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What racism in theater looks like, and how to dismantle it

In a Globe roundtable, four leading figures explore how to create an anti-racist future onstage and behind the scenes

Summer L. Williams, Michael J. Bobbitt, Kirsten Greenidge, and Maurice Emmanuel Parent in conversation with Globe theater critic Don Aucoin during the virtual event "The Next Act: Creating Anti-Racist Theater."
Summer L. Williams, Michael J. Bobbitt, Kirsten Greenidge, and Maurice Emmanuel Parent in conversation with Globe theater critic Don Aucoin during the virtual event "The Next Act: Creating Anti-Racist Theater."The Boston Globe

In the nationwide wave of Black Lives Matter protests against racial injustice that followed George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police on Memorial Day, the theater industry has been among many American institutions forced to reckon with systemic racism.

What forms does racism take in the theater, nationally and in Boston? What changes are necessary for the industry to play a role in the racial justice movement? How can this historic moment be reflected in the work that is presented onstage? For insight into those and other questions, the Globe spoke with four leading theater figures in Boston on June 26 in a Zoom roundtable titled “Creating Anti-racist Theater.”

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They were: Kirsten Greenidge, a prolific and nationally produced playwright whose works include a new adaptation of J. Anthony Lukas’s “Common Ground,” as well as an assistant professor of theater at Boston University; Summer L. Williams, associate artistic director and cofounder of Company One Theatre, and an award-winning director of local stage productions; Michael J. Bobbitt, the first Black artistic director in the 36-year history of New Repertory Theatre in Watertown, who formerly ran a prominent children’s theater in Maryland; and Maurice Emmanuel Parent, an acclaimed actor and director as well as the cofounder and executive director of the Front Porch Arts Collective, a Black theater company, and a professor of the practice at Tufts University’s Department of Theatre, Dance and Performance Studies. (The transcript has been condensed and edited; you can watch the entire conversation at thenextact.splashthat.com.)

Globe: Kirsten, very few playwrights have grappled more consistently with questions of race and class than you have. From your experience and your observations, how pervasive is racism in the American theater?

Greenidge: I would say it is quite pervasive. In mainstream theater, many of our audiences happen to be predominantly white. So a lot of times playwrights in the mainstream theater are writing for the white gaze. And so we feel those pressures. I think a lot of times writers feel pressure to perform for white America. And that can affect our voice and it can affect the market that we’re writing for. It can also affect the conditions under which we write.

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I’m hopeful for this moment, as people begin to do a lot of introspection in terms of: How do we change? How do we look at ourselves and our actions? But I think there’s a lot of work to do, in terms of the type of work we’re asking our theaters to produce. I think that we have a lot of space for change right now.

The Next Act: Creating antiracist theater
Globe critic Don Aucoin talks with four leading Black theater artists about their experiences and insights.

Bobbitt: I just want to be clear that anti-racism, anti-oppression, anti-white supremacy — all those things we’re fighting against — is an act of love, and not an act of war. We’re trying to show love to people that have been excluded and violently abused in this world. And so all those people that think we’re starting a race war, what we’re trying to do is end a race war in this country. It’s super important that we stay focused on that.

“Not-racist” is not a thing that exists. You can’t be “not-racist'' but still perpetuate and still benefit from the privileges of being white in this country. So your only choice is to be anti-racist. Right now I’m really working to fight these systems. Oftentimes culture is hard to change because you have to change people’s minds and hearts. But policy, you can change. So, to me, go for the policy, go for the systems. I’m looking at things like subscriptions, which I think are totally a racist structure: Who has the money to buy their seats a year and a half in advance? What seats are they buying? Are they leaving brown and Black and poor and young people sitting in the back and the sides? And general admission, so not having tiered ticketing, because tiered ticketing gives people that have a lot, more just for having a lot.

