Along with the industries of music, film and visual art, theater is having a reckoning about systemic racism. In June, a group of more than 300 BIPOC theater makers formed the group WE SEE YOU, WHITE AMERICAN THEATER and published a letter excoriating the industry for the inequitable practices, pervasive racial bias and pandering to Black artists without being willing to make meaningful changes — i.e., cede power to BIPOC. The letter, which was signed by Billy Porter, Cynthia Erivo, Viola Davis and hundreds of others, can be read in full here. The group later released a 29-page document of demands that include mandatory anti-racism training for everyone from the boardroom to the stage to the concession stand; eliminating the standard six-day rehearsal week; an end to oppressive hiring practices; transparency in fundraising and much more.
To see how these conversations are playing out locally, tune in to conVERGEnce, Anti-Racism Tools: Foundations at 7 p.m. Oct. 1 via Zoom. It’s the first in a series of conversations hosted by the small-but-mighty Verge Theater Company that board member Tessa Bryant says will take place around every six weeks — pandemic or no pandemic.
“Not all sessions will be around anti-racism,” says Bryant, “but anti-racist policies and practices will be a recurring theme. … You can’t really solve any other problems without it. … You cannot address sexism or homophobia without addressing racism, because racism is so central to our ideas in America about masculinity and male dominance and heteronormativity. All of those things are connected. A lot of people talk about [social issues] and say, ‘Oh you can’t forget race.’ But you kind of have to start with race.”
To Bryant, it is frustrating to see that the theater industry — which has been shaped so much in America by artists of color — is dominated by white people and largely patronized by white people. “It’s dismissive of the history of theater in America,” she says. “It’s dismissive of some of the best artists that we have in Nashville, frankly, some of the hardest-working artists in Nashville, and some of the decline that you’re seeing among the [larger] professional theater companies in Nashville is a result of years and years and years of those companies at best being ham-handed [in how they treat] their artists of color and at worst being predatory.”
During Thursday’s talk, artist Jon Royal will discuss foundational concepts of anti-racism and how they intersect with theater making and theater consuming. Royal is a director, educator, actor and writer who has been involved with Nashville theater’s most progressive initiatives for decades. He’ll be joined by Shawn Whitsell, director of The Destiny Theatre Experience, whose work has been a galvanizing force for change; and Lauren Fitzgerald, a talented vocalist and performer in her own right who also spent years shepherding Nashville artists through the process of applying for project funding from Metro Nashville Arts Commission.
Register to view the conversation on the Verge Theater Company’s Facebook event page.