As she contemplates the possibilities and shortcomings of her chosen field, theater producer Ronee Penoi’s Laguna Pueblo and Cherokee heritage is never far from her mind.
Indeed, says Penoi, that heritage enables her to see theater through an “Indigenous lens” that “really shapes how I experience the stories that we tell.”
Soon she will be putting her imprint on how Boston audiences experience theatrical stories, because Penoi has been named director of artistic programming at ArtsEmerson, a theater organization based at Emerson College. Penoi will report to ArtsEmerson executive director David C. Howse. Her appointment was announced Wednesday morning.
In a telephone interview, Penoi said the broad challenge facing theater in the current moment is “about not just adding more voices and more narratives, but how are we re-storying our dominant narrative to reshape the future that we really want.”
“Because there’s so much erasure of BIPOC people in our history books and on our stages, I feel we need to break those narratives wide open and re-story them and make them new,” she added, using the acronym for Black, Indigenous, and people of color. “There’s a story that we tell about our American history and about ourselves and our country, so how can we shift that story to rewrite it to really incorporate what has been erased?”
Penoi, who turned 36 on Tuesday, was most recently a producer at New York-based Octopus Theatricals. She worked as the tour producer for “And So We Walked,” a play by Cherokee performance artist DeLanna Studi about a 900-mile journey along the Trail of Tears by a present-day Cherokee woman with her father, retracing the path traveled by her great-great-grandparents during the forced relocation of Native Americans from their ancestral homelands.
Penoi is arriving at ArtsEmerson as the organization attempts to map a post-pandemic path forward. The recently announced 2021-22 season will feature only five live, in-person shows, less than half the usual number.
Howse said in a statement that Penoi’s appointment “comes at an important moment when the works on our stages (and on film) have an even more important role to play in helping us make meaning after a tumultuous year of dealing with the pandemic and the racial reckoning.”
“I welcome Ronee’s commitment to amplifying the theatrical work of artists who help us make sense of the seemingly intractable issues facing our communities,” Howse added.
Citing both the pandemic and the racial reckoning that followed the police murder of George Floyd, Penoi said theater should operate with “an understanding that everything is connected, everything is entwined.” As the industry returns to live performance, Penoi said, “it’s a real opportunity for arts institutions to take up the mantle of public healing, and hold space for us to process what this moment is.”
Some key questions, she said, are: “What is the work that is going to advance climate justice? What is the work that is going to advance racial justice? It’s about making sure that folks in the theater are being seen and heard as they’re coming back from a year and a half of being outside the space: artists, production staff, and audiences.”
Penoi, who grew up in Pittsburgh and graduated from Princeton University, noted that Boston is “a place that holds such pride in being such an important place in our country’s founding and history,” adding, “I get really excited in thinking about how we can open the door to a different kind of lens. Boston is so primed to have such a beautiful expansion of what makes this country this country.”