Cameras on. Be aware of your body language. Resist the temptation to defend yourself. People of color can speak. White people are only allowed to witness.
These were the ground rules of the Town Hall for Racial Reckoning hosted last summer by CREAT (Coalition for Racial Equity in Atlanta Theatre) and I.D.E.A. ATL (Inclusion, Diversity, Equity in the Arts Atlanta), two civic organizations aimed at advocating for and enhancing equity in the theatre. For three days in late June and early July, theatre artists of color in Atlanta were given a platform to name and address the white artistic directors, designers, administrators, and fellow cast members who had patronized, harassed, and discriminated against them in the rehearsal room and during performances over the years.
The Town Hall served as a mirror to the theatre community reckoning with a clear lack of diversity on the city’s stages, in hopes of implementing policies to address the problem. The four artists who formed CREAT—Cynthia D. Barker (she/her), Lee Osorio (he/him), J.L. Reed (he/him), and Diany Rodriguez (she/her)—had earlier approached professional and semi-professional theatres in town with the idea of adopting a ratings system that would grade their seasons based on the number of artists and administrators of color they employed, as well as the diversity of their boards. But after getting pushback from a number of theatre, the organizers got the idea of a town hall to clear the air and set the record straight.
“We pitched the rating system to theatres, and there were a lot of people who thought that theatre wasn’t the problem, it was the solution,” said Osorio. “They thought they needed to preach to their audiences, not work on themselves. That was a wake-up call that the theatres didn’t know that they were a part of the problem.”
The idea of a ratings system emerged in discussions at an event hosted by Out of Hand Theater, where Osorio was the associate artistic director (he is now an associate artist with the company). In 2019, Out of Hand held an event called Decatur Dinners, for which they staged a short, one-person play in 100 homes to prompt discussions about race over dinner. Barker was one of the actors who performed in that event. It occurred to her that these dinners gave her the chance to have conversations with complete strangers that should have been happening in the rehearsal room.
“As I teach my students in Intro to Theatre, the Greek translation of the word is ‘the seeing place,’” said Barker, an actor and director. “When we are witnessing the murders of Black people, violence against Asian Americans, the division of Latinx families, and riots on the nation’s capital, the theatre had better be the first place to hold space for dialogue and challenge systems of oppression, internally and externally. If it fails to do that, it fails to be what it proclaims to be—the seeing place.”
Barker asked Osorio if Out of Hand would partner with her to stage a similar event for theatre artists in Atlanta. In designing what became the Atlanta Theatre Dinner, she reached out to Reed, Rodriguez, and two other actors to help facilitate. On Feb. 10, 2020, 200 artists and administrators gathered for a potluck to discuss racism in the theatre scene.
Some glaring facts emerged from that dinner, the main one being that even though the population of Atlanta is 54 percent Black, only 13 percent of the plays produced in town on average were by Black playwrights. Further, most of the artistic directors, administrators, and board members at the city’s theatres are white women. There was a need to raise the community’s awareness about white privilege and perpetuating harm—and to keep these discussion going, Barker said. That’s how CREAT began.
But just as they began to develop a scoring system as a way to account for those disparities, the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and theatres shut down—but racism did not. At the dinner, organizers recognized that artists of color had experienced a lot of hurt, and needed a platform to express themselves. That hurt was compounded by killings of unarmed Black people, including Ahmaud Arbery and Rayshard Brooks, both in Georgia. As the nation was looking inward, so was the Atlanta theatre community.
“Black people have learned to survive in a country that was never intended for them as citizens,” Barker said. “How each person survives and thrives may vary, but at the end of the day that’s the name of the game. Smile when you don’t feel like it, laugh when nothing is funny, pretend to be unaffected by micro- and macroaggressions, etc. For generations that’s what has been passed down and that’s what we’ve done. Last year presented the opportunity for Black folks to remove ‘the masks we wear,’ speak unapologetically about the injustices we’ve endured, and call out the offenders. The days of suffering in silence are done.”
Plans for the Town Hall, then, came from these two related impulses: to speak the truth about racism in Atlanta theatre that many in leadership were reluctant to acknowledge, and to provide a space for artists of color to share that truth without fear of professional consequences. As they got deeper into planning, CREAT partnered with IDEA ATL, hired a moderator, and consulted mental health professionals to make sure that they wouldn’t perpetuate harm.
“It became obvious that someone would have a testimonial and a white power broker would insist on replying and apologizing,” said Rodriguez, who is an actor. “We didn’t want to give them the opportunity to absolve themselves of responsibility. We wanted to show how messed up the power structure is—look at 99.9 percent of the artistic directors, directors, staff members, head ushers, etc.”
For the first two nights of the three-night Town Hall, artists and administrators of color had three minutes to share their experiences of racism. They could also submit a statement ahead of time and ask for someone to read on their behalf. On the third day, only people of color were allowed to attend. A mental health professional was present to help them process what they had heard and experienced over the last two days. More than 700 people participated over the course of the three days.
“We didn’t really learn anything that surprised us,” said Osorio. “The one thing that shocked me was that an actor who called Immigration & Naturalization Services on another actor. The scarcity and the competitiveness in this industry is toxic.”
Added Reed, “It’s not a secret that these things have been happening, but I’m still trying to figure out what makes people keep going back to hostile environments. I have struggled to figure that out. What is that thing that keeps anyone else from saying in the moment, ‘You can’t talk to people like that’?”
It’s been almost a year since the Town Hall, and CREAT ATL is still looking for ways to empower artists of color. They awarded nine Sow & Grow Grants—four in the amount of $1,500 and five in the amount of $800—to artists of color in the Metro Atlanta theatre community last fall, and they have a second round slated for this fall.
Most importantly, they have more theatres on board for their ratings system. Theatres are rated on a scale of 1-100 for racial and ethnic diversity in programming, in open-ended W-2 staff and limited-term staff, and in board members. For example, for programming a theatre can earn (or lose) points based on the number of plays by writers of color on their mainstage; under W2-staff, points can be earned based on the number of artistic decision makers of color involved in season selection. These ratings are currently in the “beta” testing stage, with data processed for four theatres from the 2018-2019 season. Rodriguez said that while they cannot confirm yet who all of the theatres are, she can report that their assessment shows every professional theatre in Atlanta getting a D or an F.
She also said that CREAT is currently raising funds to partner with TRG Arts to organize their data and implement a system that can be consistently applied, regardless of a theatre’s budget and staff size. Their hope is that the rating system will serve as a model for theatres across the country and provide public accountability as they reopen.
So far, while most theatres in Metro Atlanta are waiting for new guidelines from Actors’ Equity before announcing a 2021-2022 season, the Alliance Theatre, Theatrical Outfit, and Atlanta Lyric Theatre have announced a slate of mainstage productions. Between the three theatres, seven shows are by playwrights of color (five at the Alliance, two at Theatrical Outfit).
“I’m hopeful that once we start getting back into spaces, we’ll start to get a sense of change,” said Reed. “I’m not expecting for it to happen quickly or cleanly, but we’ll see if people [are] listening.”
Kelundra Smith (she/her) is a contributing editor to American Theatre.
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