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Love Letters to the Theatre From Luis Alfaro and Dominique Morisseau

At Long Wharf Theatre’s recent ‘Artistic Congress’ convening, two leading playwright/activists shared their dreams and demands for the theatre field.

In October, Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Conn., brought theatre practitioners and artists together for a “State of the Union: Artistic Congress” virtual convening. The two-day event featured a conversation about activism and artistry between playwrights Luis Alfaro (Bitter Homes and GardensPico UnionOedipus El Reyand Dominique Morisseau (PipelineSkeleton CrewAin’t Too Proud—The Life and Times of the Temptations). The two MacArthur Genius grant recipients began their session with love letters penned to the field, followed by a rich and wide-ranging discussion, which has been condensed for publication.

Luis Alfaro.

Luis Alfaro: I live in the land of ghosts. My father is just around the corner. My mentor, María Irene Fornés, is right across from me on the other side of this table. Hello, Irene. Coatlicue, the Aztec mother of the gods, is right above me, and Coyolxauhqui, her rowdy daughter, is in my head this morning. So here is today’s love letter for the American theatre:

I was born with a foot on each side of the border. Sometimes that border is an obvious one, like Mexico and the U.S., and sometimes it is a more political one, like being queer and being Mexican. Sometimes the foot is inside the building while the other one is out on the street. Sometimes the foot is Off-Broadway while the other one is doing a reading in a church basement. Sometimes the foot is deep into writing a play while the other one is heavy, teaching. Sometimes the foot is at a very nice restaurant making the big ask from a funder, and sometimes the foot is putting together a GoFundme to get money to pay my actors.

Either way, this ability to stand in two worlds has been the essential tool for moving through my life as an artist for the last 30 years. My limbs are connected. Perhaps this is unique to all of us as artists. I know for me as a person of color who makes art, I can only survive through the multiplicity of my gifts. I am a citizen artist. I make, I build, I bring, and I sell my own tamales. I reach across aisles. I present to boards. I go out and find my audience while I am also writing my play. In other words, I am working in the American regional theatre.

I have run the smallest agencies and I’ve worked in the biggest theatres. My 10 years at the Mark Taper Forum, my seven years at Victory Gardens Theater, or my six years at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival were nowhere near as hard as my one year at the Service Employees International Union, or my three years working at an AIDS hospice in South Central Los Angeles, or the year that I ran the Gay Men of Color HIV/AIDS Consortium. Making art can feel like dying sometimes, but it is nowhere near actual death. That doesn’t mean it is any less hard.

I am a theatre whisperer. Sometimes I help leaders invest in programs, initiatives, employees, and all manner of art. In other words, I help convince you of the only thing that art asks of all of us from creator to audience, to staff to community—and that is to change. Change is our only given. It is the only way for an actor to do their best work. It is the only way we move from one plate to another, giving each one our full attention. My mentor, Irene Fornes, used to say to me, “There were many great artists before you, and there will be many great artists after you. Your job is simply to tell the story of today. So relax.”

Telling the story of today. Wow, change. We all have to do it, and it feels better when we do it together. We can’t move onto the next production to be ready for the new experience without saying goodbye to the last ephemeral one. I am my community’s channeler, translator, interpreter. Next to the hallelujah preacher at the corner, I might be the second most spiritual person on my block, which brings me to this moment. This extraordinary moment we are all in. Can we not pretend that it is momentary and without costs, please? Let’s not go back to the way we were. I am a Chicano. I was in erasure. I still am. You don’t often see me onstage or in a movie or on television. And when you do, I am serving you or I am hurting you. That is a construct of the dominant culture. Yes, we hurt. And we serve, like everyone, but we also love and we build. I don’t want this moment to go by without real transformation. I have changed—deeply. My thinking is not the same. My loving is not the same. My language is not the same.

