In late February, I was reminded of the power of theatre during a moment near the end of Daniel Alexander Jones’s Black Light at Joe’s Pub in New York City. In that section, Jomama Jones—Daniel Alexander’s alter ego—ruminated on imagination and how safe she felt next to her Aunt Cleotha: “And this feeling came over me, and I don’t know if you remember this feeling of being next to a grown person and you can just sort of let everything go.” It stuck with me throughout the rest of the show and the days ahead.
The idea of feeling safe and letting go of fear reminded me of my grandmother, and I was immediately brought back to my childhood. As a young boy, I enjoyed spending time at my granny’s home in Guyana, where I was born and spent the first 14 years of my life. At night she would sit in her chair on the back deck that faced the guava and coconut trees, and, just beyond that, the Atlantic Ocean. I would sit in her lap, with my head nestled next to her bosom as she rocked back and forth. No words—just a hum, the smell of tea, the cool breeze on my face, and the sound of crashing waves in the distance. I felt safe, taken care of, and I instinctively knew that if something were to happen to me in that moment, she would protect me.
This fond memory then led me to think about how I can ensure that the people I work with have that same sense of security—whether they feel it instinctively and they know that their leaders care. Feeling safe in the spaces we inhabit—whether that’s safety in working with colleagues or supervisors or safety from violence—is crucial in our field, and in our fraught world. And it is our foremost responsibility as leaders to create a safer and more inclusive space for everyone, regardless of our personal politics.
Imagine a space where the beauty of our diversity is welcomed and celebrated; where we respect each other’s race, skin color, ethnicity, class, nation of origin, and religion; where our disabilities are ordinary and familiar parts of who we are; where each of us can decide for ourselves which restroom we belong in; where we do not criticize or dismiss each other’s interests, but where innovative thought and experimentation are supported and vested; where talking about inclusion is part of everyday vernacular; where microaggressions no longer affect those who are most vulnerable; where we respect people’s privacy and boundaries; and where sexual harassment and other forms of violence, abuse, and institutional oppressions are not tolerated.
Now stop imagining, and let’s do it!
In addition to the mandated laws around policies and legalese within our own employee handbooks, we have the opportunity to create policies that further align with our organizational values and what we hope will achieve greater inclusion and safety. We must do things critical to a safe and inclusive working environment and prioritize them as we would any other policy or program within our organization.
So how do we do it? Theatre Communications Group is doing this by incorporating the value of inclusion in our strategic plan and prioritizing it in all of our work, both internally and externally. Inclusion, in addition to equity and diversity, permeates TCG, through programs such as our Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) Institute, as well as professional development opportunities for leaders of color. We’ve also created an internal EDI workgroup whose charge is to hold leadership accountable to these values and to make recommendations on how to further align these values with programming and policies. Each month TCG dedicates time and financial resources so that staff may work on projects that will continue to build and enhance their analysis of EDI. Every year we have a mandatory training: For new staff we have a values clarification and EDI training, and for other staff we have trainings built on specific topics, such as this year’s session on microaggressions. We have all-gender restrooms, zero-tolerance sexual harassment and non-harassment policies, values-based hiring, recruitment, and onboarding practices, and staff has direct access to executive leadership and board meetings.
As I close this column, I want to remember the 17 young lives lost because of senseless gun violence at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. And I would be remiss if I didn’t lift up how the group of theatre kids are speaking out on gun control and leading the charge for the Never Again movement. These kids are out there fighting for their lives, and fighting for all of our safety. Both the systems created to protect them and the leadership appointed to make them safe have failed these kids.
While I may not have been a theatre kid, like these brave young people in Parkland, I am constantly reminded of theatre’s power and our field’s critical role in lifting our voices to fuel a movement for change. As Stephen Sachs, co-artistic director of the Fountain Theatre in Los Angeles, wrote in a moving piece about the Parkland theatre kids published on this site, theatre “can serve as a lightning rod of empowerment for young people.” He added, “For many teens, the experience of standing in a spotlight on a stage in a play or musical, galvanizing the attention of adults in the audience, is the first time a young person discovers that what they say matters. They learn that words have power, that their voice can move and inspire others.” And these young people are further proof of a better world because of theatre.
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