Public Statement from MN Play Bish on Twin Cities Theater
In these uncertain times – uncertain because theater institutions continue to perpetuate the lie that they acknowledge and support the black community while doing little to reflect that support in their actions – we, arts administrators/chatty chismosas/and theatre industry critics of MN Play Bish podcast, stand at the site of the Twin Cities theater economy, the Guthrie Theater. We are inspired by the conversations our BIPOC colleagues are leading around the nation to call out white American theaters, from Marie Cisco’s simple yet devastating Theaters Not Speaking Out spreadsheet and Victor Vasquez’s We See You WAT petition, to Claudia Alick’s Calling Up series and costume designer Montana Levi Blanco’s vulnerable Instagram statement. We want to follow our mission of igniting conversations the white artistic community in the Twin Cities is either too unqualified, too fearful or too hateful to have. For what other reason have we avoided these conversations for so long?
Now more than ever, the theater industry is using the black theatrical body, the indigenous theatrical body, the poc, the queer, the trans, the disabled theatrical body – whether artist or community member – to virtue signal their progressive ideals and so-called values of equity, diversity and inclusion, while investing very little time, material resource, mentorship, energy or money in our virtue as people. We can’t overlook the irony of Guthrie artistic director Joseph Haj choosing George Floyd’s name and James Baldwin’s quote “nothing can be changed until it is faced” to light up its smokestacks, smokestacks that can only be read in proximity to the building and not by the very southside Minneapolis community they are meant to support. We looked at it and asked firstly, George Floyd who? What, where, when, why, how? Floyd’s legacy is rendered shallow without context, important nouns and verbs: Justice for George Floyd. George Floyd’s black life, black legacy, matters. And on what stage does the prop George Floyd’s name play? One on which three playwrights – Baldwin on the smokestack, Lorraine Hansberry and August Wilson on the building’s massive outdoor portraits, cannot be seen from the outside or the inside. In its 57 year history, the Guthrie has never produced Baldwin, Hansberry or Wilson’s plays. It has only presented Penumbra/Lou Bellamy’s work without the financial and creative support of co-production. In fact, based on its readily available production history, we believe we can say with confidence that in its 57 year history, the Guthrie has produced only 17 plays by 16 black playwrights. When we looked at all other playwrights of color, in its 57 year history, the Guthrie has produced 12 plays by 10 playwrights of color. In its 20-21 season the Guthrie was set to produce Larissa FastHorse’s THE THANKSGIVING PLAY, which would have been the first play by a Native playwright to reach its stages, but it was cancelled due to COVID. Additionally, the Guthrie has never “revived” a play by a black or POC playwright. For comparison, the Guthrie has produced Tennessee Williams’ THE GLASS MENAGERIE five times.
How many more years will the Guthrie wait to fulfill these firsts? How many more years will we watch black folks’ names and faces decorate this esteemed American institution, where the doors are too heavy for black stories to push through? How much more readily available data do we need to sort through to convince our community of what BIPOC already know, that all your favorite organizations – the Jungle, Park Square, Theatre Latte Da, Artistry, Chanhassen, the History Theater, MN Opera, etc. – perpetuate these same disparities? How much longer can we accept that to the artistic directors of the white American Theater, the marginalized body is a theatrical storytelling prop, an EDI device, a free consulting resource, a scenic flourish, but never an artist to develop and celebrate?
In the Southwest Journal in 2016, Haj offers his vision for the Level Nine initiative, saying, “Coming out of the Philando Castile moment here in the Twin Cities, we thought: Look, we need to figure out a forum to have a community conversation around this.” We look at the word “moment” now and are numb. Is this George Floyd’s moment? What makes the last breath of a murdered black body “a moment” and for whom? And who gets to come “out of” it? Haj either pretends to not understand or willfully ignores the reality of continued systemic injustice, the micro- and macro- aggressions, the slow, chipping away deaths that don’t light up Guthrie smokestacks.
As we once again see his personal portrait on the website next to a statement about black death, we reflect on the cult of toxic masculine ego that has ruled Guthrie leadership and the industry throughout the decades. In this case he is a POC executive whose EDI initiatives were meant to excite us. We were both drawn to the Guthrie on the promise of equity and industry change. But instead, we found a bully who was primarily interested in protecting his reputation. Someone who called for his artistic team’s loyalty to him in stressful times. Someone who listened to my complaints about not wanting to pass by a swastika on the show art everyday on the way to my desk, and behind closed doors blamed the “woke police” for “censorship” of his artistic ideas. Someone who gaslights all constructive criticism as “everybody’s favorite activity – Guthrie bashing.” Someone who told my department head to tell my coworker apropos of nothing that he smells. Someone who outsources the emotional labor of writing his speeches to women, especially women of color. Someone who defines the “classics” as a mostly white and mostly Western canon as a given. Someone who purports to create an “agora” – the Greek civic space – on Level Nine where the community can gather, yet does not attend community programming, while the marketing department’s clenched jaws of death leave visiting artists without the support to connect with community or sell their shows, because they are expected to lose the organization money anyway, creating a culture where one is always gritting and baring the so-called agora.