I come from the most populous county in all of the United States—over 10 million people in Los Angeles County, who speak 224 languages. But we only generally perform in one. What’s up with that? Seven regional theatres in Southern California—all run by very nice white men—eight associate artistic directors, only one is a person of color. Latinx people make up more than half of the population in Los Angeles, but zero of the leadership in theatre. A great pause has become the great possibility. That is why I’m here this morning—to investigate this idea with Dominique and with all of you. I have come to change and to be changed. That is the thing that theatre does best.

Dominique Morisseau: Dear Theatre: I’m in love with you. Since childhood, since my beginning, since I first stood onstage in sixth grade and felt valued in front of my whole school, since eighth grade boys performed “We Real Cool” by Gwendolyn Brooks, since Stephanie Mills in The Wiz—I want to join you. Participate with you in making our various corners of the world better, in pushing for justice and equity. Making space for myself and my community and my people. To make space for my Black womanhood, make space for Detroit and for Haiti and for quiet Black girl pain, and for my celebrations and my dance, and the dance of my people. To help us be seen, feel valued, to remind us there are people behind every policy that is enacted. To remind us of our collective imagination and what we have the power to dream beyond. To keep us dreaming, to hold my rage, to affirm that my rage is righteous. To hold all of our rages and our joys. I want you to be better; us to be better.

Dominique Morisseau. (Photo by Jenny Graham)

I hold my breath for you. I have allowed you to be my unrequited lover. I stare you in the eye and fearlessly demand that you shift and improve, that you open. That you hold yourself accountable for doing right by the people. On the shoulders of Lorraine Hansberry, August Wilson, Alice Childress, Pearl Cleage, Cheryl West, Langston Hughes, Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni, and Maya Angelou, I am here. I have been made whole and illuminated by these writers, on- and offstage. And I am here to continue that illumination on- and offstage for others, into the audiences, into my deeply passionate communities, into the corners of the world that bleed with my people’s blood, having been spilled into the streets near where many of our theatres are mounted. I am here to push you to be better for all of us, while we continue to breathe life into you for generations to come.

Luis Alfaro: Maybe this is a good place to start. They call us “artivists,” and I’m interested in how art and activism married for you, because your work is so deeply immersed in community and in the political idea. Could you talk a little bit about where that journey began?

Dominique: The artist activism, I’ve been really wrestling with this lately in my life—I’m trying to get back in touch with like, how did I get here? How am I the person that I am? I’ve called my mother many times, like, “Explain this to me. I’m trying to calm down; I’m not sure why I can’t calm down. Have I always been this agitated?” She reminds me that I have always been like this. My father was a revolutionary-minded man. He did writings. He passed in February, and I recently found a letter that he had written on behalf of a Haitian orphan. My father used to take trips to Haiti, where he’s from, and go out into the rural countryside with doctors to interpret for them so that they could set up clinics for the country’s most vulnerable. My father met an orphan on one of those trips, and I found a letter he wrote asking his church community in Detroit to get help, give money to this Haitian man’s education; he raised money to put this orphan through medical school. I’ve also found articles my father wrote to our local union in Detroit about how the workers are the power in this country—that’s the headline: “Workers Are the Power in This Country.” And I was like, Oh my God, I thought I came up with my plays by myself! I thought I came up with like Skeleton Crew and workers’ rights. And I’m slowly going backwards—like, no, none of my ideas are mine. I have been brainwashed by my father! [Laughs].

And then the art part is, I was exposed. My aunt, Carol Morisseau, she’s a visual artist, but she’s also a dancer. She had a dance company when I was growing up in Detroit, so I was exposed to dance at a young age. My mother took me to see plays and read books. I was an avid reader. All of those things had a lot to do with shaping my creative thinking. My mother was one of those moms who were like, “What do you want to do? Let’s find out what you’re made of—here’s piano classes, here’s dance classes. You want to draw? Let’s find out what you like.” And the arts is the thing that stuck for me.

