On this Juneteenth 2021, DC Metro Theater Arts republishes from half a year ago Ramona Harper’s benchmark progress report on antiracism in DMV theater— as a measure of work underway and a reminder of work yet to be done. See also: #WeSeeYou antiracist accountability report includes 11 DMV theaters
Theaters honor Dr. King’s dream by acting on #WeSeeYouWAT demands
A progress report on response in Baltimore/Washington to the BIPOC Demands for White American Theater
Originally published January 16, 2021
An insurrection by far-right extremists within the U.S. Capitol; Washington, DC, looking like a war zone prepared for battle; and state capitals around the country braced for violence on the eve of a presidential inauguration. Who would have thought the United States would be in the shape we are in as the nation celebrates the birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., civil rights leader and spokesperson for a nonviolent movement for racial justice and social change?
The U.S. clearly has not yet achieved Dr. King’s dream, and one wonders if we are at the beginning of the end or the start of the beginning of an insidious chapter in American life. But Dr. King gave his own life believing that change is possible.
The performing arts have as important a role to play as any instrument of national power. Theater can influence the impact of extremist ideologies and misguided conspiratorial theories because it presents life on stage in full view for all to see and to contemplate. The arts are change agents that can use their soft power in a mighty way.
In the aftermath of Black Lives Matter protests last summer, American theaters around the nation responded with statements of solidarity. The We See You, White American Theater movement birthed the beginning of a new chapter for change and accountability. Its BIPOC [Black, Indigenous and People of Color] Demands and other documents spelled out, very clearly, what and how theater needs to change in America for more equitable representation.
DC Metro Theater Arts first reported on the BIPOC Demands in July 2020 and recently offered itself as a platform for theaters in the Baltimore/Washington area to report back on how they are doing — so far, six months later — to make changes in response to those demands.
Our call did not fall upon deaf ears. Theaters transparently told us what has been done and what still remains to be done. They took We See You, White American Theater’s BIPOC Demands seriously. Powerful conversations of collaboration are really happening and significant actions are underway.
White American Theater in the DC/MD/VA area said we see ourselves; we see each other; we see how we wish to be seen; and we see what we would like to see in each other.
This seeing is the seed of radical social change.
Here are some of the major highlights of steps already taken and ongoing progress made by the leading theaters that responded:
- Intense ongoing mandatory anti-racism training for boards and staffs
- Board leadership structural changes
- Expanding the canon available for American theaters from Eurocentric to multiracial, multigenerational models
- Policy and procedural changes in hiring and pay equity
- Artistic freedom for BIPOC theatermakers
- New opportunities for networking and collaboration between performing arts organizations and BIPOC communities
- Creation of safe affinity spaces for BIPOC theatermakers
- Flattening the decision-making hierarchy in art leadership
- Decentralizing whiteness in American theater
- Casting goal changes
- New board positions and staff positions that address BIPOC representation
- Changes in play submission policies
- Land acknowledgement statements in programs and on websites
- Expanding applicant pools for all theatrical positions
- Paid internships, fellowships, and mentorships for the next generation of BIPOC theatermakers
- New strategic planning for racial inclusivity
- Ongoing self-reflection in working groups and community conversations
See progress reports below from 1st Stage, Arts on the Horizon, Baltimore Center Stage, Creative Cauldron, Everyman Theatre, GALA Hispanic Theatre, The Kennedy Center, Mosaic Theater Company, NextStop Theatre, Olney Theater Center, Rep Stage, Round House Theatre, Shakespeare Theatre Company, Signature Theatre, Studio Theatre, Theater J, Theatre Prometheus, Toby’s Dinner Theatre, and Woolly Mammoth Theatre. Total read time: 50 minutes.
These iconoclastic performing arts organizations are also using smart power to effect social change. Demographic stats project the United States to become majority-minority in little more than a generation over the next 20 years.
If performing arts organizations are going to survive — and certainly at the end of a pandemic when no one really knows what live theater will look like — change must happen. It’s not an option. Aging white audiences are going to change along with funding sources and a demand for more diverse programming that meets the needs of a changing demographic.
Many of the theaters responding to this call expressed gratitude to We See You, White American Theater for demanding accountability. However, they might also have thanked the movement for implicitly giving them a strong mandate to save themselves — because America is moving toward inevitable change.
Our culture will not be weakened by it, but with enough courage and commitment, it will be strengthened, enriched, and made more vibrantly alive.
Sam Cooke captured this moment so well in his soulstirring “A Change Is Gonna Come”:
It’s been a long
A long time coming
But I know a change gonna come
Oh, yes it will.
What is your anti-racism EDI action plan and how successful have you been so far in implementing it?
1st Stage was one of many DC-area arts organizations that published statements in response to the calls for racial justice that have echoed across the country since May 2020 (and for many years prior). We were very specific in that statement to call out white supremacy as a defining factor in the proliferation of racial injustice and inequality in America.
