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Labor’s Demands and The Audience’s Perogatives

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It was hard to miss with its prominent placement on the top right corner of the New York Times’ home page, and what it said was pretty shocking. American theater is a hotbed of racism?

In a way, it shouldn’t be surprising. The more sensitive a group is toward an issue, the greater the issue looms and the more damnable the group is. But it’s the irony of it all, the theater, those people most theoretically progressive, sensitive, empathetic, and open to rhetorical gibberish that appeals to the uneducated and shallow mind, would seem to be the least racist place one could find outside of the grievance studies department in academia. Yet, here we were, racism as the star. Who knew?

But that wasn’t the last of the epiphanies offered by the article, which focused somewhat on the Long Wharf Theater in New Haven, home to Yale and a ghetto, with Yale praying the guys in the hood don’t notice that it was armed guards to keep them out while cosplaying wokey to make them forget that Yale is a wonderful Ivy League school where their children might someday clean the halls or mow the lawn. But I digress.

It seems the problem with the Long Wharf Theater, LWT as it’s called, or Lily White Theater as the Times notes, is that it’s on the other side of I-95 and the Metro-North tracks from the rest of the city, so it’s racist because you need a car to get to it.

That at any rate is the Long Wharf’s plan. In December, when the lease on its longtime home expires, the company will say goodbye to I-95 and the poultry plant as it embarks on an “itinerant production model” — which Jacob G. Padrón, who became the theater’s artistic director in 2019, recently described as “placing ourselves fully in the community.” As a taste of that undertaking, “Jelly Roll’s Jam,” a jazz concert in connection with an upcoming reading of the 1992 musical “Jelly’s Last Jam,” was presented Aug. 16 at a public library in Dixwell, a predominantly Black neighborhood. It was packed.

If that works, cool. Who needs theaters anyway, especially regional theaters on lower priced real estate because it’s on the other side of I-95, which might be less a racist choice than an economic one, and maybe having a physical theater is better for putting on regional productions than what the library can offer, but whatevs.

But the epiphany of which I speak has little to do with the LWT, and more, in this weekend dedicated to honoring organized labor, to a fight for control. Notably, I was aware of some prior protests like “Oscars so white” because awards weren’t given for race but quality, but not of the seething outage in the theater community.

It took the double punch of Covid-19 and the racial reawakening of 2020 to fully expose the unfairness and disrupt the status quo. First, the pandemic, stopping theater cold that March, gave people time to reflect on the work they do and the values inherent in it. Then, that May, the killing of George Floyd — and the publication a few weeks later of “We See You, White American Theater,” a crowdsourced manifesto featuring 29 pages of demands for a more equitable industry — threw grief and outrage into the mix. As theater companies rushed to put diversity training on their agendas, and anodyne expressions of support on their websites, it seemed real change might be coming at last.

Twenty-nine pages of demands. It opens ignominiously.

This is a living document. It is an omnibus declaration of interlinked strategies, comprehensive but by no means exhaustive, and remains subject to amendment. It is
culled from years of discussion between members of the Black, Indigenous and People of
Color (BIPOC) theatre communities immersed in the dynamics of which they speak, and
bears the contradictions of our many concerns, approaches, and needs. When demands
are repeated, it should be taken as a reflection of their significance to the constituents. It
is also due to the interdependent functioning of the theatrical ecosystem.

There are a variety of tones and formatting styles employed to record our manifold voices
and views, all utilizing direct address and retaining our orality. This technique is designed
to hold the multiplicity and urgency we lay claim to given the persistent devaluation of
our voices. We are speaking to be heard at the front and back of the house.

Racism and white supremacy are cultural formations constructed to rationalize unjust
behavior for economic gain, and eradicating them requires radical change on both
cultural and economic fronts. We also wish to underscore that our emphasis on
antiracism should not be taken as an excuse to overlook sexism, ableism, ageism,
heteronormativity, gender binarism, and transphobia, as our identities are intersectional.

Rarely have so many words said so little of substance, and yet this is merely the into to the pages upon pages of demands that follow, While you might not consider this labor day fodder, as in union negotiating demands backed by a strike if the company refuses to pay, it is every bit as much an act of “organized labor” as collective bargaining, but for one huge glaring difference. In union-management negotiations, management needs its employee to go back to work so it can make its widgets and sell them for a profit.

Here, these aren’t employees, but wannabe employees, and management can just shrug and say no, get lost and these aspiring actors will have no choice but to await the casting call for Shaft, The Musical. Except to do so would risk the theaters being targeted by protests and branded racist. And more to the point, these are not people inclined to not care deeply about being adored. It’s kind of in their nature.

Culturally specific theaters may face an existential crisis if their function gets co-opted by change. And as new ways of thinking about the purpose of theater have led to new ways of producing it, traditional audiences, feeling disoriented, sometimes resist.

This is a cutesy way of asking a rather important question: What if they put on a play and nobody came? The organized BIPOC* labor demands that the racist American theater reinvent itself to serve its voluminous, often contradictory and mostly vapid needs at the expense of other interests, most notably the audience. Will they “resist”?

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