Two Theatres, One America
by Lady Dane Figueroa Edidi
2020 has been filled with great sorrow, great triumphs and a great reckoning. As the coronavirus ravages the world, nearly every business, aside from those considered essential, has been forced to close its doors.
This has been especially true for those that require in-person engagement. Theatres around the country have canceled shows and closed their doors, and dread looms as the truth about the way in which the state views art, arts institutions and the artist has become ever more apparent.
With a different president and a Democrat-controlled Senate, perhaps we would have had swift, decisive and humane action that would have inspired a nationwide call to arms to effectively battle the virus, with initiatives to encourage mask-wearing; government-funded stay-at-home stipends; and a push to make unemployment systems more manageable and efficient, among other steps.
But, alas, what we have experienced instead has been a divided government, a tyrannical president who’s lied to the country, an unbothered GOP, increased police violence, and more than 200,000 people dead and millions more suffering due to COVID-19.
The Theatre Institution in the Time of COVID-19
COVID-19 and four years of a president playing dictator have set the stage for moments of great reckonings.
First, the collective known as We See You, White American Theater released a community-driven letter that demanded theatrical institutions divest from white supremacy, as the United States, rocked by the death of George Floyd at the hands of police, witnessed communities rise up and demand the dismantling of white supremacy and that the state and all institutions be held accountable for their continued perpetuation of white supremacist violence.
Theatrical institutions could no longer rest on notions of wokeness — or their trafficking in white supremacy, anti-Blackness, transphobia, homophobia, ableism and classism.
As the world mobilized, theatre creatives mobilized, and the ills of the eroding institution known as the American Theatre were laid bare for everyone to witness.
Most theatre institutions released statements of solidarity; many went about attempting to do something of the work, while some made transparent changes. The world began to buzz with conversations about anti-racism and feelings of white helplessness and defensiveness.
The idea of experiencing Black/Indigenous/Brown people on the stages of the American Theatre as more than tokens, set pieces, or bodies, or not for the purpose of feeding into some white supremacist notion of “Black, Indigenous and people of color existing solely for white people’s pleasure,” seemed to be taking hold.
For some, it felt as if this time things would be different.
But for others — who understood that the theatre does not exist free of the world, that theatre itself is the creatives of whom it is made, and that institutions are spaces that we, the creatives, ordain with the power to produce theatrical work — skepticism persisted.
It is too often the same theatre institutions that have disconnected themselves from the communities in which they reside and the daily issues faced by the creatives who make up their “most woke seasons” that then leverage social-justice talking points, commodify Black trauma and pain, and offer the pretense of grieving with communities of color, all while lining their pockets and perpetuating the same types of harm within their spaces.
Not to mention the ever present transphobia that has kept several of what are considered major theatre institutions from producing any plays by trans playwrights, or trans playwrights of color, or even more specifically, Black trans women playwrights.
What would be different this time?
So as everyone turns their attention to the election, feelings of dread and rage, accompanied by a desperation to hold onto hope, fill the air.
People remain in the streets, marching for racial justice, but conversations seem steeped in the belief that voting will save a country that has always been on the verge of dying by the hands of fascism; white supremacy has always been the hands around America’s throat.
Voting becomes the notion of salvation as opposed to divestment from white supremacy.
Voting is an important nugget of hope on which to hold, but I invite us not to be so swift to rest on our laurels when the vote is done.
Some may say, “Let us handle one thing at a time.” But the idea that complexity cannot exist, even in these moments of teetering between hope and despair, is a fallacy.
Such an idea, dare I say, is also a byproduct of white supremacy, which deals in monoliths and the minimizing of the self to remain functioning.
Black, Indigenous and other people of color have had to know how to exist in complexity for a long time, so I invite anyone who ain’t done so, to get used to it quick, fast and in a hurry.
While some of us may find ourselves feeling a reprieve if Joe Biden wins, the deep work of dismantling white supremacy will not stop with a Biden victory.
As we gaze forward, I think about the two major-party presidential candidates and how different the country may be depending on which of them wins. Despite the victor, America will still be in need of being saved from itself.
American Theatre Under Joe Biden
A Joe Biden presidency more than likely will be the better of the two options.
It is clear that the Democrats have no plans to cut arts funding and instead view the arts as an important part of our survival.
Theatre institutions, as well as some artists, will fare much better under a Biden-Harris administration. However, while some would wish to sigh with relief and be lulled into choosing to forget everything this year has taught us, know that the mirror has been held to the American Theatre, and there is no turning back.
