversations: Understanding Bias and Navigating Hard Conversations. My one message to TCG for future conferences: spread out the diversity sessions! But kudos for having these great topics. I wanted to attend them all.

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Day 2 – June 9, 2017

Jeff Chang. Wow, Jeff Chang. The next morning’s plenary in the Grand Ballroom brought us all together to hear Chang, an author and executive director of the Institute for Diversity in the Arts at Stanford University. In a brilliant speech, he laid out the historic difficulties in diversifying not only theater but also our divided country right now. Chang started his speech describing how America is “waking up every day to the worst kind of theater” with “predicable” performances and “terrible” writing. He said we’re caught in a “cycle of crisis like a wheel in reverse” and then referenced moments in history like the Los Angeles Riots and Selma that seem even more present with current times, especially the Black Lives Matter movement. Chang powerfully suggested ways that art could make real cultural change. As I hurriedly scribbled some of his thoughts, this one struck home:

“Diversity means nothing without equity,” which includes “representation, access to power and a seat at the table.”

Then Chang compared displacement in the Bay Area with what’s happening in Portland. He showed a 2012 map created by the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability demonstrating the way communities of color have been pushed of the Portland metro area. In my mind, that’s the biggest hurdle for mainstream theaters located in inner Portland wanting to racially diversify their audiences. If PoCs have been forced to the outskirts of Portland, then shouldn’t our theaters, or at least performances, be located in those areas?

In his closing, Chang said it’s through art that we learn “to experience empathy,” and that’s the “first necessary step” toward equity. But that’s not enough. “Empathy is empty without action,” said Chang. “It means shared rights, shared responsibilities, shared power.”

Immediately following that dynamic speech came The Empty Space: A Look at How Theaters have filled Gaps in Equity, Diversity and Inclusion. This EDI session also had some level of confidentiality for participants, but the panel in this session were open about being quoted.

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Claudia Alick at TCG. Photo: Jenny Graham

Claudia Alick, community producer at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, jumped right into talking about how racial disparity is “apparent” in professional development of People of Color (PoC) and suggested using the word “anti-racism” versus “diversity.”

Chay Yew, artistic director of Victory Gardens Theater in Chicago, said his theater knew they were “getting the whole package” when they hired a PoC leader. He announced Victory Garden has made its 2017/18 all-female playwright season with 60 percent works of color. He said he wanted to see the “face of Chicago” in his theater.

East West Players’ Snehal Desai said he’s carrying on the “51 percent Plan” of his predecessor, former artistic director Tim Dang, for diversifying not only the actors on stage, but also the administration, board of directors, and the audience at East West. He went on to say PoC playwrights don’t often get commission dollars and that funding based on budget size is also a form of racism. And when larger institutions want to partner with a smaller theater of color, it’s often the latter that does most of the work and the former that gets most of the funding dollars.

Chantal Rodriquez, associate dean of the Yale School of Drama, talked about the “Rooney Rule” of getting diverse candidates before moving on to the interview process of hiring staff. I looked up the rule created by Dan Rooney, the former owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers, to insure the National Football League requires the interviewing of PoC candidates for head coaching and top jobs in operation.

Both Desai and Rodriquez said many new plays that get produced by mainstream theaters don’t reflect the current worlds of most PoCs. They pointed to each other and said we want a play where we’re friends. “We talk all the time,” said Desai. “Where’s that play?”

My head started spinning at this point with so much to ponder. I took a break until later that evening, when I found a muse in the form of a Hands Up: 7 Playwrights, 7 Testaments performance directed and produced by Kevin Jones’s August Wilson Red Door Project. I’ve tried many times to see this seriously popular play written by seven playwrights commissioned by The New Black Fest after the police shootings of Michael Brown and John Crawford. Many friends and colleagues have seen it multiple times. And in fact, according to the Red Door Project, 6,000 Portlanders have attended this free show. I could see why.

I found Hands Up profoundly moving in the packed ballroom with both TCG attendees and non-conference folks in the audience. The final monologue dramatized the difficulty in holding one’s hands up as the actor instructed the audience to do during his entire 15-minute monologue. The simple instruction became a metaphor for the uphill climb to eradicating police violence against African Americans, and it symbolized how much pain and effort it will take to achieve racial justice.

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Portland-based “Hands Up: 7 Playwrights, 7 Testaments,” the August Wilson Red Door Project’s touring show of works by African American writers, was featured at the TCG annual conference.

Day 3 – June 10, 2017

The next day I made sure to follow up with artistic director Kevin Jones and co-founder Lesli Mones in their session Hands Up: A New Community Engagement Model for tips on changing the racial ecology of Portland, a term coined by Red Door Project’s mission statement. I was intrigued by their model of performing Hands Up anywhere, even with an audience of police officers, and with the much-needed community discussions following each show. Jones stated people who go to their show do so to “feel a sense of rightness.” The audience is there not to be entertained, Jones continued, “but to feel emotion. Their audiences are so connected to the material that they feel it “belongs” to them. Jones said they were now planning to create a piece from the stories of police officers.