As an organization led by predominantly white individuals, 1st Stage followed up on our statement with action. We have been working with an Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion facilitation team, at all levels of the organization, since the summer. This work has incorporated interviews and surveys (distributed and facilitated by the ED&I team) of the staff, independent contractors, artists, board members, and volunteers at the organization. The responses to these initial surveys helped to identify 1st Stage’s blind spots, vulnerabilities, and assumptions, and set the basis from which our work since the summer has stemmed.
Since this initial identification phase over the summer, 1st Stage has moved through an intensive training with the full-time staff and board of directors to bring the leadership of the organization into alignment on equity goals and 1st Stage’s current position within a white supremacist society. Most recently, this work has turned toward visioning. The ED&I facilitation team has invited a selection of board members, staff members, and contracted artists into a virtual space to discuss what a racially just future will look like for 1st Stage. This phase helps to confront internal biases and long-held assumptions about the “better angels of our nature” and reckon with the work we must do to make our vision of a racially just future possible. Part of this ongoing visioning work includes the creation of a racial equity statement that will stand alongside our mission statement and serve as a tool for accountability as our work continues.
What have been your challenges in dismantling white supremacy in your theater?
What anti-racism achievements are you most proud of?
The term white supremacy itself (while important and accurate) is a common sticking point. For many adults raised in the early mid-twentieth century, that term evokes images of white hats and cross burnings. In today’s society we understand white supremacy to be more latent but still as pernicious. Helping our community come to terms with the fact that white supremacy persists now as it has for centuries will continue to be a challenge. One that we are prepared to meet. Further, we are working to confront the way that capitalist hierarchical structures uphold systems of white supremacy and looking into ways that we can reimagine leadership structures to give more power and voice to our colleagues (primarily contracted artists) who hold the least power in our current hierarchy.
1st Stage understands that change is often slow, but the work to end racial inequities in our theatre companies and spaces must not be slow. We are envisioning ways to enhance wages and opportunities to share power and responsibility that can be enacted swiftly. We are an agile and eager company that is prepared (at all levels) to challenge our existing structures and make thoughtful and meaningful change rapidly. We are committed to ensuring that these changes are not simply written structural changes, but changes by which we live, grow, and create.
What will your theater look like when it fully reopens regarding decision-making and whose stories get to be told and who gets to tell them?
1st Stage acknowledges its complicity in upholding and benefiting from the white supremacist structures that cause so much suffering. While we cannot erase the harm that has been caused, we are determined to disrupt and dismantle these structures so our company can be a model for equity and justice. We are constructing a specific set of actions and next steps, which will be released publicly before audiences and artists return to our stage so that we can be held accountable. While these action steps are being finalized, 1st Stage has commissioned eleven playwrights to create new pieces of solo work that the theater will help develop and foster. It is 1st Stage’s hope that these pieces will be presented in future 1st Stage seasons as well as at theaters across the country greatly expanding the canon of work available to the American Theater. Artists in the cohort are Frank Britton, Jasmin Cardenas, Gary-Kayi Fletcher, Khanisha Foster, Jeremy Keith Hunter, Caleen Sinnette Jennings, James J. Johnson, Natsu Onoda Power, Brian Quijada, Juan Francisco Villa, and Justin Weaks. The Commission of Solo Work project will provide creative support and resources to artists during a particularly uncertain time. These works will be an extraordinary contribution to our collective stages.
What results do you want to see that have not yet happened?
We believe that working toward justice is a lifelong process for each member of our team and for our organization. We are committed to centering anti-racism in every facet of our company. 1st Stage, as with many other theater organizations in the region and across the country, is renewing this dedication to creating an equitable, just, and dignified theater space. This work was important to our founding artists back in 2008 and continues to be at the forefront of our growth initiatives moving forward.
Arts on the Horizon
Arts on the Horizon would like to express its gratitude to the individuals who drafted the We See You, White American Theater demands. By illuminating our weaknesses and demanding change, this document presents indispensable guidance on the steps we need to take toward growth and inclusivity. Arts on the Horizon strives to provide intelligent, innovative, and original work for children ages 0–6 that is accessible, inspiring, and joyful, and we want to ensure our organization is welcoming not only to artists, staff members, and volunteers but to the very young audience members we serve.
To serve our community, we recognize that we must actively seek out information, tools, and resources to identify our shortcomings. By listening to artists in the DC Metro area and participating in conversations with the national BIPOC TYA artist community, we have learned that the act of implementing positive change is never complete. We want to navigate this change purposefully, but also urgently and voraciously, doing the work, while ensuring lasting and ongoing positive change.
We have established several committees, composed of various board members, staff members, company members, and artists. Each group has been tasked with focusing on a specific goal including but not limited to: examining Equity, Diversity, and Access within our organization; setting the foundation for our EDIJ plan; studying the We See You, White American Theater document; and crafting action steps to support emerging BIPOC artists.
