‘The bathroom conversations are now open’: Bay Area artists react to call for change in theater

Director Lauren Spencer works during a rehearsal for “Black Butterflies” at American Conservatory Theater. Spencer is among those not surprised by an online posting about the experiences of people of color in theater. Photo: Michael Macor, The Chronicle 2017

If any white people were surprised by the depth and length of “The Living Document of BIPOC Experiences in Bay Area Theater,” local artists of color weren’t.

When actor, activist and teaching artist Lauren Spencer read the document, she thought, “I guess all the bathroom conversations are now open. So many incidents in that document I knew about.” It reminded her of the candid conversations she’s had often with fellow artists of color about racism in the industry, only now, not behind closed doors.

“There was a sense of sunshine, it pouring over the valley,” which “felt like a relief, a little bit,” she says.

People of color in Bay Area theater demand bold steps toward racial justice in online documents

Others felt it could have gone even further.

“I was honestly surprised there wasn’t more stories of racism,” says Baruch Porras-Hernandez, a writer, performer and stand-up comedian. “When I was trying to work as an actor full time, back around the 2006-ish years, I remember there being absolutely no room for these type of conversations. It was looked down upon. Even bringing it up was considered dangerous by most actors of color. You could be labeled ‘difficult’ and have your ability to get work completely disappear.”

San Francisco Mime Troupe member Velina Brown says the online document reveals how people are afraid to speak up. Photo: Nick Otto, Special to The Chronicle

For San Francisco Mime Troupe member Velina Brown, the “Living Document” demonstrates how “people are afraid to say in the moment, ‘This is not OK.’” It suggests that workers get shut down when they try to speak out. She sees the document as the consequence of getting dismissed over and over: “Those feelings don’t go away,” she says.

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Marin Theatre Company’s Artistic director Jasson Minadakis (left) and playwright Thomas Bradshaw (right) watch actor Mark Anderson Philips during rehearsal of “Thomas and Sally.” The director and playwright were criticized for their handling of the play. Photo: Liz Hafalia, The Chronicle 2017

Some local white theater leaders say this document and others circulating online have influenced their companies’ plans.

Marin Theatre Company was mentioned in the “Living Document” and a June 13 statement from a “Coalition of Black Women Professional Theatre Makers in the Bay Area, California.” Both cited its controversial 2017 world premiere of “Thomas and Sally,” Thomas Bradshaw’s play imagining the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, the slave who bore him six children.

The coalition’s statement says Marin Theatre Company failed to follow through on commitments made in 2017: “At that time, they agreed to take accountability for the harmful impacts of their commissioning, development, and production of ‘Thomas and Sally’ by Thomas Bradshaw, and for their responses to gentle and rigorous questioning

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