Naturally I’m somebody who does not like bullies. I’ve never liked bullies. I’ve been bullied, and I’ve been a bully, so I know on both hands, they’re terrible. And so I look at bullies big and small, whether the bullies are working in service of a government or bullies or in service of leadership at the institution or in my neighborhood, you know? I want to stand up to bullies, not just for myself but for other people. In my art I can bring communities together to say, “Hey, we’re being bullied; let’s fight the bully.” 

What about for you? Your legend in activism is long and real. Have they always been a marriage for you as well or have they come in different phases?

Luis: I was raised really, really poor in downtown Los Angeles, so I think poverty is the thing that defined me, right? Like you, I belong to the Club of the Recently Departed Father. My father weighs in my life; he is present in my life. And so I think a lot that what I’m doing is not only an honor of my father, but it is guided by my father’s hand, which is such an interesting idea. It’s a spiritual idea, right? It’s family, it’s generations.

I didn’t know I was poor until somebody told me I was poor. We were migrant farm workers, we were always in the fields, and I believe very much in dirt. A lot of my relatives gave birth in the fields—you know, you rubbed the baby in the dirt because it has so many properties. So I think about that as a kind of spiritual notion, my sense of connection to the land. And it was politics first. It was really about, how do I use art as a way of changing the world? I had already been involved in an organization called CISPES (Community In Support of the People of El Salvador), I had been part of the Catholic Worker [Movement]. I was one of those really obnoxious children that when I was 10—I’m embarrassed to tell you this, but I read this book called The Long Loneliness by Dorothy Day, and it’s about a rich socialite in New York who gave all of her money away and started the Catholic Worker’s soup kitchen. And not only was I inspired by that, I went to the Catholic Workers to live and my parents were like, what the…?

My parents never engaged in art, but they knew that I loved it. So I remember when I was 14, my mom drove me to the Wiltern to see Nina Simone. It was so crazy. I went to see Nancy Wilson, who was one of my idols, at the Playboy Jazz Festival. When I came back out, I made my mother buy me a beret and I only spoke in a French accent for like six months; I was going to move to France because Nancy Wilson had been to France. 

Dominique: You’re on a whole James Baldwin situation! I love this.

“Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles” by Luis Alfaro, at Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Ore., through July 6. Pictured: Vilma Silva, Sabina Zuniga Varela, and VIVIS. (Photo by Jenny Graham)

Luis: The power of that really took over. So my first gig was at the old Goodman Theatre. I remember walking in and I said, Where are the Mexicans? There was a Cuban, the beautiful Henry Godinez. Chicago is a very Mexican town, but that was not who you met at the regional theatres. So what happened is that my first 10, 15 years were about making change that was really small. I had this trick where I would bring a dozen donuts to the box office and I would say, “So if somebody only speaks Spanish, how do you deal with it?” I remember at Hartford Stage, they were like, “What do you think we should do?” And I said, “I think you should hire a Puerto Rican to work in the box office.” And they were like, okay; that was 15 years ago, and that’s still part of the belief of the company—to have somebody who speaks Spanish. All of that came from parents who were part of the United Farm Workers—the idea that community is always at the center, and how do you bring them into the experience with you?

Dominique: Listening to you, it feels like it comes from family and community. There’s a root in that. I talk to young people a lot, and everybody wants to know, where do they find their place as artist-activists, artivists? I always say it has to start internally. I have found the difference in my life between activist and politician—they can get confused sometimes, because there are a lot of people who are well versed in politics and can speak very passionately about politics, and don’t that does not necessarily make them activists. In my assessment of activism, every activist that I’ve ever known, they are service workers. They are some of the most compassionate people; you have to be a very loving and passionate and compassionate person to be an activist because you’re not fighting just for you. That means that you have to put people’s needs before your own, and you have to be able to put where the culture is and what the people’s desires are and what feels just to the people ahead of your personal agenda. That’s very hard to do, and there are very few people that are successful at living in that space consistently, you know?

