Lewis D. Wheeler, Kadahj Bennett, Hubens "Bobby" Cius in SpeakEasy Stage Production of Pass Over, Photo by Nile Scott Studios
Dr. Monica Ndounou. Photo Credit: Monica Ndounou

OpEd written by Dr. Monica Ndounou

It is hard not to notice how white theaters profit from staging Black death and trauma but say nothing in response to anti-Black violence like the lynching of George Floyd and multiple attacks against Black people during a global pandemic that is ravaging Black and Brown communities.  The silence over the past several weeks speaks volumes on the need for safe spaces to tell our stories. COVID-19’s destructive impact on the theater industry presents an opportunity to rebuild with greater equity and empathy in funding and operations.

Ahmaud Arbery was lynched twenty-one days after we closed our Boston production of Antionette Nwandu’s Pass Over, which ends with a white man shooting an unarmed Black man to death without consequence.  While directing this powerful play for SpeakEasy Stage Company and Front Porch Arts Collective, I recognized the potential to trigger intergenerational trauma due to the alarming rates of police violence against Black people, like Breonna TaylorDrawing inspiration from Barbara Ann Teer, founder of the National Black Theater, and artist Aleshea Harris, we closed each performance with a healing circle for Black and Brown audience members.

As a Black mother with over twenty years of experience as an actor, director, educator and advocate, I stand in solidarity with artists like Sterling K. Brown, Dominique Morisseau, Jada Pinkett Smith, Yara Shahidi, Gabrielle Union, Spike Lee, Rihanna and others using their platforms to expose the systemic racism enabling this cyclical violence.  It takes courage to speak, knowing those who do not want to change will perceive the uncompensated, emotional labor as an attack, rather than an invitation to do and be better.  The backlash for speaking out is real. But if we don’t speak, then who will?

Historically, Black theaters serve as a voice for Black communities, yet remain underfunded.

Lewis D. Wheeler, Kadahj Bennett, Hubens “Bobby” Cius in SpeakEasy Stage Production of Pass Over, Photo by Nile Scott Studios
As Debra Walker King writes in African Americans and the Culture of Pain, exposing anti-Black violence and racism can mobilize Black people and supporters for justice, as in the case of Mamie Till’s open-casket funeral for her brutally lynched, fourteen-year-old son Emmitt Till. Black theaters recognize that such demonstrations do not guarantee white people will recognize the humanity of Black people and that staging Black death or trauma to engage white audiences in difficult conversations is a low bar. Unfortunately, Black theaters are not represented in the 2 percent of all cultural institutions receiving nearly 60 percent of funding although they help reconcile cultural trauma and ongoing effects of slavery through stories of pain and joy.

Predominantly white theaters are not always safe spaces.  Throughout the run of Pass Over, several white patrons insisted on saying “Nigger” during talkbacks even when repeatedly asked to stop.  In the script and program, the playwright specifies the word not be used beyond the play’s dialogue while the actors are in character.  Other white patrons refused to leave the theater or complained of reverse racism in response to the healing circle. Recognizing the limitations of allies as bystanders, Melissa Alexis, our healing circle facilitator and I sought out white volunteers to escort disgruntled white patrons to the lobby, sharing resources prepared by our dramaturg Pascale Florestal on how to be accomplices by actively engaging in social justice struggles while willing to suffer consequences Black people face.

This behavior is not unique to Boston or this moment.  Marvin McCallister’s White People Do Not Know How to Behave at Entertainments for Ladies and Gentlemen of Color, exposes this phenomenon in nineteenth century Black theater.  It has no place in the twenty-first century. To be sure, Black audiences experience shows without such drama at Black theaters around the country. Black Out nights, which are designated nights for Black audiences to see Black-cast shows together at a predominantly white theater, offer some relief but are no substitute for Black theaters.

Just as Baby Suggs, wholly advised her congregation of newly freed Black people in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, when she told them the only grace they would have is the grace they could imagine, we can collectively reimagine American theater.  A critical mass of culturally specific theater leaders and accomplices can design and implement a more equitable, national model that builds on the Mosaic Network and Fund, which addresses “the health and viability of the African, Latinx, Asian, Arab, and Native American (ALAANA) arts groups in New York City.” Leaders from Ensemble Theater (Houston), Black Ensemble (Chicago), The Billie Holiday Theater Brooklyn, Waco Theater (Los Angeles),  KC Melting Pot (Kansas City) and Hattiloo Theater (Memphis) have experience effectively managing Black theaters as arts and advocacy organizations and can imagine a path forward that promotes cross-cultural, creative collaborations and resists defaulting to bailing out predominantly white theaters.

By overhauling funding and operations to recognize the intrinsic value of Black people and theaters, the industry can thrive during and beyond COVID-19.  We know better so let’s do better, together. Our very lives and livelihoods depend on it.

Monica White Ndounou is an Associate Professor of Theater and affiliate faculty in African and African American Studies and Film and Media Studies at Dartmouth College.  She is the Founder and Executive Director of The CRAFT Institute, Convener of The International Black Theatre Summit, the Vice President of Advocacy for the Association for Theatre in Higher Education and the author of the award-winning book, Shaping the Future of African American Film: Color-Coded Economics and the Story Behind the Numbers (Rutgers UP 2014).  She is also a Public Voices Fellow. Follow her on Twitter @MonicaNdounou.

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