FEBRUARY 2021 NEWSLETTER

A MESSAGE FROM JASON

I will never forget watching the 2004 Tony Awards as Ms. Phylicia Rashad accepted her Tony Award for her brilliant performance in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. With this win Ms. Rashad became the first African American Actress to win a Tony for Best Actress in a Play. This was 2004!?!?! Her words were simple but spoke volumes to a larger picture and met the moment of a female African American Actress in the American Theatre finally being recognized. In high school the month of February was dedicated to the celebration and study of Black Theatre History. I was introduced to the works of August Wilson, Langston Hughes, and James Baldwin to name a few. I was obsessed with The Piano Lesson. Years later I was given the chance to work with George C. Wolfe, Savion Glover, Audra McDonald, and Billy Porter in New York City on a new musical, Shuffle Along. With each experience I grew as an artist and, unbeknownst to me, also grew as a human. I am happy to celebrate Black History Month with the amazing articles in this newsletter, contributed by very talented artists who were gracious enough to share their voices with us.

A big thank you to PwJ friend Scot Reese for his insight and connections and Vanessa Martinez for cultivating this amazing group of authors.

I ask us all to continue to listen, learn, and grow. The arts are always the voice of change and we can make that change happen together.

Also, the rumors are true, and I do indeed turn 40 this week! I have to thank all of you for being on this crazy journey that is life with me! I am humbled to still be collaborating with so many gifted people and to have met so many incredible educators and students over the many years of doing this. Big thanks from me for your continued support of educational theatre and creating these one-of-a-kind opportunities. To the PwJ Team you have my love and respect for all you do.

Until next time,

Jason

Watch Phylicia Rashad’s Acceptance Speech

 



 

IS THE EQUITY AND INCLUSION IN THEATRE YOU ARE TEACHING NATURAL AND NECESSARY?

 

Author: Goldie Patrick

When I was 19 years old and a wide-eyed and radical acting and playwriting major at Howard University, a professor introduced me to a play that would dramatically change the trajectory of my career ambitions in theatre and challenge what I believed about the 11 years of theatre I learned in schools. We were in playwriting class. I excitedly presented my idea of writing a play about hip hop where the characters would rap and DJ on stage. I was connived this was revolutionary. I was right. But, I was also late to the idea. Instead, my professor, Sybil Roberts gently let me know that it had already been done before and by persons not that much older than me. I was elated and stunned.

Why hadn’t I heard of this hip hop theatre before now? How do I get more of it? Where can I find it? The answer was simple. It was being made in real-time around me and that meant I had the opportunity to grow and learn with and inside this budding genre of theatre. I sought out the founders and pioneers of hip hop theatre and sat at their feet as they built and developed this amazing genre. This genre of Hip Hop theatre is what my artistic life has largely been dedicated to since that one playwriting class. I’ve since been a professor of hip hop history and culture, sat on countless panels and workshops, worked in the nonprofit world around funding it, and I’ve written and produced several hip hop theatre plays. But, perhaps most importantly, I have worked with young people helping them learn and develop hip hop theatre of their own.

Now imagine what would’ve happened if instead when I announced my idea, my professor insisted that I try to model my work to be more like August Wilson (with whom I’d studied most of my life). or even worse, steered me in the direction of adopting more classical templates and works like Ibsen, Williams, or Shakespeare, so that I can have a “successful” career in playwriting.

Why am I telling you this story? Because as a teacher, mentor, or professor you have the opportunity to grow the possibilities of your students and their love and voice in theatre. You can do it by resisting the urge to prescribe the antiquated ideas of assimilation that have plagued most drama programs at every level across educational institutions in this country. White American theatre is not the normal, goal or blueprint that all theatre shall be made from. That idea is the basis for too many of the stolen dreams and creativity of BIPOC students in theatre. Now, this is the part where you read the rest of this article with your students out loud.

