About a month ago, the theatre I manage, Artists Repertory Theatre in Portland, Ore., was hiring for a new position under our DNA: Oxygen program. Two months earlier, we had announced the hiring of our first artistic directing fellow and director of DNA: Oxygen, Zi Alikhan, and this was his first job posting. One of our frequent collaborators and associated artists posted the job description online, and a lengthy debate ensued on Facebook around how the quoted salary $35,000 was not enough for the position offered.
And I know what you’re about to say: Don’t read the comments! But after the fifth text asking me if I had seen what was going on, I had to step into the fray.
It began with me introducing myself in the thread, indicating how we arrived at the salary for the job, and explaining the job’s other benefits and contingencies and encouraging well-intentioned people who had questions about the rate to contact myself, our artistic director Dámaso Rodríguez, or Zi directly about making changes. But it soon turned into into an all-out war of the ages in which one white man who disagreed with me seemed to feel that I was speaking from my opinion and not as a leader at Artists Rep, and that it was better for him to argue publicly, and even send an email to Dámaso to fill him in about me (as if I hadn’t been talking to him the whole time) with the subject line, “Thought you should know,” in which he used phrases like “she chose to come for me,” “not building goodwill,” “lacking professionalism,” and “she needs to know that,” as if I am someone to be spoken down to or given a “talking to,” not a leader at one of Portland’s preeminent organizations. As I wrote in an email, “I am the managing director of ART. That’s not a flex, it’s a fact. Me saying that in my intros, be it verbally or written, gives context to my position. If that offended you, then I believe a deep dive into why deserves to be examined.”
In short, it seemed clear to me that this was a person unwilling to accept the leadership of a Black female speaking as the authority on behalf of Artists Rep and its policy. And this led me to a series of questions. Across the country over the past few years, theatre leaders of color have been newly appointed to the top posts, or associate-level posts, at various institutions. So now what? Have theatres’ staff, board, patrons, and community done the work to make them feel welcome as leaders? What has it been like for them to lead as people of color? What kind of support have they received (or not received)? These are some of the questions I’m wrestling with in my own position that were brought into focus by this recent controversy.
Seeking answers to my questions, I talked with some of the brightest theatrical minds of the new American regional theatre, including Emika Abe (she/her), managing director of Woolly Mammoth in Washington, D.C.; Tyrone Davis (he/him), associate artistic director, Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles; Nataki Garrett (she/her), artistic director, Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Ore.; Leslie Ishii (she/her) artistic director, Perseverance Theatre in Juneau, Alaska; King Kenney (he/him), marketing director, Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Conn.; Anthony McDonald (he/him), executive director of the Shubert Theatre in New Haven, Conn.; Chip Miller (they/them), associate artistic director, Portland Center Stage @ the Armory, Portland, Ore.; and Hana Sharif (she/her), artistic director, the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis in Webster Groves, Mo.
KISHA JARRETT: How are we, the theatre industry, actually systemically changing?
HANA SHARIF: I don’t know if we are systemically changing. So often as Black women, we have to be twice as good to get just as far. I remember the New York Times article that came out around my announcement, it had myself, Jacob Pádron, Nataki Garrett, Stephanie Ybarra, Robert Barry Fleming, and Maria Manuela Goyanes, and it was this huge headline of “doors flung open,” as if we didn’t deserve the positions we were named to. The feeling is that none of us were intended to get these jobs; the intent was to have Black and brown bodies in the finalist pool as qualified candidates, and then a clear underestimation of our qualifications. We were competing against the “favorites,” and then it became egregious for [the board] to not give you the job, because you are unequivocally the best.
CHIP MILLER: The strangest thing is that my promotion was planned prior to COVID-19. When I was offered this job, it was all a part of the outline of the position. But just by the coincidence of timing, there is the assumption of how I got this job versus the actual trajectory of me in this position.
KING KENNEY: I’ve been grappling with this for six months. I don’t have the confidence that they were prepared. I think most organizations are trying to wait this movement out. The parody is not putting structures in place for us to succeed. Ask the organization, how are you going to prepare for my arrival? How do we fully support people of power who are going to lead communications or lead groups of people that don’t look like them without having the default of “they don’t know what they are talking about”? White people want me to take on the way of my predecessor—they just want me to be brown but to do all the things that were happening before. You can’t put a Black person in charge of the communications and not prepare people for the change of voice. I can’t see George Floyd die and not take that into the workplace and see the racism and microaggressions at work.
