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For These Artists, “Anti-Racist Theatre” Is Nothing New: Part Two

Wednesday, August 5, 2020   (3 Comments)
Posted by: Rotimi Agabiaka
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by Rotimi Agbabiaka

Editor’s Note: This is Part Two of a roundtable discussion featuring four independent Black female theatre makers in the Bay Area. Part One of this conversation was published on July 22, 2020.

As the nation continues a heated conversation about race, some theatre makers are shining a spotlight on allegations of racism within the industry, demanding that institutions transition towards anti-racism.

For some Bay Area artists however, making theatre that 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 continues to push the boundaries of the art form.

Theatre Bay Area gathered these artists in a round table discussion. They talked about the importance of putting one’s energy into what one loves, and what “post-racist” theatre might look like.

This conversation has been edited and condensed.


Ellen Sebastian Chang. Photo by Bethanie Hines.

Theatre Bay Area: You spoke earlier about a kind of imperialism in theatre that devalues Black culture and then co-opts it. I’m thinking about people who may be trying to get into A.C.T. or Berkeley Rep because those are the places where they feel that they can get a decent paycheck. How has the allocation of resources impacted your ability to create your own work?

Ellen Sebastian Chang: I moved to California when I was 14 to meet my white biological mother. I had grown up with Black folks from Mississippi and Texas and, all of a sudden, I was thrown into an educated white world. That's where I started to get my education of who owned and controlled the resources.

When I began to create my own work, I worked with the Blake Street Hawkeyes. That's where I met Whoopi Goldberg. We created the Moms Mabley Show in a warehouse.

When A.C.T. was exposed a year ago with the Stephen Buescher [lawsuit, suing the organization for racial discrimination], I got up at that town hall and said, “I understand why most of you whisper in my ear about the indignities that you experience at these institutions. You’ve got to get a paycheck. You’ve got to enter into their real estate.” And I said, “Where's Lorraine Hansberry [Theatre]’s real estate?”

When I first started doing theatre in the East Bay, there was Oakland Ensemble Theatre, there was the Ed Bullins Theatre, all kinds of black theaters. Where are they now? Where is Asian American theatre's real estate? Where's Campo Santo's real estate?

One of the greatest battles that we're going to keep navigating as artists of color is that our financial resources are tied to white money.

Ayodele Nzinga: But do they have to be?

I think it's really intelligent and realistic to look at where we are complicit in our own oppression. But then you have to find the ways you turn away from being complicit. I believe very much in operating inside a system of value that is not necessarily predicated on money.

Everybody got mad at Marin Theatre Company for [its production of Thomas and Sally]. And I got mad at the people who got mad at Marin Theatre. Let those white people do whatever they want to do. I am much more interested in creating black spaces.

So where are we, not just in the deconstruction of whiteness, where are we in the enabling of alternative systems?


Ayodele Nzinga. Photo bu Julia Robertson.

Edris Cooper-Anifowoshe: I love this conversation about resources and Ayodele going to the place where “resources” is not about money. I think what we're talking about already—our own resilience, our own ability to create work—is a large resource that continues to be tapped into without us really protecting it.

With the whole Marin Theatre [incident], I loved Ayodele saying, “Don't come for me and tell me what to do in my theatre,” because that's where my mind went. I thought, “Oh, we're telling artistic directors what the hell to do?”

I'm done with reactionary theatre—being in reaction to the white theatres. All these black people running around talking about “black theatre” and they haven’t read one African play. They can't name one Caribbean play.

The people in this [roundtable] actually represent liberation and emancipation from [predominantly white theatre], because that theatre is top-down. It has hierarchies that are problematic.

When I was in academia, I was writing papers about the democratic nature of theatre. I don't feel like people understand that theatre at its heart was after a particular participatory democracy and that the practice of theatre should involve those democracies. None of the things that happen inside of white supremacy should really have taken root in theatre if theatre practitioners were actually working from the legacy of theatre as it has been practiced.

In Africa, what was theatre? Theatre was the way people had to communicate when language proved unable or inept. It's always been part of my politics to practice theatre. So if I'm practicing theatre in a way that doesn't speak to my politics, I'm going to have an issue and I'm probably going to get thrown out.


Rhodessa Jones.  Photo by Pat Mazzera.


Rhodessa Jones: San Francisco is a wasteland right now as far Black theatre real estate. [The Medea Project] had been in the African American Art & Culture Complex for 20 years and, all of a sudden, London Breed comes into play and brings her people into play.

