The Body Politic

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“You don’t have to agree with what I do with my body, but it’s my body.”- Betty Devoe

“The play has so many elements to it that when you try to explain it, you just can’t”. That’s the way panel host Isaac Gomez put it and the audience couldn’t agree more. Oppression, identity, victimization, ownership, freedom. These are the words audiences used to describe what ‘The House That Will Not Stand’ was about.

On July 1, Victory Gardens was joined by Betty Devoe, the co-founder of the Sex Workers Outreach Project Chicago, a Chicago based Dominatrix, independent feminist porn producer, sex worker, and owner of Devoe Productions, and Cruel Valentine, an award-winning, international burlesque entertainer and adult model in a special panel, an under explored post-show conversation demystifying myths and shedding light to sex work and sex trafficking in our world today, and so the Body Politic panel began.

“I imagine it can be very empowering and very disempowering at the same time” Devoe said when asked about the plasage system she then brings the idea to today’s situation with sex work. She talks about how both relate to this idea of survival for the person “what other choices do you have?”. “It was kind of the first example of woman being able to use sex work to raise status.” Relating it to empowerment of today while at the same time Cruel Valentine compares it to how sex work at times is seen as an act of survival. Seeing this as the evolution of sex work going for survival to choice

“Sex work is emotional labour” Valentine replies when asked about how sex work has translated and evolved from the time of ‘The House That Will Not Stand’ to today. Our panelist then begin to point out the interesting point that everything in this world is transactional, bringing up the idea that even in a monogamous relationship sex is transactional, even if neither partner identifies as a sex worker.

Where are we now, in terms of sex work?
Devoe talks about how the nation is very divided on sex work. Devoe compares it to another hot button issue in the nation, but one we talk about; abortion: “It’s your body, your choice”, Devoe talks about how sex worker activist are changing attitudes of many people they have encountered while working with SWOP. “You don’t have to agree with what I do with my body, but it’s my body. I have a Right to do with it what I want”.

Afterwards the floor was open to audience questions where we debunked myths about pimps, family of sex workers, and independent workers.

As we wrapped up the night, Host Isaac Gomez asked what the audience would walk away with. One Patron said he would be leaving with the question. “What if we had more open talks about Sex Work? Where could we go with that?”, leaving the theatre and this powerful conversation with the simple question of; what if.

#LEMONADE #blackgirlmagic

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Written by Preston Choi, Literary & Public Programs Assistant

The King of Cups. The Six of Pentacles. The Page of Swords.
From these three tarot cards Jasmine Barber divines that a giving and taking is in order.
This is true not just for the person getting their cards read, but for the Victory Garden’s lobby as a whole.

On Thursday June 30th, #Lemonade, a celebration of black girl magic took place at Victory Gardens. The lobby swelled with audience members and artists, creators and witnesses side by side. The painting pictured above began at the start of the evening as an outline in the sketchbook of Tita Thomas, but as the event began to gather steam, so did her painting. Paint smeared, water poured, and by the end of the night a blank canvas became a dialogue between Beyonce’s album and and the women artist’s work being done in the theater.

At a nearby table Jasmine Barber read people’s cards, tarot cards. A form of divination dating back hundreds of years, for the purposes of guidance and understanding. She mutters the inquirer’s question under her breath as she shuffles the cards before she reveals them to her eager audience. Not too far away, up a flight of stairs, another spiritual service was being provided. Angelique Nelson gave Reiki massages, quietly away from the crowd. The Reiki healing technique involves the channeling of energy into the patient by means of touch, to activate natural healing processes.

As black girl magic was seen and felt, so was it heard. The first to the mic was Ireon Roach, First Place in the 2016 August Wilson Monologue Competition, who in 30 minutes that day, had created a spoken word piece for the evening titled ‘Speak’. “This energy doesn’t come easy,” a simple yet powerful phrase, one of many within her stream of consciousness.

Kristiana Rae Colón performed after; Colón recently had her play “florissant & canfield” in VG’s reading series. Among her words, a quote, ‘just because we’re not magic, doesn’t mean we’re not real’. An echo to the recent speech given by Jesse Williams at the BET awards. While Ireon’s words spoke from the world of young women, Kristiana spoke from the experience of a grown woman; A slow burning bonfire in contrast to the verbal spitfire fireworks.

The night ended in song and call and response led by Kiara Lanier. The music began and she started barefoot, taking out her birth control pills and leaving them behind in a pile of dirt. Then grabbing the mic her voice serenaded the room, calling on them to speak with her, sing with her. A clap rhythm began and all energy focused in, together.

The song came to a close, the last cards were shuffled, and with the painting finished, The House That Will Not Stand was ready to begin. From the contemporary to the historical, #blackgirlmagic is alive and thriving and beautiful.

The Truth About Color

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(From left to right) Moderator and Literary Manager, Cast: Penelope Walker, Diana Coates, Aneisa Hicks, Angela Alise, Jacqueline William, and Lizan Mitchell

Written by Hannah Greenspan, Literary & Public Programs Assistant

Color: light, dark, period.

Oxford English Dictionary defines colorism as prejudice or discrimination against individuals with a dark skin tone, typically among people of the same ethnic or racial group.

Colorism has a long history in the United States, with its roots tracing back to slavery. Slave owners typically gave preferential treatment to slaves with fairer complexions by allowing them to work in tasks that were far less grueling than darker skinned slaves.