EMIKA ABE: All these associate AD positions that have been created—are they going to be hired as artistic directors somewhere? Are they just tokenized? What’s unique about me is that our artistic director is also a woman of color; we are the ones pushing for the equity work. It is appropriate for us to be pushing that, and yet still complicated because the staff is still predominantly white. The dynamic of having white staff members being critical of us is just a complicated relationship. I don’t know how to speak to the racialized component of that while also holding power. And when we talk about anti-racism, we talk about those structures that all intersect, and yet in our staff that is predominantly white, some of the issues that rise to the top are not about race. And I’m like, “No no no, let’s not lose the thread of racism in this work.”
TYRONE DAVIS: The difference is, right now our field is striving to become “anti-racist,” which is a tall order. I wonder if we really understand what it means. Racial equity and inclusion is something we haven’t been able to achieve in our country. A lot of the time, anti-racism may look and feel anti-American because our country was founded on racism. When we critique America and the theatre, it is because we deeply love and believe in the future of the American theatre. That’s why we critique it, to make it better. I’m here because other people fought for me to be here, and I feel that sense of responsibility to make it better for those who will come after me.
ANTHONY MCDONALD: At Columbia, I was the first Black or BIPOC male in my program ever. I believe I’m the only Black male running a regional performing arts center in the country right now. In my organization, prior to my arrival, all the department heads and management were and are white. You have to really go down the line to find your people of color. Now as I restaff, I want to figure out where I can post these jobs where people of color have access to them. I want to have people of color to consider working for us, because I want my theatre, my staff, to represent the city that we’re in, which is about 60 percent people of color.
NATAKI GARRETT: We all are going through the same vitriol, experiencing the same racist behavior. The American theatre is one of the last true bastions of the white supremacy construct. So while my theatre had made major changes by focusing on EDI work longer than most other predominantly white theatres, they could not correct eight decades of racism. Therefore, the changes and shifts that have happened only happened because I demanded them, and those changes were hard fought. I was prepared for fear, vitriol, and backlash from the outside, but unfortunately I was naïvely blindsided by those within who had experienced the status quo benevolence that often comes with white leadership. No one could have been prepared for what it meant for my leadership— if you think about it, few people, if any at all, have ever really been led by a Black woman artistic director at a predominantly white theatre before Hana and I were appointed. Everyone is learning a new skill set. I had to let go of some of my original desires and shift my plan while holding my vision, and I started by asking for help from those who had been supporting OSF’s EDI work prior to my appointment.
LESLIE ISHII: Racism is captivity trauma—it’s inescapable. The way our system is set up is to keep us captive. When I think about our field, and the way we have inherited organizations that were in debt: How is it holding us captive? How is it dehumanizing us? We have to keep interrogating all of our policies. Looking at the safety of people, how do our artists of color feel secure? Are we looking at the patterns of keeping them? This is not business as usual.
“This is a chapter of the American theatre history book. But the question is: ‘What did you do?’ I have to make sure I have an answer. I’m an artist. I care about the theatre. I have to make sure I have something to say.” —Tyrone Davis
JARRETT: I know that for myself, I have felt this extreme pressure to not make a mistake, because if I mess up, I’m gone. And who knows the next time a Black woman would have this opportunity? I’m not just representing myself, I’m representing my entire gender plus my race. And having to fight about the smallest change in procedure with staff—why are people ignoring what I’m asking them to do, and a month goes by and the comment is, “I needed more information, so I didn’t do it”? And we’re in the midst of a pandemic. The exhaustion is real! What is draining you, and do you feel supported?
MILLER: The conversations around eradicating white supremacy, the coded racism, the anxiety of trusting me as a leader, the “I don’t get it, so I’m going to make it harder,” are all exhausting. We at Portland Center Stage are moving toward something, and I have to keep my focus there. It’s insulting; I’ve seen different reactions to other leadership, and just choosing to not do something is unacceptable.
SHARIF: I came in to expand the audience and to also affect change, and immediately ran into brick walls. Didn’t matter how small the change was. Why is every single thing I say a problem? Why is every idea I bring a battleground? But I was committed to winning, and not just for myself, but for the organization, because we were planting the seeds. What’s disappointing is that the same bullshit that has happened to me are in these stories. The fact it’s happening across the country is systemic. It’s about the bodies that show up in our leadership. It’s so important to have at least one person on the inside that has your back to effect change. If you don’t have that, then you need to create one.
