Collective memory is fluid and complex, and with the ever-churning news (and fake news) cycles, the distractions of our handheld screens, and deficiencies in school curricula, we can lose or be deprived of our connection with historical events that continue to shape today’s realities and lived experiences. One of the important civic roles our arts institutions can fill is to create awareness of and reflection on the oppressive moments and eras that continue to pulsate in our everyday lives. This year there are a number of ways to engage in marking and remembering our history.
The 400 Years of Inequality Project: 2019 marks 400 years since the arrival of Africans in Virginia. In 2017 Congress passed the 400 Years of African-American History Commission Act (H.R. 1242) establishing a commission to commemorate the African presence in the U.S. Its stated purpose is to:
Plan programs to acknowledge the impact that slavery and laws that enforced racial discrimination had on the United States; encourage civic, patriotic, historical, educational, artistic, religious, and economic organizations to participate in anniversary activities; assist states, localities, and nonprofit organizations to further the commemoration; and coordinate for the public scholarly research on the arrival of Africans to the United States and their contributions to this country.
A year before this act was passed, 400 Years of Inequality, a project co-chaired by Mindy Fullilove, William Morrish, Robert Sember, Robert Fullilove, and Maya Wiley, issued the following call to action: that everyone prepare observances for the 400th anniversary of the arrival in 1619 at Jamestown of the first Africans to be sold into bondage. These were just the first of millions who followed as enslaved people to work on plantations established on land stolen from the Indigenous peoples of the continent.
When slavery ended more than 150 years ago, structures of racism refortified themselves. White supremacy fought vehemently against Black success, ensuring that white power structures would be maintained—structures settled and built, as noted, on land that was unceded and taken by force from Indigenous communities. These structures became part of a replicating reality, so that when new systems emerge without active measures to check themselves against this history, they can inadvertently adopt the structural patterns and behaviors into which they’re born.
We see this dynamic play out in our own theatre community as well. But as an interdependent community of art makers, we also have opportunities to recognize and break these systems of inequality for the future. Together we can spark awareness, discussion, and action.
400 Years of Inequality is inviting arts organizations and other civic institutions to mark this history during the month of October and in particular during the week of Indigenous Peoples’ Day, Oct. 14, 2019. A simple way to do so is by reading from Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove’s Voices of A People’s History of the United States, a source companion to Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. To get involved, you can go to 400yearsofinequality.org to find resources, including a timeline and starter kit for your observance.
The 5th Annual Remembrance Readings 2019. Led by the National Jewish Theater Foundation, these readings of scripts with themes related to the Holocaust take place on Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), May 1 and May 2, and Kristallnacht (the Night of Broken Glass), Nov. 9 and Nov. 10. Theatres across the U.S. have participated in these remembrance readings since they launched, choosing from among more than 850 scripts described at the Holocaust Theater Catalog website.
World Theatre Day, March 27. This is an excellent time to reflect on and celebrate the power of our art form. Theatre people across the globe will celebrate by acknowledging the day in their lobbies, playbills, and staff gatherings. We’re excited to announce that the people of Indigenous Direction (Larissa FastHorse, Ty Defoe, and Jenny Marlowe) will co-author this year’s U.S. World Theatre Day address, since after all our continent’s First Nations deserve their often-unacknowledged place in such global convocations. Meanwhile the worldwide address, commissioned by the International Theater Institute (ITI), will be by Cuban theatre director, author, and teacher Carlos Celdrán. We are excited to continue our Global Theater Initiative, a collaboration with the Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics at Georgetown. We congratulate them on their CrossCurrents Festival this spring in Washington, D.C.
Finally, this month is Women’s History Month, with March 8 being International Women’s Day. The United Nations’ annual theme for 2019 is Think equal, build smart, innovate for change. These are challenges we theatremakers know well and have learned to face and master, both out of inspiration and necessity. The mandate to use our creativity and our humanity in equal measure should be one we all feel called to in all our work.