“There is an attached value and status that comes with hue. All of these things have weight on the content of your character, which are all based on hue.” -Jacqueline Williams (Makeda)

Lizan Mitchell, who plays the matriarch, Beartrice in The House That Will Not Stand, discussed her upbringing in North Carolina and the struggles she saw and experienced within the community between having light or dark skin. It’s important that we try to find the root of it, so we can discuss it, heal from it, and move on.

“She’s pretty for a dark skinned girl”, is a comment that sums up colorism for Angela Alise, who portrays Maude Lynn.

How can we become more aware of colorism in our society? How can we become allies and help other people of color regarding colorism?

Colorism is something that is still unfortunately, very present in our society. It’s something that is closer than we think, and closer than we’d like to admit.

There’s a brief moment in the play where Agnes tells the youngest sister, Odette the truth and the reality about her value based on her skin tone, and that moment was particularly challenging to work on during the rehearsal process, according to the cast.

For the actress who portrays Odette, Aneisa Hicks explains that performing that scene every night is tough. When she first read the script, Aneisa knew that scene was going to be hard on her because colorism is something that she deals with everyday. She further elaborates on how she sometimes feels less than when she is with her lighter skinned friends. But by performing this scene every night, Aneisa is bringing this topic to the forefront.

Before the conversation came to an end, Isaac Gomez, our moderator and Literary Manager at Victory Gardens, asked the audience to just think about how we carry ourselves in a group setting.

Who are we addressing first? And why are we addressing this specific person first? Is it because they are just physically closer to me? Or is it because they have a lighter skin tone? In what ways do we see our own unconscious bias based on skin color?

We may not have been able to solve colorism today, but we all left with knowing that this was a conversation worth having and worth continuing.

TOWN HALL: CASTING NOTICE

A community gathering on race & casting
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Watch the Facebook Live videos: https://www.facebook.com/victorygardens/
Follow our Twitter: @victorygardens or with the hashtag #castingnotice

Last night, Victory Gardens Theater hosted a Town Hall conversation centering on race and casting attended by 250 artists and arts leaders in the Chicago community that began with a panel conversation before opening the floor as an open forum for asking hard questions and sharing best practices and actionable takeaways.

Our panel consisted of moderator Morgan Greene (Chicago Tribune), Monty Cole (Artistic Programs Manager, Victory Gardens Theater), Emjoy Gavino (Founder and Producer, The Chicago Inclusion Project), Bear Bellinger (Performer, Activist), Adam Belcuore (Associate Producer and Director of Casting, Goodman Theatre), and Sandra Delgado (Actor, Playwright and member of the Alliance of Latino Theater Artists in Chicago).

This journey is a long one and we are thankful for our community and their willingness to share thoughts and engage in this necessary conversation. The following is a transcript of last night’s conversation in four sections:
1. How do we define casting?
2. What are some problematic and effective practices?
3. Short term solutions for improving the system?
4. Open questions and responses from artists present.

How do you define the act of casting:

  • Adam: For me casting is a design profession…that you have an opportunity to design a vision…to find the resources to help tell the story. It’s a collaborative field, and you can bring a creative and thoughtful and responsible approach to that, but I think it’s a design profession, much like your set, lights…
  • Monty: Casting is like…imagining a bunch of alternate universes…in which each actor that comes in could be that part, could be the lead, could be the supporting role, whatever… and depending on everyone on the team, the ultimate production will be the manifestation of one of those universes.
  • Bear: I almost think of casting as gatekeepers – who decides who gets in the room even in the first place. That lens is powerful but we don’t talk about it often enough.
  • Emjoy: Casting is the liaison between director and people you’re ushering into the production. Most often I think of myself as an advocate.
  • Sandra: Casting for me is being part of a small theatre company…for twenty years, and when I first branched out of Collaboraction I realized I…was in this Latina box. Casting is getting a call from a theatre company you’ve wanted to work with forever and they say, ‘We’re doing a farce’ and you saying, ‘Ooh wow I’ve never done a farce before!’ and them saying, ‘We’re thinking of going Latina with the maid’ and you saying, ‘No…’”

Problematic and Effective Practices:

  • Bear: I will read the entirety of every script I’m called in for to know the context and whether I feel comfortable being true to that story. We all love the idea that we can all play any role but the stage picture itself matters, especially in representing other cultures.
  • Monty: Each company should have its own set of values. When a company doesn’t have diversity in their mission, it’s reflected in their production history. There needs to be an initial conversation between playwright/director/AD and then the casting director gets to work.
  • Sandra: There is a brainwashing that white is the default. There’s an assumption that characters listed in cast breakdowns without a specific ethnicity are white. What I’d like to see is what’s in our DNA – making theatre a reflection of the world I see when I walk outside.
  • Monty: When is it right for white people to be in the play? When is it problematic for people of color to be in it? What helps the story?
  • Emjoy: I ask the director: “How diverse can we be? How fixed are you on this, this, and this? For example, these people have to be 24, these people have to look related. But nothing else is mandatory. That opens up a whole world.
  • Bear: There are some shows that are going to be white shows, and that has to be something we have to be okay with, and we have to say, ‘Okay, what else can we do now?’
  • Adam: Where is our unconscious bias? We need to be challenging our initial vision whenever possible, to see if it’s rooted in a set of assumptions that are antiquated. This needs to be talked about beyond the theater. When we’re at the bar having cocktails, can we talk about race? Can we talk about representation? I took a workshop on unconscious bias. That’s a helpful thing to learn about yourself!

