“There was a minute where all we were discussing was how to reopen the theatre in the face of COVID-19.” Faye Price, co-artistic director of Minneapolis’s Pillsbury House Theatre, and I spoke Sunday morning, six days after George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, just three blocks from Price’s theatre. We spoke four days after Tony McDade, a Black transgender man, was killed by Florida police. We spoke 79 days after Breonna Taylor was shot in her own home by Louisville police. We spoke 98 days after Ahmaud Arbery was killed by vigilantes while out for a jog. And we spoke three years, 10 months, and 15 days after Jeronimo Yanez shot and killed Philando Castile during a traffic stop in the Twin Cities suburb of Falcon Heights.
“It’s just been level after level after level of trauma, and it’s really trying,” Price told me. She had spent much of the night unable to sleep, as bands of white supremacists roamed the neighborhood. “If we didn’t have COVID, and our barrier was the murder of George Floyd and all of the murders of Black men and brown men and Black women all around the country—then that’s one thing to deal with. Our expression would continue to be artistic. But it’s hard to continue to be artistic in the way we have been artistic because we can’t come together. Theatre is a collective medium. There’s so many levels we have to battle right now.”
Danielle Cadet’s Refinery 29 headline might have said it best: “Your Black Colleagues May Look Like They’re Okay—Chances Are They’re Not.” There’s a build-up of tension, a ready-to-overflow frustration that comes with being Black in this country. As actor, writer, and producer Quinta Brunson tweeted last Tuesday, “Being Black is having a good day and then seeing another Black person was killed for no reason. Then you have to think about/talk about that all day. Or don’t and numb yourself. It’s a constant emotional war.” She added in a follow-up tweet that, meanwhile, you’re still expected to work and—oh yeah, worry about everything else going on in the world (like a pandemic that still has no vaccine or answers in sight).
As Sarah Bellamy, artistic director of St. Paul’s Penumbra Theatre, told me, there is definitely anger from the Black community. But more than that, the Black community is grieving, hurting, and in deep pain. It’s a pain that goes back further than Castile, to before Michael Brown or Trayvon Martin or Eric Garner, or name after name after name that have become as important to say as they are painful to write. And as large groups of people once again take to the streets to shout for justice that never seems to come, the Black community must also continue to fight to make sure the story of their struggle is being told honestly and fairly.
“One of the things that is the most concerning to me is how we tell the story of what’s happened here,” Bellamy said. “Because the tendency in the past, and certainly now seeing it, is to focus on the ‘rioting’ and the looting and the buildings that are burning. What often happens is that we get white-identified anarchists who are destroying buildings, but they’re not perceived nationally as the folks that are doing that, even though there’s footage of it. That’s really problematic, because it does further harm to our communities of color. I’m not saying that Black and brown folks aren’t participating, but that first line in is, in many situations, different folks.”
James A. Williams, a Twin Cities acting mainstay who regularly works with Pillsbury House, explained that he drives past the corner where Floyd died, and sees the faces of that neighborhood, every day. “We had protests before,” he said. “We had mass rallies that turned into where we’re at. Anger went from being expressed verbally to being expressed physically toward the community. But there’s a different energy about what’s going on here right now. Last night they burned down a Black barbershop in North Minneapolis, and you can’t tell me that was Black people doing that.”
In that statement is one of the difficult messages the Black community is trying to get across. On the one hand, many of the violent instigators of the riots and looting are indeed outsiders and people acting in bad faith (St. Paul mayor Melvin Carter even noted that he was told that everyone arrested after Friday night’s protests was from out of state). On the other hand, there is undeniable pent-up anger among Black people from hundreds of years of slavery, segregation, and oppression, compounded by the frustration of being told that every peaceful protest—be it NBA players wearing T-shirts, NFL players kneeling, or community members simply taking to the streets to raise their signs and voices—is somehow wrong or unpatriotic. And seeping through every inch of the media, social and otherwise, is the idea that property—the “victim” of the looting and rioting—is somehow more worth caring about than Black life.
