Race & Theatre: Intensifying Creativity from Chaos
- Massachusetts Columnist
When riots erupted in response to the death of Freddie Gray last year, we were once again reminded of the deep-seated racial tensions still alive in the United States. Indeed, with voter ID laws now sanctioned by the Supreme Court and the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, this has been a subject of much contention as of late. More often than not, opinions are split along racial lines (see this recent article in the Wall Street Journal). While African Americans defend the Baltimore protests as necessary, whites have been shocked by the ensuing violence.
I suspect this clash of opinions reveals a larger problem in our nation, a problem that we as theatre artists have the power to address. Though we would like to believe that the internet has made communication simpler than it ever was before, the fact is that our country suffers from a lack of productive dialogue. If people of different races cannot talk to each other about racism, there is no way to create compassion between different groups. Our inability to engage in conversation has prevented us from fully overcoming the racial problems that have plagued our country since its inception.
Even on my own very liberal college campus, I have seen evidence of this problem. While cultural organizations have attempted to create “safe spaces” where students can feel comfortable to discuss these issues, they are made up primarily of students of color. There are very few opportunities for students of all backgrounds to come together as member of a community and discuss issues of race. I have expressed my disappointment to my friends, many of whom share in my frustration. Over and over again, though, I have heard them say that we are simply not at a point where people of all races can come together and openly talk about racism.
My response to that is: why not? I have witnessed firsthand the power of theatre to create community and foster dialogue. One of my most memorable experiences as an actress was three summers ago, just after the Trayvon Martin ruling was announced, when I performed in a short play that invited audience members to think about how their town might address the issue of race in everyday life. The play was based entirely on the experiences of the cast members, and it was performed as a Forum—a kind of interactive performance developed by Augusto Boal as part of his Theater of the Oppressed methodology. By allowing our audience members to take control of the theatrical experience and establishing an environment where all opinions were equally valued, we gave them the opportunity to look each other in the eye and say, “All right, let’s really talk about this.”
As I learned from that performance, theatre has the ability to bring people together. Since the earliest days of mankind, people would gather around fireplaces to tell stories. This was the beginning of the theatre, and it was first and foremost a communal ritual. It is this sense of community that makes for meaningful dialogue. For when there is community, even the most diverse group of people with the most disparate opinions finds a way to communicate peacefully and empathize with one another.
I urge all my fellow theatre artists to consider how their art might make a difference in their communities. The theatre should be a place for debate, a place for questioning, a place for peacemaking, but above all, a place for togetherness. Contemporary works such as Clybourne Park, Disgraced, Yellow Face, In the Heights, and mostly recently, An Octoroon, have proven that race is still relevant in the 21st century and invite audiences to be a part of the conversation. Though some people might hesitate to join in at first, there are those of us who want to talk now. And yes, we may disagree, but it is only by addressing our disagreements that we can move forward in solidarity.