Theatre is yours (students). It is not for the elite and meant to be easily digestible. Quite the contrary. It is supposed to be delicious and irresistible but, at its very best, theatre is the most uncomfortable healing space one can imagine. The question is who is supposed to be uncomfortable? The answer is radical but my sincere belief. The forces of power whether delusional, stolen, or oppressive powers should be constantly uncomfortable in theatre. The rigid ideas of how to write a play, how to behave in a theatre, and what is deemed valuable or classical work must be interrogated at every level until the heavy hand of white supremacy is vetted and edited out. Then we can all find ourselves and our voices in theatre.

I would even boldly suggest that as educators our greatest job is not to teach or prescribe, but rather to learn; from your students. Studies have shown that younger generations are living with more inclinations towards inclusivity and cultural competence and compassion. So, now we have the chance to put the next generation in head of the evolution of theatre to create the most innovative art imagined. Your duty is actually to believe in the power and genius of your students enough to never inhibit their journey. What does that look like in practice? I have some suggestions. They all bloom from the foundation that it’s time to create anew.

Lean into discomfort
Start but don’t center your realities. If you are white…you must say “I am white”. If you are CIS, you have to say, “I am CIS”. The list continues but in this way. This creates the space for the student who has been shamed for being “other” to find power in owning their identity. Once you say this, move out the way. Age and education don’t alway equal cultural understanding and knowledge, so if you don’t know, ask for suggestions on learning. And even if you learn more, be careful to not assume the role of expert from your research.

Modeling the, “We see you white American theatre” how can teachers move past their own inherent racial biases to leverage discomfort as the impetus for creation for the next generation of theatre-makers in February.

Learn yourself
Ask your students to candidly suggest “what they feel you need to know?” Ask your student to honestly express “what they believe they as students need to know?” Ask your students to define “what success means for them”, “what makes a play worth their time” and what stories and characters they know in their lives but have yet to see on stage. Once you get these answers search the vast cannon of Black theatre to find these plays. Remember Blackness is global.

Go beyond August Wilson, Hansberry, Nottage. These icons have a rich and valuable lineage that is recent and poignant. Remember racism is systemic in America so if you don’t know the playwrights that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. That means you haven’t found the source to find them. Think outside of traditional playwriting as inspiration and pick fruit from music, and blogs, and film and other Black creatives that are storytellers. Theatre is evolutionary so find new voices and inclusive voices.

Use politics as a premise
Have students contribute prompts for making new work based on the socio-political realities of their own lives. The Black Arts Movement is a great example of how politics of the Black community shape and inform the content of the theatre created.

Inclusivity is beyond showing up – it includes equity
No one story is more important than the other. So, make a home for devising in your teaching. Move beyond the culture of teaching that was used to teach compliance and order and instead see what your students create under the culture of liberation. There are several forms of devised, protest theatre, and guerrilla and ritual theatre aesthetics that are great blueprints for this. Encourage your students to create collectively and let it be messy and weird and unconventional.

History is a mixture of studying and radical imagination
Ask your students to imagine what this moment they are present in looks like when its discussed 20 years from now, 30, 40, and 50.

Don’t be whack!
Trust the judgment of your students. If they don’t like something don’t dismiss it easily, ask the difficult questions of why? This also helps them develop constructive analysis and critique for their work and their peer’s work. Create opportunities to develop articulation around aesthetics that they find engaging and interesting and culturally relevant. Theatre is historically uninviting and disenfranchising for Black, Indigenous and Persons Of Color, so honor and work to understand any positions or resistance around engaging in traditional theatre.

My genuine hope is that every student experiences a Professor Roberts. A teacher who listens and believes in them and their idea enough to lead them to the revolution happening around them. Professor Roberts is still in my life. She is a close friend, commrade and I have had the honor to produce several of her plays in my theatre company for Black women and girls. But, Professor Robert’s was able to have that impact on me because she lived and learned the very ideas of innovation, intersectionality, and revolution she was teaching. I encourage you all to do the same. As we live more in our own individual practices of inclusion, equity and social and racial justice, teaching it in theatre is both very natural and necessary. Onward.