We are putting a lot of pressure on Joseph Haj for accountability. It’s harsh, it’s impolite, it’s uncensored, it’s insensitive, it’s not the right/white way. But as he says, we know the problem is systemic. We know there are many vindictive and ego-centered artistic directors in the Twin Cities who are gritting their teeth so hard, they are pushing out administrators leading the change with the work that most interfaces with the community. We know there are other such community-facing programs out there or ones that used to exist in their most artful and delightful iterations, run by heart-heavy BIPOC, queer, trans, disabled administrators that did not receive the wages or recognition they deserve. In a New York Times piece entitled “Four Black Artists on How Racism Corrodes the Theater World,” Penumbra artistic director Sarah Bellamy offers us a solution – “come on home.” We wonder what home she is referring to. We look at the staff turnover, the lack of roles for black and non-cis/disabled bodies, the stories of toxic environments, the hiring of abusers, the lack of reckoning with racism, sexism, queer and transphobia, lack of accessbility, lack of transparency, ageism, and so many other flashpoints of bigotry at Penumbra, the Guthrie, the Jungle, Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company, New Native Theater, Park Square, etc. These are not our homes. We are not your theater family. We are your theater colleagues and we want to do the work in jobs and roles worthy of our energy, time and intellect. It’s past time you cleaned house.
When we watched Haj speak to the moment of a global pandemic, talking about privileged trips with his wife to his beloved Greece to see the place where it, by white/western standards, all started, he called upon his community for strength. We felt rage knowing that his local community – the staff of the Guthrie – were never brought together for a staff meeting to be addressed in this way. We felt rage that for 8 weeks, the artistic team never received guidance or green lights for our ideas on how we could respond artistically to COVID, and that we were essentially expected to take our paychecks and be grateful. We felt rage knowing the following week, leadership would sever that very community with massive layoffs and job eliminations. We feel the same rage now. Another empty statement. Another “moment” that offers surface-level support yet does not take any kind of action or acknowledge the Guthrie’s own systemic waste of our time. We wonder if Haj knows that our current state of astrology matches the star map similarly to what it looked like in 111 AD when the Western Roman Empire fell. We reflect on the words of former artistic director Liviu Ciulei, written above the Level Nine Studio: “a community can be measured by the questions its theater asks.” We believe if the theater is silent, if the theater falls, a community should be measured by the health and success of its black people, storytellers, leaders and organizers. The Twin Cities’ theater community is facing an epidemic. Black folk cannot breathe in these toxic artistic atmospheres anymore.
As Montana Levi Blanco said, “We are dangerously interconnected in a cycle of perpetration and black people are hurting.” We know you all think you are doing the work but we see you. You are not. It is not enough. We challenge Joseph Haj, Christina Baldwin, C. Michael-Jon Pease, Sarah Bellamy, Peter Brosius, Peter Rothstein, Ryan Taylor, Ron Peluso, Barbara Brooks, Michael Brindisi, Benjamin McGovern, Wendy Knox, Rhianna Yazzie, even Jack “theater is a food bank now” Reuler, even Lily “we honestly stan” Tung Crystal, etc. to publicly answer how they plan to break this cycle of perpetrating anti-blackness and bigotry.
Because Black Lives Matter. Periodt.
Mo and Mandy
Mo and Mandy reflect on the Frankensteinian doctors and other scary white men of the Fall 2019 spooky season. It took us 7 months to feel motivated to edit and post this, one of only two official eps we created after our Summer 2019 break.
Revisiting this ep after having not physically attended a show in 12 weeks due to the pandemic reminded us where our exhaustion and reluctance to keep up with the pod came from: the micro- and sometimes macro-aggressions we put up with constantly, to work as administrators and artists, and participate as audience members in this field.
You will hear us: discuss the physical and emotional toll of navigating the Guthrie Theater’s building and their queer erasure in THE GLASS MENAGERIE; avoid calling out transphobia that led to a cast member leaving the Park Square production of THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW out of Mo’s fear of repercussion; hesitate to criticize the structures that keep MN Opera irrelevant and inaccessible; and literally get sat on at Swandive’s THE CANOPIC JAR OF MY SINS.
For every artistic director or artist waxing poetic on the return live theater, there are so many QTBIPOC who do not want to attend theater in this way ever again. In the past year, we made plans to exit our white institutions, and by way of new positions and layoffs, succeeded. We stand outside them now. We can’t afford to avoid, fear or hesitate with our criticisms any longer, if we want the industry to change. We’re tired of y’all sitting on us.
…more soon, tee hee.
Mandy and Mo