Short-term solutions to improving the system:

  • Emjoy: What are the stories you’re telling, and how inclusive can that be? That’s the number one thing.
  • Bear: Who are the people in that room making those decisions? If you’re looking at your staff or your ensemble and it’s a bunch of white guys, there’s something wrong.
  • Monty: How do we find and support artists within the disability community? It’s amazing how little we know about the talent, and how hard it is to get the resources to find the talent.
  • Emjoy: We’re so fragmented that we don’t even know how to get to the artists, and they don’t know if we’re looking for them. If there are literally no people in this enormous city, in the country, then maybe look outside that community.
  • Monty: If you don’t have someone who can play the central role, don’t program that play. How properly are you representing this community by not doing it right?
  • Bear: Maybe we didn’t find someone with cerebral palsy to play that role, but then what are you doing to foster connections with that community? There should be at least one person in the room.
  • Sandra: You have to create your own content. A lot of institutions are just waking up, and they didn’t realize they were asleep.
  • Bear: The idea of starting a Minority Actor Database was that we all have people calling us saying, ‘Oh, I’m looking for an actress of this minority, of this race or background so we wanted to start a database of self-identification and let people opt-in to whatever they feel comfortable identifying as. Then we can use this to share with folks looking for these actors.
  • Bear: You self-identify…in a multiplicity of ways and then it gets filtered into a spreadsheet. Then casting directors and other folks can email chicagoaoc@gmail.com with what they’re looking for.
  • Emjoy: It’s more than just looking at an actor’s last name and thinking that maybe they’re of a certain race.
  • Bear: I’d say we are reflecting our future, not our past.
  • Adam: Casting isn’t the solution, necessarily…There’s diversity needed on many levels.

Open questions and responses from artists present:

  • Audience member to Sandra Delgado: Through Actor’s Equity EEO & Diversity committee, what are they doing to increase actual opportunities for actors of color other than one meaningless clause?
    • Sandra: Not enough. Hosting Shakespeare workshops, meet and greets with casting directors. We know the theaters that are behind the times. That’s something we’re working on.
  • Audience member: It’s not about authenticity, it’s about color. The first American I ever played was a month ago at the Goodman. And I’m an American. What the goal for a lot of people of color…is not when you’re looking for an Indian guy you look in a database and find him…but when you need a guy who’s in his late twenties who just graduated from law school, that’s when we get called in. I want to get called in, and I don’t. And when it says Boyfriend, there are people in wheelchairs who are boyfriends. I was told I couldn’t audition for a play because they were only seeing Americans.
  • Audience member: But who is listening to the story? Who’s actively being mined and bussed into the audience?”
  • Audience member: We’re in the business of telling stories. You need to be able to tell those stories that are underrepresented.
  • Audience member: Advice to underrepresented artists who break ground in first production?
    • Emjoy: Stay strong.
    • Bear: Don’t be afraid to speak up. You have to find your people.
    • Monty: Lead by example.
    • Emjoy: To show that it’s possible for people who don’t know that it’s possible.
  • Audience member: I’ve been ten years in the game wondering what is my identity because so much of it has been hoisted on me. I am not just these surface labels and I had to decide that for myself and stand by it.
  • Audience member: There is also importance of mentoring. You can be a dark brown girl with natural hair and be a lover.
  • Bear: Keep growing your community. If I see another person of color at an audition who I don’t know, I’m going up and introducing myself.
  • Audience member: I keep asking myself, I don’t wanna be the difficult one, I don’t wanna talk out loud. You wanna do your artistry, but you can’t. If you wanna know about a Latino playwright, go to their plays! Support smaller theater companies who’ve been doing this work for years. We need to be seeing each other’s plays.
  • Bear: We can continue to be the marketing team. On supporting work that’s doing it right. Word of mouth matters.

The conversation around race and casting is ongoing. As with everything else, possible outcomes are determined on an individual basis and in providing this platform for artists to share, discuss, and question the role they play in the casting process, we hope individual artists will continue the dialogue and lead charges and initiatives that will bring us closer to a more equitable state in casting and beyond.

Imperative Ephemera

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(Left to Right) Cast Members Kelli Simpkins, Patrese D. McClain, and Mike Tepeli
Written by Bea Cordelia, Literary & Public Programs Intern

Well, it was an excellent turnout Thursday night at Backstage at the Biograph: Breathing Life into a New Play—a free sneak peek into the rehearsal process of the world premiere of Sarah Gubbins’ electrifying new play Cocked.  The moment before, the actors joked with each other in the corner, bubbling with excitement, as various Victory Gardens staff members scrambled to pack more than fifty chairs into the rehearsal room.  Cocked Dramaturg and VG Literary Manager Isaac Gomez introduced the event, and Cocked Director and VG Associate Artistic Producer Joanie Schultz set the stage.

Then: the performance.