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Globe: Summer, you and I had a conversation about seven years ago that’s never left my mind, where you told me that you were mindful that were it not for Company One, you might not — as a young woman of color — have had the opportunities as a director. Could you speak to what obstacles you experienced, and how you surmounted them?

Williams: God bless the child that has his own, right? I was raised hearing that, often. And one of the things I think about in terms of white-supremacist structures, and where we are all complicit: I understood “Oh, I’m complicit because I actually have been abiding by the rules of this structure. So as soon as I opt out, as soon as I say ‘no more,' as soon as I say I’m going to figure things out on terms that I actually value, on terms that are intrinsically important to me, then the world widens.” And of course I was a younger person when I cofounded Company One Theatre. My younger self believed it was just a means of creating opportunity in a world that I felt, quite honestly, hadn’t been meant for me.

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[I learned that] I can construct the world for myself and bring others into it. And there’s something really powerful about that. I have no doubt that were it not for Company One Theatre and my foundational involvement, my career would have been different because I was not on the educational path that would get me into some of the larger theaters that you need to be in in order to be seen. That’s the structure of supremacy that we need to start to dismantle.

And it starts in the arts education. It starts really, really early, because there were places in which my young heart and mind was really interested, and really desired to be, in the world of theater. But I understood that to be a white space that wasn’t meant for me. And I had to figure out how to make it for me. It’s much deeper than the founding of something. It’s more about a self-awakening.

Parent: Anti-racism in theater starts from every theater participant changing their mind-set. So then you start asking yourself questions: How often are Black actors asked to relive their trauma just to work? How many plays are written in which we can live fully, and not only live fully in our relation to whiteness? What plays are being selected or produced? Why is it so radical to try to create in the theatrical space a Black POC affinity space? All I’m trying to do is provide a space that my white colleagues get to benefit from on a regular basis.

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The conversation has to be with people who are not Black. When you talk about anti-racism and you ask me to help you understand this moment, you have to realize that this conversation is not just an idea for me. It’s not just a news story or something. Any human can see that a Black man being suffocated on the street is horrible. Any person with a heart. Now you have to realize that for me, I’m seeing this horrible situation, but I’m also thinking that could have been me. If that police officer who pulled me over last year had been the guy who pulled over George Floyd, I would not be here today. So when you’re asking me to engage in these conversations, it has to be on my terms, because it’s not just an intellectual conversation but a deeply emotional triggering conversation that I need to be able to process as a human before I can process as any type of thought partner.

How can you be anti-racist in the ways you approach people, the ways you approach the [theater] space, the ways you think about what you're seeing and what you're not seeing, and how you can support that, and how your knee-jerk reactions might be based in how you benefited from systemic racism? You need to unpack that. And it's not my job to do it.

Globe: What is the responsibility and the potential of the theater industry when it comes to responding to Black Lives Matter, and to the kind of deep-rooted problems you’ve described? What are some of the stories that need to be told on stage now?

Greenidge: I think it’s dangerous to ask a playwright who is a teacher because a playwright who’s a teacher would say a great plethora of stories need to be told all the time. My philosophy of playwriting is that the table is wide enough for all of us, and big enough for all of us. And the problem is that sometimes we believe that we live in a world of scarcity, and that there’s not enough room at the table for all the stories. I believe there’s enough room.

And so that means the responsibility as a theater community and wider world is to figure out: How do we make room for all these stories? Especially in this moment where theater is paused, I think it would be a good idea for those of us who hold a great deal of responsibility to look at [theatrical] seasons and see: Do they reflect the voices out here that are crying for recognition? And if they don't, perhaps taking a look at how they could better reflect the voices that we're hearing in our public arena.

And if we have the same plays by white male authors on our stages come next May, then there’s a problem. There’s a responsibility that we look at what we’re planning to put on our stages and also how we look at theater, and how theater intersects with community. What is the theater space for? I think that’s the responsibility of who makes the theater but also of who goes to the theater as well. What are we looking for the theater to do in our communities?

