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.”
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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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 and critique, and for the interactions of their private hired security with Black women peacefully protesting the production — including calling police.”
Artistic Director Jasson Minadakis tells The Chronicle, “We realized when that (statement) came out that we had not been nearly transparent enough in the steps we had been taking over the past three years.” Since then, the company has announced it is hiring for a new associate artistic director position. It has eliminated minimum donation requirements for board membership. It has pledged to post updates to its website every 90 days about the progress of its efforts toward equity, diversity and inclusion.
Minadakis said other demands, such as the various documents’ calls for a certain percentage of people of color in company jobs, might take longer, but he considers those mandates a “welcomed” challenge.
San Francisco Shakespeare Festival Artistic Director Rebecca Ennals says that for an organization of her size, with a roughly $1.3 million annual budget, the documents’ demands to hire human resource professionals, mental health professionals, casting directors of color and cultural consultants, among other positions, might be “tricky” to meet.
Still, she believes there may be “ways we can partner with other organizations to make these things possible.” She and other local theaters have been in talks with theater services nonprofit Theatre Bay Area about ways they might pool resources to share a position or share the cost of HR services such as an anonymous grievance-reporting mechanism.
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The documents’ methods and aims have not been universally heralded.
Virginia Blanco, an actor and the artistic director of new company La Lengua Teatro en Español, says someone contributed a story to the “Living Document” about an incident that had happened to her. The retelling, without her knowledge or approval, makes her feel like “I’ve been a victim of aggression twice, in a way,” she says.
Still, she adds, the document has led to a bit of closure on some of the racist experiences in her career, and she’s hopeful, seeing fellow artists more empowered.
“Everyone feels that they can share these stories,” she said, “and no one is going to say, ‘Shut up. You’re exaggerating.’ ”
Meanwhile, Edris Cooper-Anifowoshe, an actor, director and founder of the Black Artists Contemporary Cultural Experience, feels the documents and their demands may have missed the mark.
“If we’re going to talk about this moment we’re in right now, it happened because someone died, not because someone didn’t get a job,” she says. “I was kind of appalled that (what) theater chose to reflect upon was itself, as opposed to how we can make huge changes.”
Theaters, she believes, should make art about George Floyd and about defunding the police. They should make art that calls for more testing for the coronavirus, for getting more city investment into Black communities and more local control over how those resources are spent instead of worrying about making a hire.
While she appreciates some of the documents’ demands and was glad to see some accounts come to light, she also questions the focus on primarily white institutions. For instance, she said, why not create art in identity-specific institutions, so as to circumvent “white nonsense” altogether?
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But primarily white institutions will probably continue to seek to work with artists of color, perhaps even more so as a result of this reckoning. As the “Living Document” notes, according to the 2010 census, 48% of the Bay Area’s population is people of color.
“Theater needs us as much as we need theater, probably more,” Spencer says. “You need the job, but they also need an actor. It’s a meeting of equals.”
Spencer expresses optimism, though she acknowledges the movement to reform the theater industry is nascent and that it’s possible the documents will remain mostly theoretical.
“Even in the midst of a pandemic there is a sense of energy and hope in what could be built,” she says.