We share a deep belief in the American theatre. It is our home and the home to so many from all walks of life who have found their destiny, their vocation on this stage within the ritual performance we call life. The American theatre is that sacred space where we breathe most deeply, feel bravest, and conjure up our wisest selves. We have brothers and sisters in the American theatre across the nation whose work challenges, inspires, keeps us up at night, and is a balm to the broken parts of our humanity, as well as brothers and sisters whose work brings sheer laughter and complete joy.
The American theatre does not exist in a vacuum unto itself. It is part and parcel of a national narrative that stands at a crossroads. A crossroads at which one road can lead us to the higher ground of justice, racial equity, inclusion, a deeper understanding of one another, greater compassion, and a space that reflects the powerful diversity of our nation and the world. The other road has the potential to be that slippery slope down a pathway of delusion, inhumanity and injustice, lies, ignorance, and mediocrity—a path where the crooked may never be made straight.
“Nowadays, anyone who wishes to combat lies and ignorance and to write the truth must overcome at least five difficulties. He must have the courage to write the truth when truth is everywhere opposed; the keenness to recognize it, although it is everywhere concealed; the skill to manipulate it as a weapon; the judgment to select those in whose hands it will be effective; and the running to spread the truth among such persons.” The words of 20th-century theatre practitioner, playwright, and poet Bertolt Brecht still ring true, decades later, as protesters take to the streets across the world in response to the senseless murder of George Floyd and countless others.
We are at a watershed moment as a country—no, as a globe, coming to terms with the historic and pervasive racial inequities that have plagued our world for far too long, as brave women and men across fields of endeavor contest the age-old adage “Quiet as it’s kept” to bring to an end centuries of silence and baptize us in the chorus of “Black Lives Matter.” Even as crowds take to the streets across the country, and people from all walks of life speak out for racial justice, these protests are a part of a cacophony of voices made dissonant by the emboldening of others who persist to “make America great again.”
Where does the American theatre fit within this milieu of cultural, political, and social upheaval, this perpetual conveyor belt of breaking news? If we were to take a razor-sharp look in the search for our own truth, we would be faced with the fact that some of our most prominent stages and theatres across the nation—regional theatres, Off-Broadway and Broadway theatres, the cultural anchors of our field—remain among the most segregated and racially unjust spaces anywhere, driven by both racial and class divides. Our audiences, administrators, boards, producers, writers, directors, artists, and technicians do not yet reflect the dynamic diversity that represents our democracy. Curatorial visions do not fully reflect the powerfully heterogeneous and intersectional realities of diverse people and communities across the nation and the world.
Perhaps more significantly, Black theatres—the guardians of the Afican American story—remain uniquely vulnerable during this time of protests framed within a global pandemic. Consider that of all the Black theatres forged in the sociocultural and aesthetic kiln of the Civil Rights/Black Arts Movements in the 1960s and 1970s, a staggering 87 percent had closed by the mid-’90s. Despite the growing dialogues around equity in the field of arts and culture, each year foundations award about $2.3 billion to the arts, almost 60 percent of which still goes to support just 2 percent of arts and cultural nonprofits, all of them focusing primarily on Western European art forms, with programs that serve audiences that are predominantly white and upper income. Only 10 percent of grant dollars benefit underserved communities, including lower-income populations, communities of color, and other disadvantaged groups. And less than 4 percent focus on advancing social justice goals.
Artists, as well as artistic institutions and platforms, have been given the sacred task, as Shakespeare’s Hamlet told us in 1601: “Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this special observance, that you o’erstep not the modesty of nature: for anything so o’erdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold as ’twere the mirror up to nature.” August Wilson, Pittsburgh’s Bard, reiterated this several centuries later in his speech at Princeton University’s McCarter Theatre in 1996: “I believe in the American theatre. I believe in its power to inform about the human condition, its power to heal, its power to hold the mirror as ’twere up to nature, its power to uncover the truths we wrestle from uncertain and sometimes unyielding realities.”
Amid this time of revelation and reckoning, we have been given the sacred task to look inward and reflect deeply as the American theatre and ask ourselves: Are we using our stages, our platforms, to build a world in which all people can flourish, all be equally seen and heard, all equally invested in to thrive?
Here’s another question, and maybe the more meaningful one: Is the American theatre, the torchbearer of truth, up to the task? We answer that question with a resounding “Yes, we are!”
The work of this reckoning and this dismantling will be arduous, complex, even messy. It may seem that we are going back in time, reversing the tides of justice that we fought so hard for in the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, as we travel into the 21st century. But it is a journey we must take if we are to stand in the majesty of what it means to be the gatekeepers, the truth tellers of the American story.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., reminded us of this search for justice in his 1965 sermon at Temple Israel of Hollywood: “I believe firmly that we will get to the promised land of collective fulfillment. I still believe that right here in America we will reach the promised land of brotherhood. Oh, I know that there are still dark and difficult days ahead. And I believe it, because somehow the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”
We, as two artists, have had the privilege of working together for over a decade. We have led in small, mid-size, and large cultural institutions that serve predominantly white audiences and we have led in institutions that serve predominantly Black audiences. In countless conversations over the past decade, we have discovered shared values as human beings: values that are less about theatrical convention and more about human conversation; less about methodology and more about meaning; less about a fourth wall and more about tearing down walls that would keep us separated, divided, and broken. This is our American story.