Because I think theater is able to do many, many things, not just entertain, and possibly enter into a lot of different types of conversations. My play is a way to engage with the community. Theaters have other ways to engage with communities and create conversation and dialogue. It’s an exciting moment in that way. It would be great if we could take this months-long time to really do some deep introspection.

Williams: I think it’s really important that theaters are also honest with themselves about the community they serve and who they want to be serving. We’ve seen plenty of models where it’s very clear that they’re not necessarily interested in reaching a particular community. I don’t advise people to decide to start now because it’s in fashion. I think people have to really take stock of who they are as an institution, who they want to continue to be, and then we can continue to make choices about where we want to go, where we want to work, where we want to be affiliated, etc.

I’ve never gotten so many e-mails from corporations, places where I’ve shopped in the past, telling me how they feel about Black Lives. That does not necessarily signify to me anything different. Because I haven’t heard how your board is being restructured. I haven’t heard about how you’re marketing and advertising. There’s so many other things that people can really focus on to show where they stand and what their values are.

Bobbitt: I don’t think there’s anything more important right now than the anti-racism work and recovering from COVID-19. And I actually think the anti-racism work can help [theaters] recover from COVID-19. Because if you become a fiercely anti-racist organization, you’re going to have access to so many people that you never allowed or didn’t feel comfortable coming to your theater, coming.

As a producer, I have never been attracted to stories that glorify people of color’s or marginalized people’s trauma onstage. In American theater we are so inundated with those kinds of stories. And we have very few stories that are about the contributions of culture of people of color in this country. When you see a show that’s about a marginalized person, usually it’s reduced to that thing that makes them marginalized. And that can be re-traumatizing for a lot of people. So I hope American theater in this moment will start writing plays and commissioning playwrights to write shows that are about joy and about our contributions to the country. We still need the historical context, but let’s center some plays around Black joy. Let’s find a way for us to really celebrate who we are and what we have brought to this country.

Parent: I agree with that wholeheartedly. I also think that theater is a political act in and of itself. So I think that also in the focus of joy, can we also create spaces where we are looking at issues that need to be brought into the power of theater, putting experiences one might not have firsthand knowledge of clearly on the stage? And then also think about narratives that aren’t usually on the stage. So I’m thinking of our trans community. I’m thinking of our disabled community. I’m thinking of our fluid community. There’s all these narratives and people that have felt not included in the canon as it is right now. We can focus on joy, but for me it’s looking at things that evoke possible trauma, but [in] a lot of things that I’ve been a part of, that trauma centers whiteness. It’s about that relationship to whiteness where we examine the trauma. Can we examine the issue without it centering on the oppressors, you know? How can you do deep dives and use the fact that theater holds a mirror to life and is a political act to make art, how can you use that and stay true to it, but then also get to the root of the issue without focusing on white supremacy?

Globe: Theater will never have the audience that television and the movies have, obviously. But is there something intrinsic to the nature of theater that can help advance racial justice, season by season, production by production, and do its part in driving out racism from American life?

Greenidge: What happens in a theater is a human-to-human interaction. It’s human beings interacting on stage. I think if we’re looking for theater to drive out American racism, that’s a pretty tall order, given that there’s something intrinsic in the way that America has been built, with racism entwined within it. So if we’re looking to do that, I think that we might all see failure in a way. If we’re looking to try to build a more anti-racist society, I think we can get there by building an anti-racist theater. I think that theater has the ability to create change. I do not know if trying to find one huge play that’s going to go out and change everybody’s life is necessarily the way to try to go about doing that.

I do know that many people who go to the theater can have an experience where they can all have a perspective shift. Theater does have the ability to do that, where you sit in the theater, and you say, “Wow, I did not see it that way. I did not see the world that way. And now after this experience, something in me has shifted.” As theater makers, we are able to do that. And in this particular moment, we have the responsibility to try and create work that is able to do that and fight racism that way. As someone who began her work in the theater trying to do that work, what’s exciting about this moment is that I see more and more people doing that.