 

 

BAD TEACHER

Author: LeVonne Lindsay

“After I received word of my promotion to full professor this past June — a day after my 39th birthday — I decided to text my friends rather than post the news on Twitter. One of them asked how I was celebrating. I told her that I wasn’t yet. Instead, I was making a list of all the people who had tried to destroy my career.” –​Marlene Laut,​ ​Becoming Full Professor While Black​.

Professor Laut’s opening paragraph from her article in The Chronicle of Higher Education hit like a direct punch to the gut. Her experience was a painful reminder of my tenure process at a primarily white institution in Central Virginia. Unfortunately, there was no moment of triumph at the end of my story.

I will admit, I was ambivalent about becoming a full-time academic in the mountains of Virginia, but I was desperate to get back to Washington DC after spending five years teaching in rural Georgia. I thought a two-hour commute might just be close enough. I couldn’t shake the feeling the job was setting me up for failure. I was the only woman of color in the theater department, and the only faculty member asked to teach classes outside of their expertise. I was a costume designer with a background in fashion teaching Intro to Theater to non-majors. One of my design courses required an entire section on both scenic and lighting design. Unsurprisingly, I was not an exceptional lecturer on subjects I had cursory knowledge about. However, it was clear that some of my students held highly racialized perceptions of my intelligence. My student evaluations were abysmal. I was labeled as a “bad teacher” for talking about the history of racist practices on Broadway, Black theater, or even deducting points on papers for poor spelling or grammatical errors.

My tenured colleagues offered little support. One professor who came to observe my class claimed I had no control over my classroom just because I chose not to close the door. In production, he accused me of failing to meet non-existent deadlines. When I pushed back on feedback that I could prove was unfair, biased, or demonstrably false, I was reprimanded for being uncooperative. A committee member blatantly confessed she would not have been granted tenure if held to the same criteria and invited me to dinner at her home. ​Yet she signed the letter assessing all my contributions as unsatisfactory just the same. ​I was working under the good faith that my peers would evaluate me on the merits of my work and as a new instructor almost entirely out of her element. I had been wildly naive.

The process of applying for tenure at that institution nearly broke me, so I resigned. It made me question everything I knew about myself and the measures of success. Until that moment, I was fundamentally unfamiliar with the concept of failure. I graduated high school at the top of my class, went to college on a full academic scholarship, and then five years later, my graduate application to the University of Maryland, my top choice, was accepted immediately. After that, I won a distinguished fellowship at Arena Stage in Washington, DC, and was awarded for showing exceptional promise and leadership in my field. Despite all of my accomplishments, I currently work in a staff position with a base pay of $40,788 in Philadelphia, the country’s 6th largest metropolitan area. In a good year, with additional adjunct teaching and freelance work, I might clear just over $55,000. I take full responsibility for the choices I made based on the knowledge, resources, and opportunities available to me at the time. When I see tenure-track positions open in red areas across the country, I don’t regret how my situation played out for a moment. What I am saying is that I have been some places, I have seen some things, and I know this much is true:

If you are a Black student in a theater department with no full-time or tenured black professors, you are bound to run into some problems. If your administrators hire but cannot retain BIPOC full-time professors, it is most likely because they are not making adequate space for them to succeed in your department. They may be allowing saboteurs to derail their success or putting them in situations where they are almost certain to fail. If they refuse to acknowledge the unique challenges facing you as students at primarily white institutions and cannot provide the support they need, remain steadfast in believing that hiring more BIPOC teachers will alleviate that problem.

It is undeniable there are fewer BIPOC in theater design and technology who are also pursuing careers in academia. We are also apprehensive about relocating to unwelcoming or unsafe areas where many of these jobs are located. Your administrators will translate this predicament into the belief they cannot find qualified candidates. Often they are holding them to higher standards than white professors with equal or inferior credentials. If you ask for better representation, do not allow them to offer you this excuse without demanding greater transparency about their hiring and recruiting practices. I served on numerous search committees and diversity councils when I was an assistant professor. When you check off two boxes for them as a woman and an ethnic minority, that is what you get assigned to do. I have seen people hired by manipulating recommendations in favor of our preferences. I have served on a committee that preferred a guest artist with Asian heritage and an Ivy League education over an equally qualified Latin-American candidate to direct a Lorca play. I have witnessed white faculty begrudgingly accept promotions delivered by organizational shifts in the department with no job search conducted whatsoever. What I have never seen is I have never in my life seen a BIPOC candidate in a tenure-track position who got there with a questionable resume.