Or better: the rehearsal.  There were still a full seven days before Cocked went into previews, and another fifteen until opening night.  Sarah had still been feverishly editing the script, churning out new pages in the middle of rehearsals, and would continue to do so after this particular evening, meaning even the following here-publicized excerpt of the play was not guaranteed immunity.  Of course, theater practitioners practicing what they do—the realization of their art never quite existing in the same way more than once, the deep melancholy of taking bows after the final performance of any given production—the Cocked cast was no stranger to ephemera.

In Scene 2 of the play, corporate attorney Taylor and her ex-con brother Frank bicker like children over his unwelcome and unanticipated presence in her home, leaving Taylor’s crime beat reporter girlfriend Izzie to feebly mediate between the two.  At once politically sharp and delightfully biting, the scene quickly had the audience in stitches.

Isaac started the panel conversation, asking how the actors would essentialize the play.

“It’s not a gun play,” Mike Tepelli, playing Frank, began, in response to the popular misconception of the show.  “It raises a lot of questions about what it feels like to be safe in modern America, and what it feels like to be lonely.”

“It is a play about armor, in many ways, about protection…and about weapons being at the epicenter of our relationships,” Kelli Simpkins, playing Taylor, followed.

Sarah Gubbins had some larger theoretical thoughts about the piece:

“…I’m very interested in the idea of the materiality of thought, the materiality of belief, the ways in which our emotional truths, the tenets of how we ought to believe in the world—those are intangible, but I do believe those thoughts can gain materiality in the world… There is a physical ramification to thinking differently.”

Patrese D. McClain, playing Izzie, suggested, “When circumstances and people collide we ask, Are those our boundaries, or are those what we’ve been conditioned to think?

Sarah began writing Cocked in 2012; the world was a different place then.  The infamous Aurora movie theater and Newtown elementary school shootings both took place in 2012, but since then we’ve seen the explosion of activism around Black Lives Matter and confronting police brutality, harrowing video footage of too many executions, more rampant Islamophobia than ever, the continued genocide of trans women of color, and the list goes on.  In a country that boasts its valuation of individuality, the United States has become a veritable battleground for those who are different.

“I believe in the power of thought to change society,” said Sarah. “I have no assumption of improving the city, or the theater district.  I would love, and humbly so, if audience came to this, and really sat with this—sat with the performances, and sat with the beautiful thoughtful design, and sat with the integrity of the direction—and walked around with them.”

True to her words, it has been an enormously collaborative process.  In fact, the majority of the rehearsal room has been in it for the long haul: Joanie and Kelli first became acquainted with the play at its inception, and Patrese in November for a workshop reading of it.

“You have a trust, and it really helps to check the panic and terror,” added Sarah on her relationship with the actors.

“As an actor, the trust is so important for you to expose yourself for you to get to your best work,” replied Patrese. “Sometimes things are ugly, and that’s okay.”

Kelli referred to bringing a world premiere to the stage as “a gift and an honor.”

And in the context of premiering a play so engaged in gender, race, and class politics—and at a theater acting “in direct response to what’s happening in the world,” as Isaac asserted, Victory Gardens can truly “change the world one play at a time.”

It is not easy work, but VG “tries to cultivate an audience who want to invest themselves in the risky work that we do,” Joanie stressed.

Based on the audience size Thursday night, the work is well underway.

Catch Cocked February 12th through March 13th.

Afterwords Afterthoughts: One Inspires Many

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Written by Samantha Mueller, Literary & Public Programs Intern

Following our Friday night show of SUCKER PUNCH, Victory Gardens was fortunate enough to be joined by members of Dare2tri paratriathalon club to celebrate the accomplishment of athletes with disabilities. Moderated by Dare2tri’s executive director Keri Serota, the panel was also translated into American Sign Language.

One thing that emerged very quickly, while the athletes were introducing themselves, was the serendipity of meeting Keri Serota. Andrea Walton commented “it seems like everyone has their Keri story” before going on to explain she happened to be at a gym telling a stranger that she wanted to do a triathlon when Keri turned around and introduced herself.

Serota explained that Dare2tri strives to take away any excuse that someone might have to avoid doing a triathlon. Not an athlete? Dare2tri welcomes anyone, novices to elite athletes. With athletes as young as 6 years old, Dare2tri provides coaching staff equipped to train athletes with a wide range of disabilities. They also provide the special adaptive equipment needed. This includes racing chairs for the running portion and hand cycles for the bicycling section. And yes – that means for some athletes, they do the entire triathlon on upper body strength alone. Alberto Guzman explained that for athletes with visual impairment like him, this means they complete the triathlon with a guide who is trained by the Dare2tri staff.

But beyond the staff and equipment, Dare2tri provides community.

“You know who your true friends are when they’re there to support you at the beginning of the race at 6am.”

The slogan for Dare2tri reflects this community atmosphere. It’s easy to see how “one inspires many” can branch out into a community all inspiring each other. Athlete Biz Gauthier said that her proudest moments are at the finish line when the Dare2tri community is present and cheering her on.

Dare2tri seems to more than simply achieving their mission “to positively impact the lives of athletes with physical disabilities and visual impairments by developing their skills in paratriathlon.” They seem to be pioneering the field.