You think you supposed to know everything. Life is a mystery. Don’t you know life is a mystery? I see you still trying to figure it out. It ain’t all for you to know. It’s all an adventure. That’s all life is. But you got to trust that adventure.
These are the words of the matriarch of the August Wilson canon, Aunt Ester, a 285-year-old conjure woman who takes Citizen Barlow to the City of Bones in Gem of the Ocean, the first play in his 20th century cycle, set in 1904. Citizen Barlow is a young man who doesn’t know anything about his history, the Civil War, or any key fact or story that would root him in his past, and he is thus in spiritual turmoil. This cultural amnesia—an inability or unwillingness to remember—is part of who we are as human beings. Yet the ability, the mindful effort, to remember the past, acts as a significant antidote to move us, the American theatre, with great conviction of where we have been and where we can go into the future. For Black Americans and people of color, this remembering is a moment for healing. For white Americans, this is a moment of reckoning.
People say it’s too much to carry. But I told myself somebody got to carry it. I didn’t run from it. I picked it up and walked with it. I got a strong memory. I got a long memory. People say you crazy to remember. But I ain’t afraid to remember. I try to remember out loud. I keep my memories alive. I feed them. I got to feed them otherwise they’d eat me up.
We urge the American theatre to use this moment in history to remember and to persevere. We have been here before. Remember: There was a time in our vast and complex history when the Indigenous people on North American soil were almost annihilated. Remember: There was a time when revolutionaries fled an oppressive tyranny and came to North America to build a new world. Remember: There was a time when the first African citizen stepped onto American soil, feet and hands shackled. Remember: There was a time when women couldn’t vote, when our Japanese brothers and sisters were in internment camps, when all people could not marry who they loved. We must remember. Because to forget would mean that we could repeat the ills of the past.
But—most importantly, and at the core of this message—it is in this moment that we must center the experiences of Black people and remember the resonating truth, as the very lives, communities, artistic work, and institutions of Black people are at stake….Black Lives Matter!
In Margaret Mitchell’s book, she chronicles Ephraim Hecht’s famous quote about the “bloodiest battle on American soil,” the Civil War, when the moral compass of our great nation was tested and the American story held its breath as the next chapters were being written. “There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South. Here in this pretty world, Gallantry took its last bow. Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and of Slave. Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered, a Civilization gone with the wind.”
We are at yet another last bow in the beginning of this 21st century, and art must do what only art can do. In response to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, who suggests we “hold as ’twere the mirror up to nature,” Brecht takes it one necessary step further: “Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.”
And this reality that we are all now living—as ugly and painful and uncertain as it is in this moment—reminds us that this time represents a another last flailing for many of our fellow Americans and cultural institutions, ranging from those who are working to “make America great again” to those MLK described as “the white liberal who must rid himself of the notion that there can be a tensionless transition from the old order of injustice to the new order of justice.” They may try, but they will not be able to stand up to the congregation of voices across the globe that rally against this uncivilized “civilization,” against a violent and racist culture, against those of us who are Black and brown. It is our hope and our prayer that that America will someday be a mere memory, soon gone with the wind.
So now we must ask: What would a new reality look like, a new world, a new American theatre? “To define and seek a world in which we can all flourish,” in the words of activist Audre Lorde.
A world where the stories of Black Americans exist on stages across the country with the understanding of artistic leadership, funders, artists, boards, and audiences that our story is the American story, and therefore leadership, funders, artists, boards, and audiences need to reflect the exquisite diversity of Blackness.
A world where there is philanthropic equity and Black institutions are fairly considered and invested in, commensurate with mainstream, predominately white institutions.
A world where Black people are hired by mainstream publications to critique and review the work of Black writers.
A world where Black students hear their history as an integrated and holistic part of a rich cultural curriculum.
A world where the wealth gap no longer exists for Black Americans.
A world where there is an imagination for Black genius to flourish.
And while these are just a few thoughts in a list that could go on for pages, this is the work that predominantly white-led, mainstream institutions, and individuals must do. Black Americans have been singing about justice; writing about justice; sitting around kitchen tables and talking about justice; lecturing about justice; directing and acting about justice; designing justice; hiring, recruiting, and educating towards justice—we have been doing the work for 400 years.
Brothers and sisters in the American theatre, if a new American story is on the horizon, if a new beginning awaits us, if we who are the keepers of our narrative on the most impactful and powerful platforms across America can stand together to mend what is broken, to restore what has been lost, and to tell the American story with the mighty force of voices that represent us all, then it is time for white Americans to do the work that leads to racial justice: to be uncomfortable and intentional, to start having the individual and institutional conversations, to start building strategic plans for racial equity, and to commit to the heavy labor that leads to a true dismantling of current structures and current worlds. Know that your Black brothers and sisters…we are listening.
Indira and Kenny
Dr. Indira Etwaroo, an award-winning producer, director, scholar, and nonprofit arts leader, has worked with cultural institutions across the country and the world. A Fulbright Scholar, Etwaroo has spent decades focused on the complex intersections between community, performing arts, and the topics of our time, leading toward models of institutional thriveability in the 21st century.
Kenny Leon is a Tony-winning Broadway and television director. Most recently, he directed the Broadway premiere of Charles Fuller’s Pulitzer-winning A Soldier’s Play and last summer’s acclaimed production of Much Ado About Nothing at the Delacorte/Shakespeare in the Park. Mr. Leon is artistic director emeritus of Kenny Leon’s True Colors Theatre Company.