For These Artists, “Anti-Racist Theatre” Is Nothing New: Part One
Wednesday, July 22, 2020
Posted by: Rotimi Agabiaka
by Rotimi Agbabiaka
Editor’s Note: This is Part One of a roundtable discussion featuring independent Black female theatre makers in the Bay Area. Part Two of this conversation will appear in the next TBA Insider.
As the nation rages over state-sanctioned violence against Black people, BIPOC artists have seized the moment to speak up about their mistreatment by predominantly white theatre institutions.
In testimonials such as the open letter to “White American Theatre”
and the Living Document of POC Experiences in Bay Area Theatre, which has collected more than 600 anonymous allegations of racist behavior at local companies, theatre makers have argued that an industry steeped in racial prejudice needs to transition towards anti-racism.
Theatre organizations in the Bay Area have responded to this outcry by launching accountability workgroups and town hall meetings to “collectively transition to an anti-racist practice.” Over the past three weeks, Theatre Bay Area has hosted two “Healing Through Zoom” sessions to address the concerns raised in the Living Document and educate theatre makers on how to combat anti-Blackness.
For some Bay Area artists however, making theatre that combats racism and centers marginalized voices has been standard practice for decades. In striking out beyond the mainstream path, artists like Ellen Sebastian Chang of House/Full of BlackWomen,
Edris Cooper-Anifowoshe of Black Artists Contemporary Cultural Experience (BACCE), Rhodessa Jones of Cultural Odyssey/The Medea Project,
and Ayodele Nzinga of The Lower Bottom Playaz have remained true to themselves and produced work that has pushed the boundaries
of the art form.
Theatre Bay Area gathered these artists in a roundtable discussion about the joys and challenges of building one’s table and the ways in which theatre can best respond to this “apocalyptic” moment.
This conversation has been edited and condensed.
Ellen Sebastian Chang. Photo by Bethanie Hines.
Theatre Bay Area: Ellen, you’ve referred to this time as “the apocalypse.” How is the apocalypse treating you?
Ellen Sebastian Chang: I love the original definition of apocalypse, which is the lifting of the veil. So I say thank you, COVID-19, for bringing on the apocalypse. It's like our mommas used to say, “You can run, but you can’t hide.”
Edris Cooper-Anifowoshe: Everything done in the dark shall come to light!
Ellen: Preach on it.
Rhodessa Jones: My grandmother used to say, “Even when you walking, you better know you walking in the light and somebody is always watching.”
Ellen: And my momma used to say, “Remember, your reputation is going to get there way before you do.”
TBA: There's a lot of conversation right now about the reputation of this country and, specifically, of the theatre industry in regards to racism. What aspects of that reputation do you see coming to light?
Rhodessa: I've been talking to my Medea Project [company members] about personifying a pandemic. Is it female? Is it a winged creature or is it just an
evil wind? But I don't think it necessarily brings all bad things. I was reading about the black plague in the Middle Ages, that out of all that came a renaissance. I don't know if we're all going to make it, but if I'm here, I would hope to be
a part of the renaissance.
Edris: My priorities have been straightening themselves out over the last few decades and so the conversation about Black artists in the theatre is really tired for me because, as I’ve kept saying, if we change the theatre, how does that change the world?
To take a moment like George Floyd's death, and Dion Johnson, who died in Phoenix—he died in Phoenix and the changes started happening inside the schools. They allowed the children to choose how the schools are going to be policed. Those kinds of actions are justifiable in this moment. But the [We See You White American Theatre] letter disgusted me. When [some prominent Black theatre artists] turned around and did [a video of]
“To be or not to be” instead of Aimée Césaire—that they did Shakespeare shows you where everybody's head is. Until the theatre conversation rises to the level of the national conversation and inserts real issues for real problems, leave me out
of those petty conversations.
Ayodele Nzinga: This moment for me is an alliteration. We have been here before.
So how does it feel to ride sidecar in the apocalypse, after praying for the fall of Armageddon for decades? I don't know if this is it. I'd like to think we've been in a renaissance actually for perhaps a decade. Big ships turn slow and we are at a potential tipping point but I'm not going to claim victory till I can see it more clearly.
We need to enter into a conversation that at minimum is 30 years long. We've got to get at least two generations of kids through a school system absent conditioning and white hubris, absent being educated in a white-centered world—one generation that can raise another, the second who can think in a new paradigm.
So you can take down the police department. You can even get more people inside Massa's house. But when a house is built on a crooked foundation, how does one straighten the house? You disassemble the foundation.
Ellen: That's engineering. OK? That isn't just a soulful metaphor. That is a soulful metaphor that is built on science and mathematics and spirit.
Ayodele Nzinga. Photo by Julia Robertson.
TBA: All of you have been working to disassemble those foundations for far longer than the last few weeks—building theatre practices outside of the mainstream institutions. What set you off on the journey to independence?
Ayodele: I was creating what I needed. There were Black people I couldn't find on stage; but I could see them in life. So I needed work for those people to be in; for myself, as a fully realized human being, to be in. And then I needed places that would allow that work to happen.
Not a single thing was easy and nothing was given. It was built. It came from invisible work that I did willingly because I understood it to be my life work—the ritual of having a conversation with the world where the people who follow your work are like your family. The ritual of being in repetitive communication where you discuss and deconstruct, offer possibility, point out the monsters.