Artists have found that they have the power to mobilize in ways that may have seemed impossible to fathom in the past. Institutions may survive, but they may not thrive again without the continuation of the work necessary to craft a more equitable and less oppressive American Theatre.
A post-Biden victory may see the world awash in the cries of a faux civility (often a tactic to erase and silence the concerns of those most impacted by structural oppression). But the institution of the theatre will not be afforded that privilege.
In a post-pandemic era, one where COVID-19 is still a threat, but not a factor in preventing physical connection, theater institutions will have to lead by example.
Moving toward a framework that is more equitable, less oppressive, and one that is invested in the divestment from oppressive systems, can become a beacon for the ways in which the rest of the world can operate.
What does it feel like to have a theatre institution where there is a stipend for travel? What does it feel like to have theatre institutions committed to programming shows and work that do not pander to a white bourgeois gaze, but are instead truly committed to centering the work of those about whom they say they care?
How does a theatre institution recognize that its survival does not rest in the hands of the rich or the exploitation of Black, Indigenous or people of color, but rather in the right relationship it fosters with theatre creatives and the communities in which a theatre finds itself?
A Joe Biden presidency may buy time, but it would not buy comfort.
American Theatre Under Trump
I typically don’t say his name aloud because, frankly, I understand that the current president of the United States has tried at every turn to destroy the lives of Black, Indigenous and people of color; that his actions have contributed to the deaths of more than 200,000 U.S. citizens, as well as to having babies kept in cages at the Southern border and other atrocities the news cycle seems to have forgotten.
I am not objective in my view of him and his administration, not only because his actions have harmed countless people, but because I remember how white supremacy and its perpetrators operate. We have witnessed the blueprint playing out over and over again.
That said, a second term for him and his administration will more than likely mean the death of countless theatre institutions. One saving grace would be if the Senate were to be flipped to Democrat control as a check on his power. But if not, a second term for the current president would mean a complete and utter fall into chaos, leaving the country devastated.
And based on what his administration has said about art and artists, it remains clear that arts funding would be in jeopardy.
For years, Republicans have attempted to cut funding for health, education and the arts. Art institutions that managed to survive would then live at the behest of the extremely wealthy, becoming institutions that exist completely at the whims of their funders. Even more than now, the bourgeois would wield the theatre as its private propaganda machine.
So many theatre institutions already refuse to put certain works on their stages due to their idea of obligation to their white audiences and board members and their attempts to shield them from accountability, let alone critique.
With a greater sense of dread and no safety net in sight, such institutions would go back to business as usual, which too often has left marginalized communities tokenized, disenfranchised and erased.
However, while some institutions may become propaganda machines and other institutions may die, theatre will survive — because the creatives are the theatre.
Theatre creatives will more than likely use their gifts to critique an oppressive government in new and bold ways because they will have no choice if they truly wish to come away from another potential four years with their humanity intact.
What is needed next is beyond the imaginations of white people.
The backbone of the new theatre movement should encompass the visions of Black liberation and Indigenous sovereignty.
Communities of color committed to divesting from white supremacy are the leadership the theatre needs to survive any American presidency with our moral compass and integrity intact.
The groundwork for a revolutionary and transformative American Theatre has been laid — for generations. Let us move away from the ills of white comfort and into the joy of right/loving relationships with the land, with ourselves, and each other.
Let us move away from the making of salaries as traps and instead move toward an economic framework that rightly honors the work of every creative who comes into an institution.
Let us move away from a framework of exploitation and move toward investing in a community of care.
Let us move away from outdated notions that would have every creative be beholden to funders and boards and instead move toward a “leader full” framework, one that denotes an institutional power-sharing model steeped in the spirit of collaboration and honoring the contributions and autonomy of every creative.
Let us move from the notion that art is entertainment and educate ourselves to the fact that everything is political.
Let us move away from prioritizing the white gaze and toward recognizing our right as Black, Indigenous and people of color to experience ourselves on stage, to celebrate ourselves and our ancestors, and to honor a deep legacy rooted in the visions our ancestors made manifest.
Let us invest in the principles of healing, love, accountability and restorative justice.
And so to every theatre creative, I say: Reignite your commitment to dismantling internalized and systematic white supremacy. Reignite your hope and willingness to fight.
No matter who wins the election, this is America: It is time to make sure that America is a land where everybody is not only free, but also assured of liberty.