GARRETT: It took 500 years of slavery and oppression for people to learn to either be intimidated by me or to bet against me as a Black woman. Therefore, whether I temper myself and hold back who I am or not, I get the same reaction. So why am I doing that? I have experienced a lot of professional violence in the past 24 months. That’s what happens when people are traumatized, and 500 years of conditioning may make me seem like an easy target. I’m exhausted, because there is no release valve. It’s like coming to work to find your desk on fire, every day, during a pandemic. But I have to carry on. There is too much at stake. I am focused on building a future in which I am no longer an anomaly. At the very least, I want to make sure I am the last Black woman artistic director running a large PWI to have these kinds of negative experiences. I am focused on future building.
ABE: I haven’t been good at taking care of myself, and that’s why I am exhausted. COVID-19 was supposed to be a short term thing, but it kept dragging on and on and on. And then my artistic director has a work dynamic which is “work a lot.” We just had staff evaluations and there is appreciation of us, but also wanting me to step up and be what they want me to be. I still question how they think a leader should be that is colored by race and gender. What are those expectations if we were talking about a white male leader? I think about that all the time.
DAVIS: What is exhausting is fighting the same fight. I’m fighting the same fight as my great-great-great-grandfather. We’re having the same conversation now that they were having then. For people who don’t have the same lived experience as me, these conversations are breaking news for them. However, a big part of this work is about active listening, and it’s creating a better understanding so we can move things forward.
KENNEY: When we say theatre is for everyone, is it really? Is it for racists? Is it for sexists? And there are certain weaknesses that are exposed during EDI training: the white tears, the fear of donors that can take the dollars away, which would close the business. They didn’t give the money to be in the room; they gave money for the institution.
MCDONALD: Are we just being trained as Black men and women to develop and run predominately white institutions? There are positions in the theatre for which we as BIPOC people have not had the time and energy invested in us to be ready when the moment comes. I now have the opportunity to hire BIPOC leaders, but my worry is that they may not be able to sustain within particular positions due to the lack of development.
ISHII: What are the standards we need to set up to foster a joyful place, a place of liberation to work? What are our strengths, what are our gifts? Let’s play to them.
“None of us are actually creating the theatre we want to create. We have all the work but none of the payoff.” —Emika Abe
JARRETT: What do you need? I will keep these answers anonymous, so be as honest as you can.
“Do not hire me unless you are certain that I am the most qualified to do the work. Not because of optics. Because I will go work somewhere else.”
“A staff needs to believe in vision and body, and a strategic ally on the board who has really bought into the vision, not just me. And they both need to defend the person they hired and be my ears in the community.”
“More support for the work that is on my plate. I work 6 days a week, 12-16 hours a day. I think that’s the norm for all of us. But this isn’t sustainable, outside of a short-term emergency time.”
“I feel so supported that I have more than one (more than a quarter of our staff are people of color). It changes the conversation. The impetus isn’t just put on me to be a voice of an entire group of people. I can actually speak from the ‘I.’ There is incredible strength in going into a meeting but there will be a group of people that will make the perspectives more nuanced. And that goes far beyond race.”
“I need there to be accountability for infractions. If you don’t have a way to punish infractions, then I don’t care.”
“Fuck your title; I don’t need this job. If this is how this is going to go, then I am not the one.”
“Owning this role and my space in it is more the question. I have competing desires that I’m wrestling with. There is one side that wants to be a leader, and then on the other side, I have decision fatigue and pressure and the weight of the organization on my shoulders, and I’m still grappling with that.”
“I don’t know. I think this is an important moment. I think we are building the next 50 years of theatre right now. Imagine that: the next 50 years of the American theatre! That’s an enormous responsibility.”
Maybe this isn’t a one-off conversation. I don’t think it can be. Maybe this is the starting point of a series of discussions that need to be had with board members, staff members, and audience members. What we do know is that it’s not enough to hire people of color to lead your organizations and then let us free fall—to place us in positions without changing the foundations on which we stand. Sometimes it is about listening, but most of the time it’s about the fight against what we cannot change, which is ourselves.
People of color are resilient. We make a way out of no way. We just want to do it with you instead of in spite of you.
Kisha Jarrett (she/her) is the managing director at Artists Repertory Theatre in Portland, Ore.
Some quotes captured here in an earlier version did not reflect their full context. This article has been updated to include more.
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