Inclusion and exclusion in St. Louis

When actors in red- and yellow-face strutted onstage, theater people of color at the TCG conference protested. Samson Syharath reports back.

By SAMSON SYHARATH

When theater companies of color from across the country witness a performance including red face, yellow face, and brown face, questions arise regarding activism and its relationship to art.

Every year the Theatre Communications Group (TCG), the national organization for the nonprofit theater world, gathers for its national conference to hold workshops, share knowledge, and engage in deep, meaningful discussion. I had the honor of being part of the Rising Leaders of Color (RLC) cohort last year, when the conference was held in Portland.

In St. Louis, theater leaders of color collectively read aloud the statement from the Theaters of Color Breakfast and work session for the How We Move Forward Session. Photo: Jenny Graham

That experience skyrocketed my professional growth and helped me develop a community with artists of color in the Portland region. This year’s conference was in St. Louis, Missouri, overlooking the Gateway Arch, a monument that many people do not realize glorifies colonialism and the subsequent removal of indigenous people from their land.

This is a recollection of my experience at the 2018 TCG conference and pre-conference RLC gathering June 11-16 in St. Louis:

Before the conference proper even began, the previous year’s Rising Leaders of Color cohort met with the current cohort, a variety of theater practitioners of color, including producers, directors, and writers from St. Louis and New York. We also met with members of several theaters of color from across the country to discuss the discouraging lack of funding for such groups and how we can collaborate and bring intersectionality to our work.

Samson Syharath. Photo: Gary Norman

The collection of theatermakers came up with action items to continue our significant work and support each other. As the conference proper began and more predominantly white theater institutions arrived, I attended several sessions learning about Equity and Inclusion in audience and community engagement; the #metoo movement in relation to theater; devising theater in Ferguson, the St. Louis suburb where white police officer Darren Wilson’s fatal shooting of an African American man, Michael Brown, on August 9, 2014 sparked intense local and national unrest; and creating a safe space vs. brave work.

I was leaving a basement after watching a devised one-man show when I heard the news.

On Friday, June 15, a collection of TCG conference attendees were watching a revival of Jerome Robbins’ Broadway at the St. Louis Municipal Opera Theatre (most commonly known as The MUNY) where they witnessed a mockery of Native American headdress, a white woman playing an Asian role, and several white actors playing Puerto Ricans. After a full couple of days discussing progressive strategies for diverse and inclusive theater, you can imagine the hurt and anger that emerged from this group. Several members left, while others protested the yellow-face (white actors playing Asian roles). Security was called, and the group was peacefully escorted out of the theater.

This event has sparked a huge debate in the theater community. Some side with the communities of color fighting for visibility and understanding. Others perceive the protest as inappropriate theater etiquette. It amazes me that people are more concerned with enjoying a show than with respecting an entire peoples’ culture. Some responses to the protest claim the protesters are “whining.” Mike Isaacson, the MUNY’s artistic director and executive producer, was quoted in St. Louis Public Radio’s story on the controversy as saying the protesters had a “shallow understanding” of the material.

The Urban Dictionary defines a “White Liberal” as a “white person who identifies as liberal but they secretly are problematic. White Liberals also go hand and hand with another common term, White Feminists.” How do you steer clear of being problematic? If you take an activist standpoint on issues that only concern yourself as a white person, that is problematic. If you expect to have allies, you must BE an ally. Listen to understand, not to debate. These are some of the most important things I learned at the TCG conference. Try not to make assumptions about the protesters. Many of the comments and articles about the MUNY protest assume that the protesters had not thought about the actors on stage or other means of approaching the problem. The protesters also engaged in a conversation with the communications director of the MUNY for over an hour. The next day, we gathered to discuss every aspect of the situation, including advocating for the voices not in the room (actors in the show, the director, audience members). That is representatives from Theaters of Color nationwide came up with our public statement.

One of the last gatherings of the conference that I attended was the euphoniously named “How We Move Forward” session. Larissa FastHorse, playwright of The Thanksgiving Play recently seen at Artists Repertory Theatre, had the people in the room imagine in great detail their culture and ancestors’ greatest achievements as feathers. “Imagine someone taking that beautiful physical representation and putting it on as a joke and dancing around in it with the intention of making people laugh at the ridiculousness of it,” FastHorse, who is an enrolled member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, Sicangu Lakota Nation, said. “Laugh at your family, your ancestors, you. Now imagine being in the theater surrounded by thousands of people laughing at that history. Turning your loved ones and their life accomplishments into a joke.”

Representatives of theaters of color from across the country meet to discuss intersectionality in American theater at The Black Rep. Photo: Jenny Graham

Leilani Chan, founding artistic director of Teada Productions in Los Angeles and board member of the Consortium of Asian American Theaters and Artists (CAATA), and Khanisha Foster, TCG’s Fox Foundation Resident Actor Fellow Round 11, both reinforced the idea that if no one stands up for the minority in an audience of 11,000 people, it represents the community in a bad light. The session ended beautifully with half of the room making eye contact with members of the other half and saying, “I see you.” There was a true human connection in that room where we were all truly seen and heard, something that has been absent in the age of technology and social media but should not be far-fetched for theater.

I write this piece not to shove my agenda into your face, but to plant a seed of interest and open-mindedness. Some people put civil rights and humanity above entertainment and ego. In order for the theater community to truly be diverse, equitable, and inclusive, we should shift from blame and defensiveness to action and change. Why should a theater decide to produce plays that are problematic? Are the voices that make the decisions predominantly white, while using people of color as the “token minority” to shift the narrative? Are you truly giving opportunities to people of color in leadership roles, or are you just check-marking a box for funding opportunities? Ask yourselves these questions before you list the words Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in your grant applications and literature.

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Samson Syharath is an administrator for Portland Actors Conservatory, founding core member of MediaRites’ Theatre Diaspora, and company member of Theatre Vertigo

 

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