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TBA Online: News & Features: March 2019

Transformative Justice is Changing Bay Area Theatre

Monday, March 18, 2019   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Rotimi Agabiaka
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by Kim Tran

“What kind of relationships do we want in a rehearsal room?”

Tierra Allen, artistic engagement manager at California Shakespeare Theatre, poses a question that is being pondered by the company’s new Transformative Justice Initiative. In December, Allen and 27 other Bay Area theatre makers were invited to engage in the training program, which uses community-based techniques to address the imbalance of power in the theatre profession.

Led by the Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective (BATJC) cofounder Mia Mingus, the group will participate in eight day-long training sessions. Each will be centered around key topics including accountability, feedback, and communication. Supported by a one-time $50,0000 grant from the James Irvine Foundation, the partnership is geared toward, “empowering Bay Area theatre practitioners to address sexual harm and identity-based harm using Transformative Justice processes.”

Tierra Allen. Photo courtesy Sarita Ocón.

Transformative justice is both a framework and a methodology. It creates accountability for survivors of harm that relies on community members instead of the police, the law, or the government (also known as the state.) While there is no single model for transformative justice, the process often involves a high amount of engagement between the person who experienced wrong-doing and a facilitator, and between a facilitator and the person who perpetrated that harm, in order to unpack what transpired. The short term objective is to find a way forward that addresses the survivor’s concerns. The long term goal is to strengthen the community and eliminate the risk of violence at the hands of the state.

“Part of why transformative justice is necessary for our toolkits is because the state doesn’t keep most of us safe,” says Allen.

In the city of Oakland, the police department has been plagued by scandal. In 2016, a woman of color accused over a dozen Oakland police officers of soliciting sex from her, in some instances when she was underage. Two officers pleaded no contest and four remain charged in the case. Since 2003, the Oakland police department has operated under a federal monitor because of its excessive use of force. A report by the monitor found that African American and Hispanic men are searched by Oakland police at the highest rates, 45% and  43% respectively, despite illegal contraband only being found 13% of the time.

The Oakland Police Department is one of many examples used by transformative justice proponents to illustrate the failure of the state to work in service of oppressed communities. In 2012, the Williams Institute found that 40% of the women incarcerated in the United States either self-identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual (LGB) or reported a same-sex sexual experience.

Mia Mingus. Photo courtesy Ms. Mingus.

In light of such a grim reality, transformative justice seeks to provide an alternative solution in all contexts, theatrical and otherwise. Mingus says, “The threads that connect to create harm and violence are similar.”

SK Kerastas, artistic producer at Cal Shakes, says transformative justice fills in the gaps. It provides, “Someplace to go when something happens.”

Over the last two years, Kerastas has been at the forefront of changing how the Bay Area theatre community engages with gender-based harm. In February 2018, Kerastas coordinated “It’s Time,” a town hall gathering on sexual violence in the Bay Area theatre community. The evening boasted over 200 attendees. In many ways, the collaboration between Cal Shakes and the Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective is a continuation of the conversation that began in that town hall.

Kerastas says their efforts to bring transformative justice into the realm of Bay Area theatre has a twofold goal: “Building a resource around ideas of community will amplify the voices of folks who have been speaking about how they’ve been harmed and have been ignored for so long.”

SK Kerastas. Photo by Dan Paz.

These efforts coincide with recent complaints about racism and sexism in Bay Area theatre that have made national news. Last month, actor and instructor Stephen Buescher filed a lawsuit against the American Conservatory Theatre alleging “systemic discrimination.” For nearly a decade, Buescher was the only African-American-identified core faculty in the company.

Buescher’s lawsuit comes on the heels of last year’s production of Thomas and Sally at Marin Theater Company. The play inspired protests and the formation of the Coalition of Bay Area Black Women Theatre Artists who wrote an open letter calling the show an “irresponsible, deeply harmful project with no accountability.”

Theatre occurs in a specific context says Kerastas. “There’s so much intimacy that gets offered; especially in the rehearsal room. It also creates these conditions for power to reign, for harm to happen.”

Making theatre is highly vulnerable work both in terms of gender-based violence and economic sustainability. Kerastas says, “The difference between speaking up and not speaking up can become someone’s whole career, someone’s ability to pay rent.”

This terrain, they continue, “also creates ground for solidarity and witnessing.”

The road toward transformative justice in the Bay Area theatre community is long. The cohort has seven day-long trainings remaining. Allen sees this moment and this work as an opportunity to bridge activism and theatre. She says, “The work that we want to do sits in this political moment and the possibilities that can come from that.”

Allen says the need to integrate transformative justice rests on a simple dream, “It’s a desire for our community to be more liberatory.”

Kim Tran is finishing her Ph.D. in Ethnic Studies and Gender, Women’s & Sexuality Studies at UC Berkeley. She is a contributing writer for Everyday Feminism. Her work has been featured on Vice News, Mic, Vox, and The East Bay Express. Find more of her work