An audience member talked briefly about how the sporting in Sucker Punch seemed to have negative impact on Leon and Troy, the athletes in the play. However, the athletes from Dare2tri said that across the board, none of their relationships had been negatively impacted since they decided to join the Dare2tri community. In fact, the experience of the panel was opposite to the experience of Leon and Troy. Guzman and Gauthier both spoke to strengthened relationships with their sisters. “She was at a party, bragging about me to all of her friends,” Guzman said. He is looking forward to seeing his family in Puerto Rico and completing a triathlon with them cheering him on.

He also spoke to the confidence that Dare2tri has given him due to his newfound level of fitness. Competing in triathlons is how he is fighting against his family history of heart issues. “I am the healthiest I have ever been in my life,” he said. “I am working out six days a week. Every week. I am quite proud of that. Keeping that goal.”

Athletes feel truly supported by the organization. Andrea Walton commented that she felt the proudest when she received a road bike, made to fit her. She was humbled that so many people came together to fundraise a piece of equipment made specifically for her to use. “Having the right bike shaved 15 minutes off of my time. Immediately,” Walton said.

Not only have their relationships to their friends and family been strengthened, their ability to know their own self has also gotten stronger. Biz Gauthier commented “every athlete, like Leon in this play, has an interior voice… knowing yourself is a really important part of any athletic venture.”

Across the board, the athletes spoke to a better understanding of themselves.

Their advice for other athletes, whether able-bodied or disabled?

“It’s not one ninety-minute race; it’s ninety one-minute races,” Kendall Gretsch said of her time in triathlons. While you might have a bad minute, or several bad minutes, it shouldn’t dictate the entire race. “You have to feed off of [your adrenaline]” whether you’re completing the triathlon to get on the podium or just to have a personal accomplishment. Other athletes spoke to the idea of feeding off of the energy and adrenaline present during a race.

“Sometimes we think of triathletes as Greek gods,” Gauthier commented. “But triathlons are really so doable.”

And now that they’ve completed their first triathlons? One athlete seemed to sum up the feelings of the entire panel.

“I’m excited to see what I can do. I’m not sure what that is yet, but I am excited!”

 

Afterwords Afterthoughts: Systems at Play

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Written by Samantha Mueller, Literary & Public Programs Intern

Yesterday evening following the Sunday matinee performance of Sucker Punch, Victory Gardens was fortunate enough to create a space to discuss the intersection of race and sports. We were fortunate enough to be joined by Dr. Tanya Prewitt-White, a sports psychologist and professor at Adler University, and Shannon Ryan, a sports reporter at the Chicago Tribune.

Isaac Gomez, the moderator for the evening and also the Victory Gardens Literary Manager, began the discussion the way he begins most post-show discussions.

Say you receive a phone call from a friend on the way out of the theater and the friend asks you what Sucker Punch was about. In a few words, what do you say?

The audience – including our panelists who joined us for the performance – quickly found themselves on the same page about the themes of the play.

Fighting. Family. Competition. Race.

Racism.

It’s a common answer in these post-show discussions, one with which Roy Williams, the playwright, would agree. Sucker Punch is set against the 1980’s Brixton Riots in London, a time when racial tensions were high and racial inequity was not only socially accepted, but legislatively enforced. That answer also brought us to the main focus of our talk.

Our panelists spoke about the research they have been involved in or written about on the topic. Ryan explained a study carried out by Ithaca College’s James Rada*, in which he found NFL sportscasters to speak about physical qualities in black athletes, but tended to speak of intellect in white athletes. In Rada’s follow up study in 2005, he found that comments of intellect in black athletes were negative comments. “Again, these are real scientific studies,” Ryan said.

Prewitt-White spoke to this sentiment as well. “Minority athletes – they’re having to prove their intelligence,” she said, speaking also to her own personal experience while counseling athletes of color.

At that point in the conversation, only a few minutes in, was there a question from the audience. “I’m not sure why we have to talk about these athletes in terms of race,” the patron began. He continued on to wonder why we couldn’t treat people as individuals in these cases. “I feel like the way we began this post-show is not fair. The fact that this conversation was focused solely on black athletes was, in my opinion, racist.”

In that moment, the ability to use a play as a catalyst to talk about the world we live in, was exemplified. What started as a panel discussion became a true conversation among our rather diverse talk-back attendees, ranging in age and race.

A second audience member pointed out several moments in the play that displayed overt racism. We were reminded again of the race-based legislature during the Margaret Thatcher era that provides the backdrop for the play. “It’s not about water fountains anymore, it’s about systems.”

Another audience member touched upon the media’s response to America’s black president. “When we have a white president, that’s just normal. He’s just called the president. Yes, we have a black president, but we are reminded of that every day.”

Between the original two audience members to speak:

“Maybe I just don’t see it, but I am trying to learn”

“I know you are, and I’m going to try to explain it to you.”

Our panelists gave us more insight into the systems at play. “For anyone interested in learning more about this topic, I would recommend Forty Million Dollar Slaves, a book by William Rhoden,” Prewitt-White said. The book breaks down the framework that black athletes find themselves fighting against.

Ryan brought her own research into the conversation. She spoke to the declining number of African-American coaches, even the number of African-American assistant coaches that are denied the ability to move up in the ranks, with teams hiring new head coaches instead of promoting. She commented on the methodology used by teams when decisions like this are made: “they say [the black assistant coaches] are really good at recruiting, they’re incredible at their jobs, but they might not have field experience” thus becoming a new kind of racism.