So when you talk about going to the box office, that’s recognizing a need beyond your own—that this is a community here, and it is going to need to feel like this theatre is in conversation with them. They can come and support and buy a ticket, and they’re going to need to be communicated with. And I just wonder, what informs that on-the-ground thinking? Does it come out of a place of need first? Like how do you put that into action consistently in your life?

Luis: I have sat in a lot of audiences where I would look around and say, “Okay, none of my people are here. How do I make sure my people are here?” The first place of contact at a theatre is with the box office. So I have a general rule of three: I always go to a regional theatre and I start with box office, then marketing—because that’s the way people are gonna see you, so that’s really important—and the third thing, I go to the community audience development. One of the big lessons I learned during my time at the Taper was, we used to put so much money into newspaper ads; well, newspaper ads don’t work for our community. The No. 1 media outlet for Latinos is radio, so why are we not putting it into radio? So those were the kinds of talks I had. I’ve been very lucky in that. I feel like every theatre I go to, there is that moment where it’s awkward, where you have to do the ask, right? You have to name the problem.

And I think that my job, as much as it annoys some of my colleagues, is to reach across the aisle and say, “How are we going to fix this together? I’m not in charge here. I’m here for the one play.” I was thinking of an experience out at the Public Theater a few years ago where Oskar [Eustis] was so amazing. I said, “Listen, we just cannot give all the tickets to the subscribers. Because my community is not going to buy tickets in advance, they’re going to make a big-ass line all the way down the street. And that’s okay, right?” And he was like, “We’re going to hold a certain amount for that line.”

Dominique: I’ve had that same conversation with theatres. Detroit Public Theatre, which I’m on the board of and have helped to build, I’ve had to say the same thing. “Detroiters are not about to buy all the tickets—we’re not doing a month in advance.” If you truly love people, you learn their language, right? And so I have often said, if you truly want, you know, the Latinx audience, if you want the African American audience, if you want the Native American audience or the Asian Pacific American [audience] in your theatre, are you studying how they spend their money and their buying patterns? If you’re marketers, you should know the spending patterns of communities. And you’ll understand that this community is going to make sure they can pay this bill, this rent, this, that, and then the disposable income they have; they wait until the end of the month, and then they got to figure out what else they can go spend their money on. That’s when they’re going to decide, “Oh, I want to see that show.” So to say, “We couldn’t get those people because they just didn’t come.” That is not fair and that’s not love. That’s not really an invitation to that community. If you want to make an invitation to these communities, you have to find the way to move on their terms. You have to find the way to learn their language and not force them to learn yours. 

“Skeleton Crew” by Dominique Morisseau, at Actors Theatre of Louisville in 2017. Pictured: Madelyn Porter and Patrese D. McClain. (Photo by Bill Brymer)

That’s across the board. We cannot go into communities and theatrically colonize them and say, “You must do our theatre this way in order to engage with us.” No, we have to find a way to do it your way. That’s another way of putting the people you say you want to serve first. I understand, like you said, the reaching across the aisle in talking to theatres. I’ve been working inside of theatres, being on boards of theatres, being an artist, talking to artistic leaders of theatres, because I want to understand things from their point of view. I know there’s a lot we don’t know about how things go and how things are run. From the outside, there’s a lot of fixes that we think are easy that are not so easy if you really get inside of these institutions. I’m still going to ask for the same things that people outside of the institutions looking in want and demand, but I have to demand it with strategy. I have to know how it works and the functionality of what I’m demanding, you know?

When you said it frustrates your colleagues sometimes, what does that mean? What’s at the core of that? I’m just curious, because a lot of us are talking about change in the theatre and how that looks and whether we should burn it all to the ground. It’s the age-old question: Do you change from within, or do you drop it and start anew? Nobody ever says “both,” and I don’t know why. Why do we not have “all of the above”?