“The most important thing is to stay on topic,” Bellamy said. “Do not allow the narrative to shift beyond anything but the killing of this man by the police and the lack of accountability there. His death is at the center. The other deaths are at the center. Any time people try to move to another topic—we are not finished talking about that. We haven’t even begun to talk about that.”
A lack of accountability: As many on Twitter repeatedly point out, protests are raging across the country and police are arresting thousands because of the refusal to arrest four of their own. Chauvin, who had 18 prior complaints about him filed to Minneapolis Police Department Internal Affairs, has been arrested and charged with third-degree murder—the “oops, it was an accident” kind—and second-degree manslaughter. Tom Kelly, the local criminal defense attorney who represented the officer acquitted on all charges for shooting and killing Castile, is also representing Chauvin. Add to that video after video showing peaceful protests turning violent as police officers around the U.S. lash out with rubber bullets and pepper spray, violating First Amendment rights of assembly and the press at every turn—and it’s almost easy to forget the country is also in the middle of a pandemic that disproportionately affects people of color.
According to a report from CNN and analysis from the American Public Media Research Lab, as of May 11, Black Americans made up about 27 percent of COVID-19 deaths, though they only make up 13 percent of the population in the 39 states (plus D.C.) that were surveyed. A Star Tribune report out of Minnesota from late April echoed similar findings, stating that Black people in Michigan accounted for 40 percent of COVID deaths while only making up 14 percent of the population. In Chicago, 72 percent of the city’s COVID deaths had been from the Black residents, though they make up 29 percent of the population. Statistics like these have Bellamy concerned about how people in her generation can help young organizers continue to be in the streets and protesting, while keeping them safe during a pandemic.
“I think that there’s going to be a second wave of blame that’s going to happen when the outbreak certainly happens,” Bellamy said. “This virus is still with us, and a community that’s already been disproportionately besieged by the virus is going to be blamed for it.”
Still, as actor, educator, and activist Sonja Parks put it, “There are two viruses in America right now. One takes people of every creed, color, and ethnicity. And the other one is just killing Black people, and it’s been killing Black people for a long damn time. Systemic racism has been around for forever, and nobody’s working to develop a vaccine for that. Because if we really were working on it, then we would be actively engaged in it every single day, and not just when something like this pops off. Otherwise you just don’t care.”
Parks noted that she shopped at the Target that was looted in the Twin Cities area, which sparked a statement from Target CEO Brian Cornell that did not condemn the looters but instead acknowledged the pain the community was in and promised that any displaced employees would still receive full pay and benefits while vowing to “rebuild and bring back the store.” After Central Camera, which has been in Chicago since 1899, was set on fire Saturday night, owner Don Flesch said in a statement reported by Block Club Chicago, “Although this is a tough time for the store, it doesn’t compare to the loss of George Floyd’s life and the countless other Black lives lost.”
Bellamy said she’s also seen a lot of support and solidarity from local business leaders.
“That kind of solidarity is exactly what we need right now,” Bellamy said. “It’s not to say that it’s not important that we stop the violence that’s happening. But I think what’s more important right now is that we keep George Floyd’s death and the police officers who abided that murder at the center.”
One such show of solidarity came from St. Paul’s Theater Mu, which canceled a PlayFest that was set to be a celebration to close out Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. The PlayFest was going to feature playwrights Lauren Yee, Leah Nanako Winkler, Madhuri Shekar, Christopher Chen, among others, as part of a continuation of Theater Mu’s mission “to amplify the voices left unheard.”
“As artists, we were already grieving the closure of theatre,” artistic director Lily Tung Crystal later told me. “We couldn’t create art in person. And then on Thursday, it didn’t feel right to create art online either. When we canceled our weekend events, there was a frustration, like once again the white patriarchy was silencing BIPOC voices. And it was still more important to give space to Black communities to speak.”
With one of the officers on the scene during Floyd’s murder, Tou Thao, being Asian American, the Coalition of Asian American Leaders (formed from leaders in Minnesota’s Asian American community in 2013) released a statement calling for unity in the face of violence.
“To see someone who looks like us behave as a bystander to Black death is devastating and painful,” the joint statement reads. “This is yet another reason that we must recognize our silence in the face of anti-Black racism, and commit to the ongoing work to dismantle anti-Blackness.”
