The Journey of Anti-Racism and Community-Based Theater

Hi everyone, this is Alex Hansen. As a quick recap, I last wrote about how I spent the beginning of the summer reading and expanding my knowledge of the history and continuation of white supremacy and racism in our country. While I had limited knowledge of the issues from school, and had been following Black Lives Matter in the last year or so, it was not until I spent significant periods of time digging in to various writings that I began to truly understand the scope of our terrible history/present, and my place in it as a white person. Since my last post, I have continued to read widely, but I have also been able to start having some thought-provoking conversations around race and white supremacy, as well as theater and community-based work.

I started by talking to Rachel Grossman, a theater artist based in Washington, D.C., who has been doing anti-racism and oppression training and work since she began working after college. We had a really informative and helpful conversation that spanned how she became aware of her whiteness and white privilege to ways to speak to family members about these issues to challenges in creating theater that addresses issues of oppression. I think one of the most important things I learned from this conversation is that we are all on a journey working against something that is deeply ingrained in us and in the world. No one becomes totally aware of their privilege and becomes a perfect ally overnight. It’s a journey, and people go back and forth within the journey throughout their lives. The key to this, I think, is that people have to be willing to recognize when we make mistakes and own up to them, rather than becoming defensive.

I was next able to speak with Lisa Biggs, a theater artist and professor based in Michigan. Lisa was really able to point me towards ways that people create theater across various societal divides, whether that be race, class, gender, incarceration, etc. She point me to Jan Cohen-Cruz’s book, Local Acts, which I am currently in the middle of and finding really fascinating. She also asked me some really great questions about my goals in doing this project, what I am really after and how I wanted to proceed. While I was not necessarily able to answer all of her questions, they have prompted me to really thing about what I am trying to accomplish with this project. It has taken a turn toward community-based theater and what it means to be an outsider making art with a community, especially being an outsider with so much privilege. Lisa also shared her own experience of making theater with women in prison, an experience she does not share, and how she has learned to go in with an open mind and listen without judging.

Most recently I spoke with Marcy Arlin of the Immigrants Theatre Project based in New York City. Speaking with Marcy was very interesting because her career has spanned several roles in creating theater based in immigrants’ stories. She told me she began doing work based around immigrants’ stories because as the granddaughter of immigrants she felt she could tell those stories with integrity, whereas she did not have the same connection to other oppressed groups. She came out of graduate school as a director, and she began creating work with groups based in improv. She did shows that way for a bit, then expanded what the Immigrants’ Theatre Project by soliciting scripts and employing professional actors and directors. Immigrants’ Theatre Project has done a wide range of work, from a show that included both Israeli and Palestinian actors to a play by a Romanian playwright that employed actors born in the United States. I was curious whether there were any differences amongst people that made what Marcy does difficult, but she said that while sometimes differences are cultural, such as the appropriate way to display grief, oftentimes differences are personal. She said the key for her, doing this work, is to be respectful of everyone and aware of your own ignorance and knowledge gaps of others’ cultures.

After having these conversations and thinking about what I have learned thus far, there are two directions I am interested in going. First, I am very interested learning more about the many ways people have and continue to create community-based theater, and what it means to be an outsider with privilege in those situations. On the flip side, though, I am interested in the ways in which I can talk to and create work that talks to the community I am from and deal with the issues I think are most pressing for our country as a whole. A friend post a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. quote recently that reads

“the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”

Reflecting on this, I think it is clearly extremely  important that I try to have open, honest, and productive conversations with other white people about white privilege and oppression of people of color.

One thought on “The Journey of Anti-Racism and Community-Based Theater

  1. Alex, your conversation with Marcy Arlin sounds pretty fascinating. It makes total sense that that would spark a conversation internally for you about how to create work that is of and for your community. Those are such complicated questions: who can talk about what? whose work has integrity?

    There’s a podcast run by the New Yorker Fiction section where contributing writers read the works of other writers. They get to pick which story they read, and then they have a conversation with the host about the story itself, why the picked it, etc. There’s a really lovely one where Edwidge Danticat reads Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl” story, and she talks about the resonance she feels with Jamaica Kincaid, both of their backgrounds being in post-colonial cultures as young girls. Your post reminded me of this podcast because I think the common thread between your conversations and Danticat’s description of Kincaid’s story is a respectful approach. That’s maybe easier to say than to do, though, which is why I think the concept of resonance is so important; there’s something so visceral, so instinctual about acknowledging what resonates with you, what creates vibrations in you. It sounds like this is what came up in your conversations with both Arlin and Biggs, and that perhaps starting from that place of gut, basic interest is what allows for a respectful approach.

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