The reality is that most BIPOC in academia are required to be ​more​ accomplished than the average white candidate just to get their foot in the door. We have all been told to be practitioners of the “twice as good” philosophy. ​Black men and women account for less than 5 percent of all full-time faculty members at colleges and universities in the United States​. Yet, we continue to see a great deal of hand-wringing over the possibility that somebody may hire a less qualified Black candidate over a white one. The decades of mediocrity created by departments where the vast majority of the faculty is white rarely comes into question. White administrators repeatedly ask BIPOC candidates to meet on an equal playing field while turning a blind eye to all of the hurdles placed in their path. None of us want to be hired based solely on the color of our skin. We are only asking for the much-needed perspective an all-white faculty cannot provide, including the implicit bias ingrained in their hiring and promotion practices.

Despite what you may see, the BIPOC adjuncts, guest artists, and staff members who make their way to your campus do not want to be paraded around as proof of your department’s commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. They are not there to photograph so that your school’s promotional or recruiting materials can give a false impression of their workforce’s racial composition. It is appalling for others to take credit for our visible presence while subjugating us to minor, temporary, powerless roles. Hiring POC as guest artists, lecturers, designers, and directors to work on your designated productions featuring marginalized people’s struggle is quite frankly ​the very least​ that they can do. Universities that are genuinely committed to their Diversity and Inclusion statements must start investing their money and efforts into engendering real and immediate structural change. Until that happens, all that they are offering is lip service. Until we begin to see progress, BIPOC students, staff, and faculty alike have the right to call them out on their fraud.

I don’t know how my story ends or what big news I’ll have to post on Twitter one day. I could have let my situation break me, but I picked up my pieces and persevered instead. ​Continuing my professional and artistic development is instrumental in forging the way for others to follow. As a Black woman, educator, and designer, it is my responsibility to pave the way for others to break down the barriers that stood in my way. My constant objective is to inspire those who feel unseen or undervalued in the theater industry. I want students to use their creative skills not only as a means for careers as successful theatre artists but also as tools that can ultimately change the world. The revitalization of the theater arts weighs upon our shoulders. We stand at the precipice of an era that could induce sweeping, radical changes in our power structures. It is time to take that final leap.

 



 

CREATING DURING THE PANDEMIC

A Recipe for Art & Devising with the
Local Community

Author: Anastasia Wilson

COVID-19 has had a detrimental impact on the arts. Many artists found themselves without work, without an artistic home to frequent, without human contact, and without an outlet to share. Citizens found themselves adapting quickly and frequently to an ever changing climate with no sign of a conclusion to the shifts. Modes of relaxation and community were largely unavailable to people. The world seemed as if the flames of isolation were smoldering. Underneath all of the ash of 2020, citizens still had a need for community, and artists found themselves with an ember that would not extinguish and that is the impulse to create and feel alive, no matter what. My long time devising colleague Rachel Hynes and I knew there was an opportunity here.

Rachel and I have both created, devised, performed and trained all over the globe, and we were eager to get back in touch with our devising roots and explore what was evolving into the new age of theatrical experiences. We formed Joy & Pang Productions and got to work. We sought a virtual performance that embodied the visceral, energetic, and multi sensory experience of seeing a play and being in the space with others. We then devised Love Story: A Meal in Five Courses.