Isaac Gomez referenced Viola Davis’s 2015 Emmy Speech. “The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity.” The dangerous thing about the lack of opportunity is that depending on your place in society, you may not even notice the inequity.

For Prewitt-White, it is important then to try to look outside of the space you occupy. “If I don’t acknowledge my white privilege, then I am not acknowledging other people’s struggles,” she said. And for the small amount of time we had following the show to discuss this topic, we carved out the space to talk about athletes of color where there usually isn’t the space.

I personally thought back to when director Dexter Bullard joined playwright Roy Williams after a performance for a conversation. Williams made a comment that has resonated with me ever since.

“Do plays have the ability to change the world?

Of course not.

But they can change people.”

Even if that means providing a space for audience members to be exposed to viewpoints different from their own and making it safe to be wrong in conversation. Yesterday, our audience left the theater having not only witnessed but also discussed. They also left with recommendations of books and studies to find. They left armed with the ability to learn and extend the conversation beyond the four walls of the theater.

Right before leaving the space, an audience member who had otherwise been silently listening through the discussion raised his hand. “Can I just say one last thing before we leave?” he asked.

He explained that he is Native American, and with his final two words, he exemplified how mainstream society can accept something deeply racist, how when we hold privilege we may not even notice the systems at play against a minority group.

“Washington Redskins.”

 

*For anyone interested, the original Rada study is titled Color Blind-sided: Racial Bias in Network Television’s Coverage of Professional Football Games, the follow up study is titled Color Coded: Racial Descriptors in Television Coverage of Intercollegiate Sports.

 

Afterwords Afterthoughts: Black Lives Matter; One Year Later

 

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Written by Ana Martinez, Literary and Public Programs Intern

After our show of Sucker Punch on September 30th, we had a stirring conversation about where we are as a society as we looked back on the last year of extroverted racial tension in this country. We were joined by panelist Nikki Patin and moderator Ashley Roberson who had great insight on this topic. The other two panelists were Maurice Demus and Denzel Love, who play Leon and Troy in the show, respectively.

This was an extremely successful conversation about important topics, where patrons from all backgrounds stayed after the show and felt comfortable speaking up about their opinions and experiences. This led us to think back to a term that we hold dearly in this theater: Civic Dramaturgy. As defined by our Literary Manager here, Isaac Gomez, Civic Dramaturgy is, “a community’s response to the work as it relates to their everyday lives, inspired and buoyed by the art they experienced as a collective.”

It was incredible to see how safe people felt during this conversation, to feel free to say what they felt and express their concerns and ideas. This cross-racial, cross-generational crowd spilled out enough thoughts to stretch this conversation to over an hour! With other talk-back experiences I’ve had, when it comes to the topic of race and discrimination it seems to be that if you’re white you feel yourself to be in this uncomfortable position where you think, “I’m not black… so what am I allowed to say? Is my input even worth sharing? I have no idea how to interject into the conversation without feeling like I’m overstepping some sort of boundary.”

This discussion was nothing like that. This play took the place of a buffer, or even a catalyst for the conversation, if you will. Instead of having to share from personal experience, the audience found themselves being able to use the characters and situations in the play as a tool to talk about real-life issues. The fact that two of the panelists were leads in the show, I think, was also a huge reason as to why patrons felt so comfortable having this discussion. Here they are, having sat down at this theater for the past 2 hours of their lives, and now they get this opportunity to talk about what they just experienced with the people that took them on this journey.

You could tell this was the case by the way they would talk to Maurice or Denzel, and say things like, “Your character could’ve run off with the love of his life and avoided all this grief!” These laid-back comments then lead to deeper conversations. “Why Didn’t he stay with the love of his life? What if she would’ve left him? What if she got bored with him? What would he have done then? Would you give up your chance at success knowing that you might not get another chance because of your skin color?”

The conversation started with people immediately making the connection that the world that Leon and Troy lived in, which takes place in 1980’s London, was painfully similar to the world we live in now. One of the first comments came from a young, white male in the audience that commented how he was made aware of his white privilege in a very specific spot in this play. Troy says the words “I was scared without you,” after Leon leaves him to fend for himself in the middle of a riot with white cops. This young white man shared how that line resonated with him, because he’s never had to feel scared when met with police. He has never felt alone in that way. And to know that other people have felt that solitude really opened his eyes to what’s happening out there.

The conversation then led to how differently Leon and Troy handled the same situation they were in. Denzel compared their characters to Malcom X and Martin Luther King Jr.

“He’s fighting, but his way of fighting is to be successful.”

Denzel shares his views as to how Leon passively “fights” by making a name for himself.

“I’m not in the papers for busting up some cop, I’m in it because I’m successful at what I’m doing,” Maurice adds on, explaining how his character is trying to help out his community by painting himself in a better light, and in turn, painting his community under that light as well.

Nikki added that this MLK and Malcom X reference correlates with the Flight vs. Fight mentalities. Are you going to avoid the cops and go about your day, or are you going to aggressively fight back and push them out of your way? Another young white man in the audience then pointed out that both characters ended up choosing the “flight” option- Leon stays out of trouble and works to make a name for himself, while Troy flees to America to get away from it.