In a later interview, Theater Mu program manager Audrey Park echoed similar sentiments: “If I’m speaking specifically within the Asian community, there’s still work to be done within ourselves individually, that we have to address the anti-Black sentiments that may be coming from the Asian community. We need to constantly, critically look within ourselves and within our own community to figure out what white supremacist ideals are still inherently within those communities and fight that just as much as we are fighting the more upfront white supremacy that we see.”
After one of the first days of rioting and fires, Park drove to one of the most affected sites to help clean up. She recalled seeing posters of Floyd made by a local artist and put up on the businesses on the street. To create that art, print it, and distribute it amid everything that is happening in the city, she said, is “the kind of community happening here too.”
“There’s action happening everywhere,” Park said. “When I go out to the streets to do clean-up, all these businesses that are boarded up or have damage done to them, they are still posting signs demanding justice for George Floyd, demanding accountability from the state leadership.”
Speaking of leadership, a slew of statements have flown out (and in some cases been prodded out by the Black community on Twitter, wondering where a statement was). Leaders of organizations large and small all over the country somehow, after all this time, still stumble and bumble for words to say to the Black community after yet another innocent life is lost. But words can only go so far, especially in the theatre community, and especially in the Midwest, where even my home state of Indiana (the northernmost Southern state, if you ask me) can lull you into a false sense of equality with its hunky-dory Midwestern niceness, while racism continues to rage on.
“In Minnesota, we’re good at saying the words,” said Williams. “We are good at talking about creating space. What we’re not good at is doing the actions. That’s the hard part, as artists, that we are having trying to figure out, how to help the community heal from this. There’s only so many times that you can pull your pain out. There’s only so many times that you can grieve out loud before you start to feel that it doesn’t make any difference what I do, you’re not going to hear me.”
To put that another way, Bellamy offered, “Rather than white people feeling like, ‘How can I hold space for people of color?’ I want them to call other white people into their spaces and say, ‘We need to talk.’ Now more than ever, we need white folk to get their white folk.”
“Stop waiting for the next instance to happen before you start caring, before you start engaging with communities that you say you want to serve,” Parks added. She noted that doing one “Black” show in a season is like “a politician who shows up every four years to ask for your vote and then disappears until it’s time to be reelected again. If we really are talking about being engaged in our community, then that starts before something like this happens.
“Theatre, at its core, is about community,” Parks continued. “And community means engaging and loving and caring and being available for community needs not just when a situation like this pops off. When the community says I’m hungry, the community says I don’t know where to get my education, when the community says I don’t have the resources available to me—that’s when you’re there. It’s not just opening your doors once a season for the ‘Black show’ and then closing it after that. That’s not engagement.”
There’s still so much work to be done as a country and as a theatre community. I’ll admit, I started reporting this article through tears. Tears of anger and frustration and exhaustion and fear. I felt broken. To pick up the phone and call others in the Black community, knowing the pain they’re feeling, felt like an immense lift. But, as always, it was those in the Black community who proved to have a strength that I could scarcely imagine inside myself. Each conversation with a weary voice worn down from helicopters flying overhead or the National Guard marching into town or white supremacists crawling out from the woodwork to wreak havoc was grounded in the passion and drive that keeps us fighting. Every conversation left me feeling hopeful, knowing that the Black community is unflagging in their fight for equality. We’re tired, but we’re not done.
As Sonja Parks put it to me, “I sincerely hope that this is a turning point. I’ll do everything in my power to make this a turning point. But if we go back to business as usual—particularly as artists, because artists are supposed to be the conscience of society, right, the gatekeepers of truth—if we as artists just go back to making our money, we missed the mark. We missed the moment, and we are not doing what it is that we were put on this Earth to do, and that is be society’s conscience.”
Faye Price told me, “I don’t feel hopeless. If anything, the violence in the country is just a reminder of our mission and what we need to do as an artistic entity to help our community.”
Said Sarah Bellamy, “There’s an immense amount to do. The stakes are incredibly high and I’m not daunted. I’m tired, but I’m not daunted.”
I’m tired. But I’m. Not. Daunted.