This year, a group of TCG staffers began an archive project, gathering volumes of documentation of our theatre movement, from TCG incorporation papers to conference reports to board minutes, telegrams, and manuscripts.
One late summer afternoon, a box arrived from TCG’s New Jersey storage facility with National Conference documents from the 1980s and 1990s. I was hoping the contents would shed light on a series of “non-binding resolutions” delivered to the TCG Board after the 1990 conference at Smith College in Northampton, Mass. I found photos of field leaders and artists’ panels from multiple conferences: Hal Prince, Gordon Davidson, Elizabeth Van Dyke, Rene Buch, Anne Bogart, and many more. I also came upon a beautiful photo of Yolanda King—Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s eldest daughter—keynoting the 1990 conference.
In perusing Todd London’s coverage of the conference in American Theatre, it became clear that 1990 was a seismic year of awakening, with a newfound activism among resident theatremakers. This came in response to a crisis at the National Endowment for the Arts and the ensuing culture wars, which saw congressional leaders attacking the work of artists such as Karen Finley, Tim Miller, Holly Hughes, and John Fleck (the so-called NEA Four) and attempting to place content restrictions on grants. As London wrote, the representatives experienced an “awakening from passivity to passion, from concern to commitment, arrogance to activism.”
Goodman Theatre’s Bob Falls, then TCG’s board president, passionately took the podium and urged the field to fight the attacks on the NEA and freedom of speech. “I’m angry; I’m in pain over this,” he said. “I never thought it would happen here” in the U.S. Theatres and artists were also being awakened to homophobia and racism in the field. Yolanda King urged the assembled to “get up off our collective apathy” and fight racism in our country and arts community. “Jim Crow is dead, but his college-trained, firstborn son—Jim Crow, Esq., is alive and kicking…The art and culture of my people is being ignored. The deliberate suppression of American diversity is an American tragedy,” she said.
That year, conference attendees were asked by TCG’s board to develop a resolution to prioritize fieldwide coalition-building in the fight for the NEA and freedom of expression. The participants took that charge seriously, and then some. What came from their three days together was not a single resolution but three: 1) A Resolution on the National Endowment for the Arts and Freedom of Expression, 2) A Resolution on Gay and Lesbian Discrimination, and 3) A Resolution on Racial, Gender, and Class Discrimination.
On the first item, attendees asked TCG to assume a leadership role in a national media campaign on behalf of constituent theatres to combat the threat to freedom of expression and freedom of choice, and to invite other national organizations to join the effort.
In the resolution on gay and lesbian discrimination, a representative group of participants agreed that the word “homoeroticism” in the congressionally approved restrictive language on grants from the NEA singled out, disenfranchised, and vilified a significant constituency of TCG and the larger theatre and arts community. They asked that the conference publicly condemn this discrimination against lesbian and gay artists; that TCG board and staff address these issues in any continuing discussion on the NEA crisis; and that all individual TCG participants address this discrimination in their own communities.
Finally, in the resolution on race, class, and gender discrimination, attendees copped to “the hypocrisy of being asked to collectively fight the issue of censorship, which is about sexism, racism, and classism, when racism and sexism are being perpetuated intentionally or unintentionally in the member organizations of this body.” Their proposal was that TCG make the issue of racism, sexism and classism in U.S. theatre an agenda item of the long-range planning committee and the national artistic agenda, and that this issue take on the enormous proportion of the NEA issue—indeed that it be raised to TCG’s highest priority.
While these were non-binding resolutions, the human and intellectual capital that went into creating them was not insignificant. Their words signified a groundswell of new or renewed awareness about key issues for our theatre field, as a collective and an ecology. And while the majority of the field’s activist focus then was on the culture around the NEA, the concerns articulated in resolutions 2 and 3 led to some important conversations and action. Indeed, Of course, their truth and urgency never died. And work on these issues became officially formalized through the Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion tenets of TCG’s 2012 plan.
In 2020, 30 years will have passed since that Smith conference. We are seeing a new wave of transition in our field, with longtime leaders moving on for new opportunities. This tectonic shift brings about renewal, release, and occasionally some friction. It’s a time to fortify what’s working and cast away what isn’t—to celebrate leaders who have built the theatre ecosystem we have today, while giving wide berth to the new voices who will both disrupt and fuel our continuum.
And TCG’s archive will inspire and instruct us, as we rise up to chart our collective future.
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