When Troy gets to America, he still ends up dealing with police brutality. When Leon becomes a famous Boxing Champion, he still gets criticized by the black community and deals with daily racism from everyone, including his trainer Charlie. The same audience member noted that they were back where they started, they didn’t escape anything. One played nice and it got him nothing. The other fought back, fled, and also got nothing.

A young black woman in the audience then added, “They’re forever in a system of exploitation, reinforcing stereotypes within an established system [boxing]. It’s all in this circle. I didn’t see any moment of breaking out.”

A young black man commented about Leon and said something along the lines of, “All you are is a body. Becky [Leon’s love interest] wanted sex, the boxing industry and Charlie were using you to make money, the police were only looking for another black boy to beat up. They were never a person, they were just a body.”

To which then Nikki replied with, “Sometimes there is no transcendence. Sometimes there is no way out.”

Another white audience member said, “The play ends with a defeat. The play still ends with a loss.”

Denzel laughs and retorts, “And I like that! Like you said, it stays in this system. We’re still living in this system.” It ends realistically; the problems of the world don’t get solved in an hour and forty-five minutes. The characters grew and progressed, but society didn’t miraculously get fixed out of nowhere.

Ashley wrapped up the conversation with one last question, “History is constantly repeating itself […] how can we put our history in writing to hopefully end this cycle?”

Denny had a cheerful answer, “I just put the team on my back. I know a lot of people can’t do what I do [i.e. have the opportunity to graduate from college], and I’m gonna represent them […] I’m gonna stay as black as I can! […] I’m gonna be me. If you don’t like my blackness… bye!”

Maurice said, “Being able to talk about this, have these discussions, it’s a start.” He added that it doesn’t matter how big or small the audience may be, what matters is that these discussions keep happening.

Nikki shared a story of how when she first started writing poetry, it was not well-received. The establishment did not want her there but, “I just kept showing up, and that’s how you succeed. I can sit home and cry (which I did sometimes), or I can keep writing. Show up even when they don’t want you to show up.”

But what resonated with me the most out of this entire conversation was what Nikki said about the Malcom X vs. Martin Luther King Jr. argument. She didn’t believe either one was the “right” answer. Physically fighting back will tear you apart, and playing nice and backing down will keep you silent.

“You have to be true to yourself, and that self-respect is really all you have.”

And that is a statement that you could tell hit every single person in that room, no matter the racial background.

Afterwords Afterthoughts: Of Race & Riots

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Written by Ana Martinez, Literary and Public Programs Intern

On Saturday September 26th, we had the wonderful opportunity to hear first-hand about Victory Gardens Theater’s production of Sucker Punch from Roy Williams (the playwright) and Dexter Bullard (the director). They provided insight about the process; from creation, to prior productions, to what they hope their work will accomplish.

Together, Roy and Dexter enlightened Saturday night’s audience with insider information on what their journeys have been like, not only as artists but as people in society.

“No blacks.

No Irish.

No dogs.”

 

Roy explains that this was a common saying he would hear while growing up in 1980’s London. He talked about how he was the child of two immigrant parents, who were both a part of the “Windrush Generation” that migrated after World War II.

“I was born in this country, but I was being treated like shit.”

When you hear of his background, there is no doubt why he thought it necessary to write Sucker Punch. The play (having the same backdrop as his adolescence), follows the story of a young, black boxer trying to climb his way to the top. In a time where violent riots sprouted constantly and Margaret Thatcher reigned for eleven years straight, it was difficult to be a black man.

“I recently saw Straight Outta Compton and I thought to myself, ‘I know what that’s       about.’”

Roy recalls what it was like walking down the street and being stopped by police for no reason, and even having those encounters turn violent every once in a while. He remembers feeling a lot of anger and frustration, which was the fuel for the writing process of his play.

He compared himself to the characters in his own creation,

“Sometimes I was Leon, I just wanted to fit in. Sometimes I was Troy and [there was] a   lot of anger [and] lashing out.”

Williams went on to talk about American Culture and compared it to London,

“There seems to be a lot of strong similarities. [They] Seem to be almost sort of parallel.”

He was comparing our tragedies and setting them next to each other. Trayvon Martin to us is Mark Duggan to them. The riots in Ferguson here were the 2011 England Riots over in London. He found these interchangeable devastations between countries and began to explore that.

Roy admitted fearing whether American audiences would understand this play and be able to look past the cultural differences. But when he thought about how tragically similar our worlds have become, he knew this story had the power to cut through any cultural clash.

“There were three big challenges that came with this play:

It’s culturally not American,

the boxing,

and the accents.”

Dexter laughed as he shared his own insecurities with the audience. But he went on to narrate his thought process on shaping this show,

“The audience is not stupid […] we’re gonna do it as is, and we’re gonna make them get   it.”

He expanded, he had an attack plan on how to tackle this play,

“Details is my favorite weapon as an artist.”

For example, there is a scene in the play that takes place on the same night as the Broadwater Farm Riots. Dexter explained that he, along with the VGT dramaturgy team, looked up details about that date; everything down to what the weather was like that night, as that information then educated the costume designs, sound designs, etc., and painted an accurate depiction of that night to the audience.

An audience member asked Roy how he felt about a white man directing his play. Roy expressed his indifference towards the topic,

“That’s not an issue to me, but do you [the director] get it [police brutality,           discrimination, etc.]?”