Ellen: I wanted to be a filmmaker. I went to Laney College and I couldn't afford to do sixteen millimeter film because I worked and supported myself at age 17. Then I got attracted to theatre. Theatre was, what I started to call at a young age, the poor person's cinema.
I wanted to be a lighting designer but what whiteness was always really great at was the disbelief of my drive. “Oh, are you sure you want to do this?” And I’d tell them, “I want to stay after class. I'm willing to learn this.”
Being asked questions is a way of marginalizing you, like a vampire that's sucking out the blood of your passion. So I did what I've been doing forever. I lie my way and I don't see it as lying. They say, “Can you do this?” And I say, “Oh yeah, I know how to run a light board.” And then I get a piece of paper and try to figure out how to do it. And then I do it. And then I become that.
That is one of the greatest issues that we are struggling with in theatre—the lack of belief. We are constantly questioned about our values, about our imaginations.
At some point I said, I would rather be on a street corner doing my art than to be at the Berkeley Rep or A.C.T., where I have to challenge and be challenged 24/7.
To me, whiteness is not only imperialistic, it's a cultural cannibal. It's cannibalistic but it does it under the framework of, “Oh, I'm making it better.” It devalues [culture] and then repurposes value once it controls it.
So I am grateful for my bad attitude. I'm grateful for spirit that kept pushing me and saying, “You know, you're not going to do well in these rooms. You try to live in these rooms, you gon' die.” And I'm here to live out my natural life.
Edris Cooper-Anifowoshe. Photo by Steve Savage.
Edris: I’m interested in the Black aesthetic. That's why I formed BACCE. I want to see how we do theatre in a particular way. Esiaba Irobi, the professor of African theatre, was working on a piece when I met him at the National Black Theatre Festival. He was speaking to Black performativity in the African aesthetic and African American performance.
[BACCE cofounder] Lester Jones and I were fascinated and we were like, “This is our theatre company.” We wanted to pursue how we do it so that we can do
Shakespeare, if we want to, but that's not the ground upon which we need to stand.
Rhodessa: I grew up on the expertise of my grandmother's storytelling. My mother and father both were migrant workers. So my grandmother took care of us and she would entertain us with these amazing stories.
Then I had a baby at 16. When my daughter came of age, she got a full scholarship to Marin Academy but I had to pay for her essentials. All the white girls I was dancing with at that point, they were dancing nude to make money but nobody was talking about it. I said, “I want in,” and got a job downtown at what is now CounterPULSE. It used to be called Fantasies In the Flesh.
I started working sometimes 16 hours a day and I wanted to talk about it. There were white girls telling me, “You don't talk about it.” People were disappointed in me. White women would say, “Rhodessa, I can't believe you're doing this.”
I'm writing it all down and wondering, “Why do sex and racism make such interesting bedfellows?” Then I made a piece called The Legend of Lily Overstreet and I changed the game. Everybody wanted to be in-your-face theatre.
Ellen: Rhodessa, I saw The Legend of Lily Overstreet four or five times and it flipped me on my course. That was a creative life changer.
Rhodessa: And you were always in my purview. Then the California Arts Council gave me a residency and I met Edris. She started coming to my class.
The work I was doing was drawing the people to me that I needed to have in my purview. I met Idriss Ackamoor, who said, “You’ve got a body of work—write your own songs, own everything.” And my brother, Bill T. Jones, would say, “Rho, stop complaining. You could have been born to work in a bank.”
Like you, Ellen, I got so much power and strength in the fact that I built this myself. Audre Lorde said we were never meant to survive. Well, I might as well speak my truth.
Rhodessa Jones. Photo by Pat Mazzera.
TBA: Building a new table versus asking for a seat at the table. What does that mean to you? How do you see those ideas playing out in the current conversation?
Ellen: I'm thinking more about how we recycle and repurpose what's already here. In my work with Amara Tabor-Smith and House/Full of BlackWomen, one of our guiding questions was: “How am I dismantling or upholding white supremacy today?”
It starts with every choice that we're making because we've all eaten from the table of white supremacy for hundreds of years.
It's in asking the question that we take a pause and maybe that pause is just long enough for spirit to come our way and say, “Don't go that direction.”
Everybody talks about building a new table when we've got tables everywhere. We just don't recognize them because, as Ayodele so brilliantly said, there've been generations educated under this white supremacist thought.
You’ve got wisdom inside of you that you're ignoring because you think it's outside of you. You think it looks like A.C.T. or Berkeley Rep. We've got a lot of abundance and richness right in front of us. We just need to harness it.
Rhodessa: And dismiss the white gaze.
I heard Toni Morrison being asked, “When are you going to come to the center?” She said, “The edge … that’s our own center.”
What I'm really excited about is the perpetuation of us sharing our own stories. I think about my mother telling us one Sunday after the Rodney King incident, ”White folks got to understand that it ain’t slavery times no more." And she told us about being taken to lynchings as a girl. She said, “There was a white man with a gun pointed at me; I could not look away.”
I look at my mother, who was still so gracious and so expansive and I'm thinking, “How do you do that? How do you live with that kind of knowledge?”
I go on stage with all of that. I'm an alchemist. It's a little bit more than just simple old storytelling.
Part Two of this conversation will be published on August 12.
Rotimi Agbabiaka is is an actor, writer, director, teaching artist, and Features
Curator for Theatre Bay Area.