By Sheri Flanders and Josh Flanders
In late September, Black Ensemble Theater and Steppenwolf Theatre Company co-hosted an evening of performance and discussion called Chicago’s Theater Community Coming Together to Fight the Ism’s, “Highlighting Racism” – sponsored by The Alphawood Foundation, MacArthur Foundation and Field Foundation. The evening was hosted by Black Ensemble Theatre’s founder and CEO, the engaging Jackie Taylor, and featured outstanding performances by Teatro Vista, About Face Theatre, Black Ensemble Theater, Her Story Theatre and Firebrand Theatre, as well as moving talks by Tyronne Stoudemire (Vice President Global Diversity and Inclusion, Hyatt Corporation), Angelique Power (President, The Field Foundation and Co-Founder of Enrich) and David Schmitz (Executive Director, Steppenwolf Theatre).
“This is an event to enlighten, to inform and to inspire the theater community artists, administrators and critics to work together. We must understand the systemic process of racism and oppression — what is it and how can we remove it from our community?” Taylor said,
We are an interracial, married, Chicago-based comedy writing and performing duo and contributors to ChicagolandMusicalTheatre.com who attended the event. Here are our thoughts:
Sheri: When I heard about this event, I expected your standard roundtable discussion with a bunch of directors handwringing about racism, boasting about the diversity efforts of their own theatres and then committing once again to blindly throw money at the problem through another scholarship or token hiring initiative. But Black Ensemble Theater’s founder Jackie Taylor deftly anticipated and short-circuited the predictable agenda and attempted a radical approach–to appeal to our collective humanity.
When she took the stage, she bluntly told the crowd that she wanted to dress up for the occasion, but didn’t have time. (Her “casual” was stunningly radiant in that way that only a true style icon can manage. #DivaGoals) The fact that she doesn’t bother to prioritize image was the perfect opening number for the no-nonsense program that followed.
Josh: Despite tackling the heavy topics of racism, sexism and homophobia head-on, the night was anything but heavy. The Black Ensemble Theater is one of the most amazing theaters in the city. The live jazz band playing before and during the show was killer. The vocalists were outstanding. And the catered party afterwards was delicious. Those lamb chops were quite tasty.
Sheri: Succulent. And the pasta, though. That was fire. I love those tiny cups and forks!
Josh: Kudos to outstanding catering, something often overlooked. But I digress. The evening opened with a short statement from the E.D. of Steppenwolf, David Schmitz, who discussed his views of his role as an ally; saying that he felt like he was there first to listen and learn and let diverse populations lead, to take action when requested and to cede leadership again gracefully. That reflected my perspective also as a straight white guy; ready to stand against racism wherever I see it, yet still learning more sophisticated ways to be an ally.
Sheri: It struck me that for some of the attendees, this might be the first, or only one of a handful of few times in their lives that they had experienced an entire show that wasn’t centered around cisgender white male expression of theatre. Every piece presented in the evening was by a woman or minority. The great majority of my theater and media experiences – involve watching art in an environment that is not centered around my experience as a black woman, if it even bothers to acknowledges my existence at all.
Josh: Exactly. I wonder how many white cisgender men, like myself, have spent hours upon hours thinking about how to bring about change, yet still buy tickets to yet another performance centered around our experience. These performances showed me multiple angles of what racism and xenophobia look like outside of my experience and comfort zone, and left me thinking about its pervasiveness in our culture.
Sheri: All of the companies’ performances were unapologetic in the celebration of their identities and addressing challenges of race, sexism and homophobia in a raw, unflinching manner, without pandering for the audience’s comfort. I was fascinated watching these worlds collide.
Josh: It would have been nice for a company that addresses disability (maybe Victory Gardens?) to have been included in the program. That would be cool for future initiatives.
Sheri: The piece about sex trafficking from Her Story Theater performed by an ensemble of amazingly talented and brave young people was absolutely devastating. We don’t often get to see such a serious topic presented for a youth audience – sadly the audience most likely to be impacted by it. It was hard to watch. This is crucial work.
Josh: The audience was shocked and enraged to hear the statistics that the director shared before the performance. Heart-wrenching. The LGBTQ+ company, About Face Theatre, performed a joyous and piece about identity, also aimed at youth audiences. I am really impressed by the bravery of the work being done by young people today.
Sheri: From the adult performances, I really appreciated the piece that featured a vignette of unvarnished blackouts (that were not served well by the slow fade of the lights) that highlighted the racism that Asian-Americans face day-to-day. Discrimination against Asians is real and often overlooked and minimized in the overall discussions of diversity.
Josh: Teatro Vista gave a performance of a scene that addressed the rampant whitewashing issue in our community with hilarity and a dagger to the conscience. This scene should be required viewing for every casting director.
Sheri: I HOWLED with laughter through that entire scene. I know someone in the audience was probably mad at me, but I simply could not stop laughing. It was deliciously wicked in truth. Directors: please stop casting white people for ethnic roles. Just, don’t. Ugh.
Let me collect myself. Angelique Power, President of Field Foundation, gave one of the most thoughtful and honest talks of the night – speaking about how difficult it is to address race in an honest way in a corporate environment. She told a story about how she accidentally caused an argument in a meeting by naively trying to get professionals address race head on. Her perspective was refreshing, humbly accepting that – maybe, just maybe – none of us are experts! Maybe we don’t know how to talk about race; maybe we are all bad at this.
She suspects that our standard ways of talking about race (diversity initiatives, quotas, increasing funding) are just a sophisticated way of managing our biases without confronting them. Her former employer, the Joyce Foundation, proactively invested in professional training to learn how to talk about race. I wonder if it would be possible for one of the foundations that sponsored this event (Alphawood, Mac Arthur, Field) to sponsor this training program for all of the executives at all of the Chicago theatre companies, rather than to let the blind continue to lead the blind?
Josh: The Firebrand Theater presented a cheeky sexist chorus medley. It’s easy to overlook how terrible some of these old songs are when they masked by peppy melodies. Its Artistic Director, Harmony France, pointed out that musical theatre often hides its sexism and racism behind words such as “nostalgia” and “classics.” This idea absolutely extends beyond musical theatre to the artistic community as a whole. Although the names and faces that we consider to be “serious” in the world of theater must be well versed in their Albee, Mamet and Shakespeare, how many of them are additionally well-versed in Black, Asian, Latino or Feminist “classics?” And what will it take for diverse classics become regularly included in the canon of American Classics?
Tyronne Stoudemire, VP of Global Diversity and Inclusion with Hyatt, is a wonderfully hilarious public speaker. If he ever retires from the hospitality business, he should teach people how to give speeches professionally.
Sheri: He is delightful.
Josh: He brought out a glass of milk and a bottle of Hershey’s chocolate syrup to illustrate how initiatives aimed at increasing diversity result in lower-level jobs – not executive level ones. Even though you just KNEW what the bit was going to be as soon as the glass of milk appeared onstage, it still hit like a punch in the gut. It’s possible that it hit even more powerfully because it’s such a corny 1980’s visual aid – like a “This is your brain on drugs” level illustration – and yet in 2017, it is sadly still relevant. Damn. We have learned nothing.
Sheri: Tyronne also said “cultural differences are misinterpreted as performance issues,” which is one of the biggest hurdles to increasing diversity. Unless a woman or minority is a “model” example, then cultural differences are often the excuse to not promote them within organizations. (Too pushy, bitchy, loud, passive, quiet, meek, standoffish, talkative, “doesn’t fit in with the culture”) Instead of the company adapting, any serious challenge to the status-quo is rejected and brushed under the rug.
Josh: The status quo has a Teflon coating against change. Tyronne also briefly touched upon the history of attempting to bring diversity in corporate America, and our current level of discussion – attempting to convince corporations that diversity is good for the bottom line. I wonder, will it ever be possible to get people to do the right thing because it is moral and not because there might be a financial reward?
Sheri: At the end as I watched Black Ensemble’s chorus sing a gospel spiritual with the full emotion of a church congregation on Sunday morning, I glanced across the crowd to see how this mostly white crowd was dealing with this unabashedly black experience. For some, Jackie Taylor had clearly succeeded in her mission. They were swaying joyously with the music, singing and glowing – clearly touched by the message and spirit of the night. But many were sitting stiffly and uncomfortable with the look of someone that had been forced to take their medicine.
Josh: After the event, many of those faces did not stay for the reception, and vanished into the night…one imagines to return to their comfort zones once again.
Sheri: If Ms. Taylor couldn’t move them, then who can?
Josh: That’s a good question.