Bobbitt: I think theater can support the cultural shift. It’s going to take a lot of people being willing to give up power and include people in their lives. We have to have hope, but theater can’t fix it all.

Parent: How can we come back new and different? The work begins when predominantly white institutions [hire] people of color, but that is not the end of it. You have to rethink every aspect of how you’re operating, who you are. And in welcoming those narratives, not just on your stage, but from ticket-buyer all the way up to board chair, your sensibilities have to change. You have to be willing to do that difficult work. I am a Black man in America, and I have my privilege, but I’m also disadvantaged by the system that we’re all trying to unpack. So you’re asking me, who already is on the negative end of the racism conversation, to help you fix it within your institution.

I’m also emotional because of conversations that are happening around racism make me fear for my life and fear for the life of my family members. That’s the world we’re living in. But you know what? We will not be, I will not be crushed.

Greenidge: The question is how can we be anti-racist but also how willing are you to envision a different way of being? I think that’s the moment we are in. How we live in this country, how we appropriate everything in this country: It doesn’t just have to do with race. It also has to do with money. And when you put all those together, I do not know if we are really ready to talk about that in this country.

Globe: What are Boston’s biggest blind spots or failings?

Greenidge: It’s incredibly expensive to do work here. It puts barriers. Particularly if you are a theater artist of color, if you have to fight so hard to live here as a person, and if you have to fight so hard to be an artist here, there are other places that can make it not so difficult to be a human being. Sometimes as an artist of color, it is exhausting just to live, and I cannot advocate for my students to be exhausted all the time. There are sometimes other cities where you do not have to be exhausted 105 percent of the time.

Bobbitt: This is my 11th month being here. The one thing I find unique about this community is that the level of education and academia that exists is a barrier to anti-racism. Their ability to have intellectual conversations about why they’re not racist is unbelievable. The discomfort they have, and their ability to sort of “academia” around the conversation, prevents them from doing more work.

Globe: When you and I spoke in 2019, you said that theaters “need to get to a place of equity, diversity, and inclusivity in a way that is more about social justice than about optics.” Are theaters still more preoccupied with optics than with social justice? And how goes your mission at New Rep vis-a-vis making your audience more diverse?

Bobbitt: You know, the American theater has been pontificating about this issue for 20 to 30 years. A bunch of people have put out statements in solidarity, but there’s no action to support it. We see people saying “I like people of color, I want them on my stage,” and yet there’s no action to really support that. New Rep has been in a transition period, adjusting to me and my philosophies and principles and business practices. This is what I think all theaters need to do: Every single policy, procedure, operational practice, and financial model has to be looked at from a race-equity lens. It has to be.

Williams: I think theaters have an opportunity to do some deep-in-the-marrow work. And I’d like to figure out a way for us to be able to watch them do that work, because I think transparency is key.

Parent: If we achieve our dreams, the audience will be fully diverse, fully representative of Boston’s actual landscape. Before I came to Boston, what I thought of was “Cheers.” And then seeing Boston is so uniquely rich and diverse. [I’m] motivated to build a theatrical culture that will celebrate the culture I’ve witnessed as a transplant.

Williams: I would encourage in terms of the next layer of potential accountability and looking at the Boston theater landscape that for those institutions that identify as a PWI, a predominantly white institution, for leaders of those institutions to participate in a conversation like this. Because that’s just as powerful.

Sure, we can have this conversation among a group of Black folk talking about creating anti-racist theater. And that’s important because we have to be heard. But it’s even more important to get folks who are running institutions that identify as PWIs in conversation about: This is what we’re looking at. These are the structures we’re thinking about. These are our initiatives. And in this time, where we are literally being asked to be still and reflective, that time is really ripe for growth and change.







Don Aucoin can be reached at donald.aucoin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeAucoin.