by Valerie Curtis-Newton
I FIND MYSELF AT A CROSSROADS. I want to step forward and be an elder. So I’ve been thinking about what words of wisdom I have to offer to a conversation on “Revolutionary Theatre in 2020.” Lorraine Hansberry said, “If you want to do something, you have to do something.” I believe that. I want to inspire those coming after to take to the field and do something.
So, about this revolutionary Black theatre: Achieving it is no simple thing. It will take everything we have to bring it to fruition. The good news is that we are up to the challenge. The first steps are to get your mind right and put on your spiritual armor. This fight is not for the faint of heart.
"It is not safe to call out racist behavior by prestigious white theatres or influential white theatre-makers."
Remember we are a resilient people. Remember who we are as the children of Branch, Bonner, Childress, Hansberry, Baraka, Carroll, Wilson, Wesley and so many others; we have a lineage and a heritage of art – with purpose. Of meeting and surviving the very real struggles that confront us. Struggles that have been going on since we were brought here against our will. Each one of those literary giants was pressured to conform to the white gaze and each one of them resisted. Sometimes at great sacrifice. Some sank into obscurity. Some chose to forgo big paydays in order to tell unvarnished truths.
Remember the institutions that we built to sustain us, places like: the Negro Ensemble Company, Crossroads, Penumbra, National Black Theatre and the New Federal Theatre. Our new theatre will have its own shape and relationship to community, but these examples can provide a good road map. They mark both the right turns and the grave dangers that will confront our new revolutionary theatre.
Don’t let the quest for “safe space” lead you away from the mission of changing the world and the state of our people in it. There is a trap there. I understand the seduction of the idea that we should be safe. I get it. I do. But I am a witness to the fact that ideas of safety and revolution are antithetical. Change is not safe. Transformation is not safe. It is true in the streets and it is true in our cultural institutions. We should not be subjected daily to both physical and psychological harm. It is not safe to call out racist behavior by prestigious white theatres or influential white theatre-makers.
And yet, we must.
Many of the institutions that specifically tell the stories of the global majority are underfunded and undercapitalized. We can make magic on a dime and three paper clips, but we shouldn’t have to. And yet, it is not safe to demand that our efforts be equitably funded. We risk being cut off from what little funding we have. But we will do it.
Funders and donors need to actually do what their missions suggest and put the money where it will most serve the public good. We must hold them accountable. We must demand equitable resources. We need to be willing and able to speak truth to them and to the world. No safety there.
"When telling Black stories didn’t add dollars to the coffers or put Black bodies in the seats, the resistance got real."
When I co-founded the Hansberry Project in 2005, I decided that I wanted to bring our stories to the Seattle community. To celebrate our full humanity. To encourage others to fall as deeply in love with us as I am.
We struck a partnership with a large predominantly white theatre in town. We had a slot in their season and did our additional programming in their building. In turn, we participated in the staff work of the theatre — which made it the only theatre in town with Black people on its artistic staff. Our partnership was touted in grants and public relations. We made good work, but our missions were not actually in sync.
When telling Black stories didn’t add dollars to the coffers or put Black bodies in the seats, the resistance got real. It wasn’t sufficient that we were introducing the work of Black artists to the entire community or telling stories that were not normally seen on those stages. It didn’t matter that grants were being secured based on our presence and the potential of our partnership, or that the model of our partnership enabled them to make new partnerships with other global majority partners. (One development officer suggested to the board that the Asian community would be a better investment because they would donate more and buy tickets.)
Our financial fortunes rose and fell with our push for equity. After pioneering what a true partnership could look like, we were cut loose. However, we didn’t give up. (A great lesson from the ancestors.) We found a new and better model. One that continues to get our stories out there, keeps our power and gets our artists the money and the recognition they deserve.
I continue to do that work because while there is no doubt that we have made progress, there is still so much more to do.
"The revolution will require that we cultivate more compassion for ourselves."
“For us, by us, about us, near us” should guide us once again. We have things to say and do that can only be said by us. We demand/deserve to be woven into the very fabric of the mission of the cultural organizations that purport to serve us. We must demand that our mission and goals not be co-opted. We don’t want to be an initiative at some predominantly white institution. Why fund a predominantly white institution to do “outreach” rather than fund an ethnically specific institution to achieve a mission that already includes Black and other people of color? It is not that the money doesn’t exist. It is that the money is not being invested in us consistently.
The revolutionary act is declaring our intent to make a theatre that expresses our love for ourselves. A theatre that challenges us and represents us as we push toward that high calling. To do that, we must define our own terms. What is excellence to us? What is community to us? What is accountability to us? What is access to us? What is representation to us?
The revolution will require that we cultivate more compassion for ourselves. It is also not yet safe to hold one another accountable in love and expect the bonds to hold. We are broken and fragile from our daily encounters with white supremacy. We have to heal ourselves – even as we do so in the middle of a larger battle. In order to be strong in that fight, we must be in “right relationship” with one another: Casting out the internalized racism that has us at one another. Defying the scarcity mentally that has us in unhealthy competition. No more gossiping and backbiting. No more settling for less than our best. More focus on the fierce conversations that will serve us all.
"We should spend our energy loving each other, healing our relationships with each other, sharing our hopes, aspirations and dreams, weaving them into our art."
We are capable of so much more together than we are as individuals. Our revolutionary theatre should call us to get it together – both literally and figuratively. It means that rather than having every one start a new organization, we must consolidate and collaborate, find new forms that best serve our mission, our work and our community.
Truth-telling, risk-taking and change-making are dangerous activities, and they are the work of “doing something.” You will be “’buked … and scorned. … talked about sho’s you born.” When you stand up in the face of microaggression upon microaggression — as whispering campaigns labeling you as “angry,” “race-baiting” or “a bomb thrower” put your career on life support — you realize there is no hiding place. You might as well join the fray fully, aware that asking those same predominantly white funders, theatre and theatre-makers for safe space is a futile exercise.
If we are prepared to do that, “safe space” becomes irrelevant as we will have created the perfect triage. We will be able to go into battle and return home to be revived. We should spend our energy loving each other, healing our relationships with each other, sharing our hopes, aspirations and dreams, weaving them into our art.
My elder advice: We don’t need safe spaces to make revolutionary theatre. We need brave, confident, compassionate people willing to go into any space and tell the truth of what they see and experience. Alice Childress said that “we have to go further and do better.” There is no safety in that.