“I said to the staff, ‘Guys, I didn’t know the plays we were picking would be so relevant,’ ” Jude said in a telephone interview. “To know that [the plays’] diametrically opposed ideas are inextricably linked to being black in America.”
To an unusual degree, theater companies and other arts groups across the country have been lining up to declare themselves in mourning over the recent police killings and in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement — and by extension, with black colleagues such as Jude. Events such as the Public Theater’s virtual benefit, “We Are One Public,” were canceled, and theater troupes of every size have pledged allegiance in the fight against racism. “Round House stands with the protesters across the nation who are expressing their outrage,” reads a statement on the Bethesda theater’s website. No less a personage than Lin-Manuel Miranda went online to apologize for not having restated his values publicly until five days after Floyd’s killing.
“That we have not yet firmly spoken the inarguable truth that black lives matter and denounced systemic racism and white supremacy from our official ‘Hamilton’ channels,” Miranda said May 30 in a taped message on the Twitter feed for “Hamilton,” “is a moral failure on our part.”
Such expressions have been welcomed by members of the arts community who have been most deeply traumatized by the latest police killing. That is to say, its African American members. Several of them — leaders of companies as geographically diverse as the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Ore., and Working Theater in New York — said in interviews that words, in a field that exalts them, are important. But they’ve also heard them before. The concern they raised in recent conversations is whether those sympathetic words from groups with predominantly white audiences would translate into action, in both their missions and offerings.
As Hana S. Sharif, artistic director of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, put it: “If people are willing to hold the institutions to the values they are putting forward, then this moment of all these theaters standing with you could be valuable.”
Sharif is among a small but growing coterie of men and women of color who are being appointed to the top positions at nonprofit theaters: black theater artists, such as Nataki Garrett at Oregon Shakespeare, and such Latinx leaders as Stephanie Ybarra at Center Stage in Baltimore; Jacob G. Padrón at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Conn.; and Maria Goyanes at Woolly Mammoth Theatre in the District. On the particular issues that Floyd’s death has brought to the fore, though, one turns to black theater-makers for a deeper understanding of how theaters might inculcate the fight to eradicate racism. And that brings up the topic of how potently institutions — reassessing in this time of shutdown — might reorient toward the interests and values of younger and more-diverse audiences.
“One of the questions I have to be really clear about is why I was hired. Wasn’t it to ensure the sustaining and future of this theater?” said Sharif, who came to the Rep in 2019 after a career at Center Stage and Hartford Stage. “In that case, we have to talk about relevancy, who we are serving — who is going to be here 10 years from now. That is really a question of shifting theaters from where you just see pretty art to where theaters become a haven for social and civic engagement, for us to engage with each other.”
That this moment of upheaval has compelled many theaters to state their values is in part a reflection of the growing impact of black artistic leaders, directors and playwrights. Such black writers as Jackie Sibblies Drury and Michael R. Jackson — recently minted Pulitzer Prize winners for drama — and Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, Aleshea Harris, Suzan-Lori Parks, Dominique Morisseau, Jeremy O. Harris and Jocelyn Bioh, have set a standard for vibrant playwriting in the United States. One measure of their collective impulse to drive the conversation was evident when Jude was asked to sign on to a statement about Floyd on behalf of the entire Atlanta theater community. He replied that it would have far more meaning if every theater wrote its own. Several did.
“The statements are to win the moment,” Jude observed. “What it is, is a quick moment of self-analyzing. But if it doesn’t come with a strategic plan, then we wake up one day, and we have just programmed another whole season of plays by straight white men. It was just who the artistic director had in his Rolodex.”
Leaders such as Nataki Garrett, who became Oregon Shakespeare’s sixth artistic director in 2019, talk about the bred-in-the-bone white assumption of superiority as a “construct” on which the culture is based. Not every white person shares that with equal conviction, of course. But theaters’ programming choices — as with other touchstone facets of the arts — have tended to support the majority mind-set. In other words, white leadership has, generally speaking, been most attentive over the decades to plays by white people about white people. So why would audiences of other backgrounds identify in large numbers with those organizations?
“We have to keep in mind that the theater is inside of the ‘construct,’ ” Garrett said. “It’s like any other institution. The American theater has to change, but America has to change.”
She’s arrived at the festival at a fascinating juncture. Under former artistic director Bill Rauch, the repertory company made huge strides toward shifting its gaze, with casting and slates of offerings that sought to follow the precepts of equity, diversity and inclusion. Now, she wants not only to attract more visitors of color, but also to explore varied works that inspire empathy in her majority-white audience.
That requires more profound acknowledgment by whites of racism’s stranglehold on America’s past and even its present — a reality that many reject, or don’t want to hear about. So it’s a formidable challenge, one that has you wondering about what has to change first: the conversation on a stage or the one around the dinner table. To Kristen Jackson, Woolly Mammoth’s connectivity director, which entails community engagement, the more-sensitive words and casting methods that theaters are employing are useful, but only up to a point.
“The language of equity, diversity, inclusion has now been co-opted into something really more like virtue signaling,” she said, “and is maybe offering some means for analysis, but without an accompanying call to action.”
Perhaps some of the action called for is a barrier-breaking broadening of the theatrical approach, along the practical lines of what Working Theater is doing. The company heads into disparate sections of New York under its Five Boroughs/One City initiative and finds ways to tell stories about the communities it visits: a play in Bushwick, for example, about gentrification; another on Staten Island, about an Italian family reunion dinner; a third in Brighton Beach, about the cultural intersections of Russians and Pakistanis.
“The theory was, we’re all trying for the same thing — make a living, feel safe, feel secure,” said Tamilla Woodard, the company’s co-artistic director. “Everything I do is, how do we erase these lines of demarcation?”
One sensed in all of these discussions a raw anguish over recent tragedies, a fatigue with the status quo — and yet a surprising optimism that theater can still rise to the occasion, adapt and help us see the world through fresh eyes.
“We have the capacity to shift,” Garrett said. “People are marching in the streets in the middle of a pandemic! If that’s not a resounding call for change, nothing is.”