While we move forward to realize the goals of these committees, we recognize that our work is not done, and we commit to stay vigilant in our growth. Here is a selection of the new initiatives that we are currently actively implementing:
— Invest in and champion more Black artists, Indigenous artists, and artists of color (BIPOC artists) both onstage and off, especially in creator, playwright, designer, and director roles. We recognize that in the past we have filled the roles of directors, playwrights, and designer roles predominately with white artists. We commit to ensuring that more than half of these roles will be filled by BIPOC artists each season. At this time, we have engaged BIPOC artists to create and direct all our digital programming in 2020 and planned digital programming for 2021. All of our designers and 75 percent of the actors for our digital programming in 2020 are BIPOC artists.
— Examine, identify, and implement new ways to bring BIPOC artists into our organization. To provide an avenue to the world of Theater for the Very Young for emerging artists who might not otherwise discover it, we will create a new voices program, which provides paid opportunities, access to our work, and resources for emerging artists.
— Reexamine the programming selection process. We will create a rotating committee of company members and artists to discuss programming ideas and options for future seasons. It is important to us that a majority of this team is represented by BIPOC artists, to ensure that our programming is not built through a lens that is primarily white. In order to prevent any conflicts of interest, committee members will not be directly involved in the development of said programming.
— Expanding our reporting structure to ensure that individuals have multiple safe avenues to report incidents of racism, harassment, oppression, and discrimination, including an anonymous form.
— Commit to supporting our artists in a humane work environment by hiring understudies for all live productions, drafting actionable policies to allow for substitute stage managers, and providing access to stipends for hair and skin-care products for Black artists. We will also continue our commitment to artists by never scheduling 10 out of 12 technical rehearsals, maintaining short rehearsal days, and never scheduling more than five workdays per week.
— Recognize the importance of and provide anti-racism resources and training to existing staff, board, company members, and artists.
- Our producing artistic director has participated in several anti-racism trainings, including the 11-week anti-racism webinar series Listen, Learn, Lead produced by TYA/USA and Arts in Color. She and our board chair will also be participating in the Community of Practice – Abolishing Racism in the Workplace Initiative workshops February–July of 2021 facilitated by YPT’s AROW program, which will build a community of practice committed to addressing racism and oppression within each of the participating organizations and within the larger DMV theater community. Anti-racism resources and webinars have been provided to members of the board and company members. Our company members are actively participating in the anti-racism conversation within the DC Metro theater community to learn of additional resources or ideas that can be applied to our organization.
- Along with our EDI committee, the organization is creating a specific schedule for mandatory anti-racism trainings and additional anti-racism resources for the board, staff, and company members for the future.
— Prioritize the telling of BIPOC stories in our arts education classes and on our stages.
- We require that at least 50 percent of the books used in our education programs feature BIPOC characters and are written by BIPOC authors.
- We have created a list of books for ages 0–6 on our website, written by authors of color and featuring stories about children of color, in an effort to expand the resources available to families and teachers. This will continue to be updated periodically.
- We have provided anti-racism resources and tools (including, but not limited to, videos, articles, and books) via our website and newsletter for parents and families of children ages 0–6. This list of resources will continue to be updated.
This list is not a comprehensive one. While we actively engage with the work, we understand that this is just the beginning of a neverending journey for our organization. There is always room for improvement — and our promise is to continue to strive for positive, meaningful progress to fulfill our mission to serve our community. We plan to update the community with transparency about the work that we do.
Baltimore Center Stage
To our communities:
Over the summer, we committed to being “productively dissatisfied” with our own progress toward anti-racism, and we enumerated a series of steps we would take to continue our journey. Today, in the spirit of practicing transparency and emergence, we’re writing with an update on where we’ve been and what we’re learning along the way.
But first, we begin with gratitude. We are grateful to our local organizers, who work each day across sectors to make Baltimore a more equitable community. We are grateful to Black-led organizers in our field — We See You WAT, Black Theater United, Broadway Advocacy Coalition, and many more — who are working across multiple communities to help move the American Theater ever closer to anti-racism.
And we are grateful to the individual Black, Indigenous and non-Black theatermakers of color, working inside and outside institutions. Thank you for holding us accountable and for moving with us as we continue the work of acknowledging and repairing generations of harm, and building toward a more just and equitable future.
Thanks in large part to our staff-organized Anti-Racism & Anti-Oppression group (ARAO), four interconnected areas of focus have emerged over the past several months, all with the dual goals of not only effecting change at a policy level but also — as important — holistically shifting the organizational culture to create spaces of Belonging.
This fall we implemented a three-part mandatory staff training arc that includes Anti-racism, Bystander Intervention, and Restorative Practices. Each training was followed by a processing/debrief space facilitated by members of ARAO. We’ll repeat this sequence again in the spring and then collect feedback for future iterations of the training.
The components of our staff training arc were as follows:
Anti-racist Theater Training with Nicole Brewer: The goal of this module was to establish a foundational and common understanding of the ways racism shows up in theater, the definition of anti-racism, and a shared analysis around anti-racism at BCS. (For more information about Nicole Brewer visit nicolembrewer.com.
Bystander Intervention with Hollaback: If the first module was about understanding what racism and anti-racism is, this module was all about what to do when you witness an act
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