They’ve got some new rules that the city political machine has set in place that we only could have so much room. Or [we’ve got to pay] more money. So we started having our office at home and then we started going to Brava Theater Center. Brava was the place where we could rehearse, like you used to be able to do at the [AAACC]—all that space, all that real estate, and we couldn't use it.

Ayodele: That’s rather reminiscent of the Malonga Center over on this side [of the Bay]. It’s city-owned space so, in theory, public space, where unfortunately we allowed navel-gazing tribes to install themselves and then [it] became a very interior space.

Rhodessa: They have this idea that they are going to make a lot of money. With who? So the people who [have been] in the space don't get to use it because [the new management is] waiting for the people who are going to pay that heavy rent.


Edris Cooper-Anifowoshe. Photo by Steve Savage.

TBA: This makes me think about efforts that are currently underway—town halls and meetings asking, “How can we create anti-racist theatre?” What might be some good directions for this kind of collective activity?

Edris: People need to really think and look in the mirror. I just feel like everyone is pointing fingers and no one is looking at the ones pointing back at yourself. The first thing I ever want to do is make sure that when I step into the rehearsal space, when I speak to an actor, that I have integrity, that I'm doing it with respect, that I'm open to the talent that they're bringing, that I haven't coopted their time, that I'm giving them something that they can eat from, that I've given credit where credit is due, and that I'm humble and that I move forward with love. I understand anger, but what do you love?

During [Thomas and Sally], we [at BACCE] were doing Bootycandy and Ayodele wrote to the [Coalition of Black Women Professional Theatre Makers] and said, “Why don't y'all go see Bootycandy instead?”

Ayodele: At the time people were lining up outside of Marin Theatre not to go in, [Edris] you had Bootycandy and I had either Mama at Twilight or an August Wilson piece up and I'm looking at a half-empty theatre as every other black person is out there in a circle talking about, “Let me in, let me in.”

If you just take that energy and bring it back home, there are tables.

Ellen: You have a choice. One of the things that I have been saying to folks is, “I’ve only got so much energy. I'm putting my energy into what I love and what I believe in.”

I remind people that Black women literally birthed the wealth of this nation and so everything that is in motion right now is due to the creative genius and spiritual fortitude of Black women. I never ask people for help. I say, “How can you be in service to the labor of Black women? We don't need your help but we do need you to get out of our way.”

What's tiresome for me is when our folks are getting a paycheck and they're trying to convince me to come all the way over there. I'm not interested in Marin County.  If you are going there and getting a good paycheck, I’ve got no problem with that because you’ve got to put food on the table but don't try to convince me that I need to spend an hour and a half of my commute time.

If they really care about doing Black theatre, produce it where we live, bring it to Oakland. We don't live in Marin County and there's no BART that goes to Marin County. I'm old enough to remember that Marin didn't want BART to come over there. We know why.

Ayodele: I know that we've all experienced being the magic Negro in the group. Usually when you're tokenized, you're the magic Negro. And they look at you when there's a problem that no one else can solve. We are in an era of "rent a magic Negro" who can come in and be with you for 90 minutes and they can fix all of your white fragility, your inbred bias, and make you right.

There is no five-minute exercise that we can do upon meeting that will build trust. If you want me to teach you, I can't do that anymore for free and I can't make a career of teaching people who will not listen.

So what you could do is you could buy a ticket. And if you don't get it the first time, buy another ticket. You could adopt a production so you could come every night for free and make sure that you get all of the lessons. But you're going to have to come into my world. There's there's nothing in your world for me. I'm not in the burping-and-diaper-changing-and-suckling-you-at-my-breasts stage of my life anymore.

TBA: One last question: What does “post-racist” theatre look like?

Ellen: I think it looks like what we've already been doing.

Rhodessa: I agree.

Ellen: It's that moment where Rhodessa gets invited by Sheriff Hennessy to come into the jails to teach a little dance and yoga and Rhodessa sees something else that becomes The Medea Project.

It looks like Lower Bottom Playaz—what Ayodele's doing. We already do it. It's House/Full of BlackWomen, where we say, “We are not part of the resistance movement, we are the insistence movement.” We insist on Black women's rest. We insist on our value. We insist on respect.

It’s what Edris is doing. We are doing it right now by by the very act of how we're moving in the world.


Rotimi Agbabiaka  is is an actor, writer, director, teaching artist, and Features Curator for Theatre Bay Area.  rotimionline.com


philippa kelly says...
Posted Wednesday, August 5, 2020
Thank you again for an incredible article.
philippa kelly says...
Posted Wednesday, August 5, 2020
Thank you again for an incredible article.
philippa kelly says...
Posted Wednesday, August 5, 2020
Thank you again for an incredible article.