All Roy hopes for is to have artists who understand the gravity of this reality when his show is being worked on. If the story is being told with respect and with care; the director’s skin tone is an irrelevant piece to the puzzle.

As the night’s discussion was coming to an end, a patron asked Roy what his hopes were, regarding what his play could do to change things in our society. Roy’s reply will stick with me for a very long time:

“It [the play] plants a seed in their head and that’s all I can hope for. Can plays change     the world? Of course they can’t. But they can change people.”

That is why we all are attracted to this art form, is it not? There is no sense in over-romanticizing our powers and saying we can stop hate overnight. But when you know you have impacted a person through your art, that is when your heart is fulfilled. And vice versa: when you share work that fills your heart, that is when you captivate the hearts of others.

 

 

 

Afterwords Afterthoughts: The Intersection of Art & Religion

From left to right: Isaac Gomez (Literary Manager), Dr. Seema Imam (panelist) and Rohina Malik (panelist) explore the complexities around women and Islam.

From left to right:
Isaac Gomez (Literary Manager), Dr. Seema Imam (panelist) and Rohina Malik (panelist) explore the complexities around women and Islam.

Written by Talia Weingarten, Literary and Public Programs Intern

Following our Sunday matinee of “The Who and The What,”  Victory Gardens was fortunate enough to be joined by Rohina Malik and Dr. Seema Imam for “The Eyes Have It,” a town hall that explored the challenges and empowerment that stem from the wearing the veil by Muslim women, particularly in the context of Western society.

Ayad Akhtar’s “The Who and The What” paints a complicated portrait of what it means to be a woman in Islam. He grants the audience access into this commonly foreign conversation through universally accessible themes of family, loyalty, and religious exploration. Throughout main character Zarina’s journey to reconcile her religious devotion with her female empowerment, the veil is oftentimes portrayed as an oppressive garment rather than an empowering one. While the portrait Akhtar, along with director Ron OJ Parson and the incredible cast, renders is an exceedingly beautiful one, it is by no means the whole picture.  

Ms. Malik and Dr. Imam helped to expand the conversation by bringing their experiences with the veil and with being Muslim women that were not represented in the play into the space.

They spoke to the different Islamic origins for veil wearing that were not depicted in the play and reminded us that practitioners of many faiths that cover their hair (nuns, orthodox Jewish men and women, etc.). Ms. Malik stated that “the obsession with Muslim women wearing a veil is deeply offensive” and suggested that the persistent interrogation of veil-wearing by Muslim women is a racist act that perpetuates the demonization of Islam and oftentimes carries undertones of Western Savior complexes.

One thing that became quite clear very early on in the discussion is that it’s impossible to talk about or experience art in a vacuum. As Ms. Malik reminded us, “Islamophobia is very real in the world.” We live in a world where Islamophobia still courses through the blood of our nation, tormenting and terminating the lives of many innocent people. Ms. Malik and Dr. Imam both expressed concern over the portrayal of the veil as well as other aspects of Islam and Muslim identity in the production. Audience members who oftentimes enter the space with limited knowledge of the veil and the religion leave the theatre having experienced a very specific point of view, and now, perhaps, feel qualified to form their own opinions without ever seeking out further knowledge and first hand experiences.  Isaac Gomez, Literary Manager, reminded us that if you’re not careful, “when you engage in a conversation, about a religion that’s already attacked, you’re providing the ammunition.”

Multiple audience members chimed in to express that while the play might not showcase every relevant perspective, it peaked their curiosity, rather than condemnation, regarding the Islamic faith. One participant expressed his gratitude for the story and for those who share their religious beliefs: “When I see a radical southern baptist preaching on the corner, I may think to myself that’s not accurate biblically, but to him I say thank you.”

Minita Gandhi, the actress who plays Mahwish, posed the question: so where, then, does the responsibility of the playwright lie? Is the artist socially liable to tell the most politically correct or wholistic story if it is not the point of view they are interested in exploring or by which they stand?

What I took away from this viscerally alive dialogue was that art is a facilitator of richer dialogue and deeper communities, not the end of a conversation. We live in a world still battling intense intersectional oppression that tends to foster separation and condemnation (subconscious or not) between people who are different from one another. Art counteracts this habitualized isolation and suspicion by capitalizing on something so human that it transcends these internalized false barriers: empathy. It does not, and cannot, tell the full picture, and that is why public programs are mandated – to maximize the personal stakes that the art conjures and to propel the conversation forward through additional knowledge and perspectives.

Ms. Malik and Dr. Imam closed the program by urging the attendees to research and pursue further knowledge about the incredibly “beautiful, peaceful, logical, and simple” religion of Islam as well as how cultural influences color both various iterations and our own understandings about the faith. After all, knowledge is the best defense against hatred or apathy. Our inherent connectivity as humans is only deepened when we explore it through different lenses and with open hearts.

Rohina Malik’s critically acclaimed one Woman play,UNVEILED, explores the complexities of Islam through the perspective of five Muslim women in a post-9/11 world. UNVEILED has been performed by Malik nationwide, including at: Yale, NYU, Princeton, University of Chicago, and regional theaters such as Silk Road Rising & 16th Street Theater. We are excited to have Rohina’s one woman show at Victory Gardens Theater presented as a one-time-only performance throughout the run of The Who & The What on Wednesday, July 1st at 7:00 p.m.

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