Toward the last of the day came a town hall session where one person from each session (not necessarily session leaders) could “popcorn” something they learned.

Jose Gonzales, executive director of Portland’s Milagro Theatre, offered a message about empowerment needing to “get our place at the table” not having people “making decisions for us.”

Claudia Alick dissuaded theaters from not working with actors because they’re not “100 percent accessible.” She said actors with disabilities are “experts on their own body” and can talk about their own accessibility.

Other thoughts of floating popcorn:

“Women won’t apply if they have 60 percent of the required skills but men apply, and women should refuse to do phone interviews and ask to be interviewed in person. Men are hired on potential. Women from their resume.”

“Racism are weeds that continue to grow and need to be killed. Don’t hire people carrying weeds. We need an army of people killing weeds.”

“Look at traditional white methods of theater training. Look at models that disrupt white supremacy.”

“We need a 200 percent increase in representation in the LGBTQQI community.”

“Go out of your own community to see trans theatre. Move beyond the bathroom thing!”

“Don’t fall into the fallacy of good intent when it comes to white bias. How to move forward? Put PoCs into power positions.”

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UNIVERSES in action in Ashland in this season’s “UniSon”: The Apprentice and the Poet (Asia Mark, Steven Sapp, with Ensemble) are transfixed as Terror #1: Seamstress (Christiana Clark, right) sings of her childhood. Photo: Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Finally – UNIVERSES!

The Goodbye Portland final session in the ballroom ended with the stellar Mildred Ruiz Sapp and Steven Sapp of UNIVERSES, an inventive theater group in residence at Oregon Shakespeare Festival. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing their shows at OSF including The Party People about the Black Panthers and the currently running UniSon, based on the found poetry of August Wilson.

Their inspiring rags-to-riches growth from performing improvised musical poetry out of a van on the street corner to being in residence at one of the largest theaters in the country drew enthusiastic applause, especially when they led a song with the audience. Mildred broke out into a powerful solo coming from deep within her soul that lifted everyone from their seats to uproarious standing ovation.

But their main message can sum up all the EDI sessions when it comes to diversifying the universal landscape of theater. When asked about the material they do, Mildred and Steven said, “You have to listen. You have to trust and connect to the community.” In that way, they said “everybody is a Universe.”

 


 

DMAE ROBERTS is a two-time Peabody winning radio art/writer whose work often airs on NPR. Her Peabody award-winning documentary Mei Mei, a Daughter’s Song is a harrowing account of her mother’s childhood in Taiwan during WWII.  She recently adapted this radio documentary into a film. She won a second Peabody award for her eight-hour Crossing East documentary, the first Asian American history series on public radio. She published her memoir The Letting Go Trilogies: Stories of a Mixed-Race Family in 2016. Roberts writes for Asian Reporter, is host/producer of Stage & Studio on KBOO FM, and is the executive producer of MediaRites in Portland, Oregon and co-founder of Theatre Diaspora, a project of MediaRites.

 


 

Also see Oregon ArtsWatch’s previous coverage of this year’s TCG national conference:

 

2 Responses.

  1. gerard says:

    This is all getting out of hand.
    Quotas that 60% need to be (fill in the blank)………
    Any establishment,or person who doesn’t have 60% or more of …………., is pegged as a racist, sexist, homophobe,etc. I’m all for equality, but find it just as wrong to pressure, force people to have a certain amount of ……….
    Not to mention, nowadays if you don’t have a certain amount of….or none, it’s some sort of conspiracy against that group.
    People really need to get a grip.
    Demographics show that people of color are now living more on the outskirts,suburbs of Portland, so theaters (who may have been at their resident space for 10,15,20yrs) should now consider moving out to areas where there are more Black people living??? Come on………..
    I can’t believe I’ve been progressive/on the Left all my life, and now I’m getting somewhat fed up at the extremeness, militant mentality.
    I’m considering throwing away my card carrying Leftie membership
    You’re losing a lot of people this way.

    • Bob Hicks says:

      Gerard, seems like you’re painting with a pretty broad brush. I don’t think anyone’s saying Portland Center Stage should move to SE 82nd Avenue. I do think it makes great sense for cultural organizations to fan out to where people live, and that provides a big opportunity for anyone looking for a move (central city real estate prices?) or wanting to start something new. Decades ago the city had a healthy network of neighborhood cultural centers, run by the parks department. That’s mostly disappeared. Lots of theaters have cropped up on the east side in the past 20 years, and that’s good. Who’s going to take it beyond 67th (Performance Works NW)? Beyond 82nd? Beyond 102nd, or 122nd? As for “quotas”: Is it impractical to suggest that roles written as, say, Asian American characters be played by Asian American actors? Is there some sort of code that characters written with no specific racial/ethnic identity automatically be played by white actors? Is it not important that the stories of non-white people be told on our stages? A healthy theater scene should reflect the realities of the community it represents, and I take that to mean the entire community.

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