Luis: I love this word that you’ve just used: invitation. I invite people to talk to me. It’s kind of terrifying to think that both you and I are both talking about strategies for bringing people to the theatre, when in fact our real only job is really to write that theatre and make the theatre. But one of our realities as people of color is to not only make it, but to make the experience that’s going to bring people there, right? So for me—maybe because I was raised very religiously, I was raised Catholic and Protestant Pentecostal on the street corner with my Marine dad—the strategy has always been, how can we talk about really difficult things in really respectful ways, right? How can I ask you to step aside when you have invested as much as I have in this, and how can we recognize that not everybody’s at the table? I just read that hilarious quote from a woman in Texas who said that if you aren’t at the table, then you’re on the menu. That makes sense.

I’m thinking about those moments of real adversity, struggle. When I was young, I ran a really important nonprofit agency called the Gay Men of Color Consortium, and it was only people of color. All we did was fight—you know, the Asians were fighting with the Blacks, the Blacks were fighting with the Latinos. And what were we fighting about? This meager amount of money from the federal government. We turned on each other. That’s always been the lesson: Who are we fighting? What are we trying to change? Who are we trying to change? I know what I want. Why am I fighting you about this? This is ridiculous, right? But it was a low point in my life.

By accident, during the Olympic Arts Festival, I got to meet a woman named Bernice Johnson Reagon, one of the founders of Sweet Honey in the Rock, who worked for the Smithsonian—amazing woman. And she said, “What’s troubling you?” I told her what was going on and how race had become the problem. And she said, “Well, I don’t think that’s wrong. I think that when everybody in the coalition gets along, the coalition is too small.” The idea is that the bigger you get, the more troubled you get, the more fraught with conflict we become. It’s about how we handle the conflict, right? Half the time I’m killing them with kindness and half the time I’m very gently but swiftly pushing someone along. 

Dominique: One of the things you’re saying that struck me, about how inside of this people-of-color organization that the Black folks were fighting the Asian folks fighting the Latinx folks. It’s like, who are we fighting? That question has always resonated with me. I’m a big fan of Fred Hampton. He’s a legend. He was the great unifier inside of the Black Panther party. He had this thing that was like Black power for Black people, brown power for brown people, yellow power for yellow people, white power for white people. Just as an individualized soundbite, “white power for white people” sounds scary. But what I love about his holistic message was that it’s about empowering all people to have agency over themselves and to have collective agency, so everybody’s at the table, and everybody’s community is being appropriately served.

When we think about justice, we’re not thinking about justice, we’re not thinking about equity. We’re thinking about battling. When I go to sleep at night or I wake up in the morning, I say prayers for the oppressed to rise above oppression. I don’t pray for the oppressed to then become the new oppressor, you know? I don’t want the Black king, the Latinx king to replace, the white king. I want to do away with the monarchy. The monarch is the problem.

So it is very much about shifting ideology and not just shifting the person. People say representation matters, and it does. Mentality also matters. Ideology matters. I wish so much—I think artists have the best chance of getting this to happen—that commonly oppressed peoples could recognize who we’re fighting, and that all the theatre that believes itself to be good and believes itself to be socially progressive, that we know who our common enemy is, all of us, whatever we look like, whatever background we come from, if we are truly trying to fight oppressive regimes, dictatorship, then we have to see that common goal and work together. 

I know why the Black community feels like anti-Blackness is such a real thing. It is a real thing, and there needs to be attention focused on that. But it can’t be an exclusive attention focused on that. Anti-Latinx is real. We got children in cages. That’s a real thing. Native Americans being excavated off of their land, still to this day. That is a real thing. There’s no reason we can’t collectively see each other’s oppression and say, “I stand for you and for you and for you.” We all need to see our global power, and if we can figure that out, I think we could make a bigger seismic shift than we’ve seen thus far.

It is my dream. I hope that the artists can figure that out so that we can help the rest of the world. Imagine that.

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