Love Story: A Meal in five courses was our ​opportunity to connect to people during the quarantine. The Covid-safe, online performance, invites the audience to collaboratively tell a multi-sensory love story through a fine dining experience. We had a test run as part of the Interface Lab in the summer of 2020. We sold out in 14 days. We extended. We sold out again within 48 hours. Because our performance was virtual, we connected with people all over the globe. One thing was clear, people were longing for the live experience and for connection. We had uncovered a way to augment the live theatrical experience and still make it every bit as palpable to the audience. Not only that, the audience became a crucial performer during this virtual experience. Based on its initial successful run, we decided that Love Story: A Meal in Five Courses needed another run. We decided to enhance the production and find a way to involve the community in more unique ways. D​evised theatre typically involves the performers and designers creating a piece from nothing but an idea or impulse. No script. No text. Nothing but an idea. Often the designers and artists are in the room creating together, from day one. Our enhanced “couture theatre” experience, Love Story: A Meal in Five Courses does just that.

Rachel and I asked ourselves, how do we reconnect people with not only themselves, but their community? The next iteration of the show (opening March 2021) will now involve a collaboration with the business community. We seek a partner restaurant to whom we will drive business. The goal is that they will supply a curated box to all audience members that will be delivered to their doorstep just before the performance and incorporated into their interactive sensory experience. Devising requires the designers and performers to be creating together. Being able to make the community a part of the artistic process and performance is another way to continue to expand upon not only what devised theatre can do, but also redesign how it can connect people. The new stage is digital but every bit as connected and immersive as live theatre.

Love Story: A Meal in Five Courses brings the theatre to the comfort of your home and shines a gentle and inviting spotlight on the audience. Involving local restaurants allows people to connect with neighborhood vendors. It also supports another industry that saw devastating effects from the pandemic. Through art and this unique piece, people are able to share, support one another, and give back to their community. This is the expansive power of the arts. There is magic in developing a production for stage and film, but when a production is created through devising, it is alchemy.

Find out more about Love Story: A meal and Five Courses by following Joy & Pang Productions on Instagram @Joyandpangproductions. Learn more about Rachel Hynes, Anastasia Wilson, and ticket information.



 

A VOICE TO THE VOICELESS

Author: Joshua R. Lamont

There are a million reasons to pursue a career in the arts. Many of those reasons often deal with what “I” can get out of it. Fame. Fortune. Meeting cool people. Being seen…. Ahh there it is. Being seen. A lot of the reasons why I first started acting was because I wanted to be seen. I wanted people to see me. See my talent. See my work ethic. See that I’m valuable. The theater has and continues to provide that for me. But there was another thing that working in the theater provided. It allowed me to see the community I serve.

While studying at the University of Maryland, College Park, I had a professor tell me that as actors, we give voice to the voiceless. I never understood what she meant until I started producing my own work. In 2011, I collaborated with Company of Angels on the piece FATIGUED. FATIGUED looked at the repercussions the Iraq/Afghanistan war has had on American soldiers, their families, and the communities they lived in. The piece targeted military veterans and included several talkbacks with service men and women. During one particular talkback, a young man dressed in all black with hair covering his face rose his hand to speak. He was soft-spoken but intense. He said that this was his first outing with his friends and that he could finally tell them about what happened when he was overseas. He had been deployed but never really returned. He couldn’t or wouldn’t talk about his experiences because it was too much, but after seeing our play, he wanted to talk.

In 2016, I helped to produce the Los Angeles production of #Every28Hours. The production was a part of a nationwide initiative that was spearheaded by the One-Minute Play Festival, The Ferguson Movement, and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. #Every28Hours had 72 one-minute plays and included more than 60 artists from Los Angeles. #Every28Hours looked at the statistic that every 28 hours, a black man, woman or child is killed by someone employed by the US government. This production was first presented in Watts, California and then moved to California State University Dominguez Hills. It was here that I heard countless stories on the pain and frustration that comes with the devaluation of black life. Today, I am the Development Manager of The Actors’ Gang, a nonprofit theater organization in Culver City. While my accomplishments there have been plenty – touring in the United States and to Italy, performing for over 2,000 guests, premiering new work, raising loads of money, I am most proud of my work as a teaching artist in K-12, continuation high schools, inside California state prisons, reentry facilities, and juvenile camps. This work is most fulfilling because I get to watch our students unlock their emotions, share their authentic voices, and see their fellow players in a new light. I can’t tell you how many incarcerated people have told me, “If I had just had this class growing up, I don’t think I would be here now.”

As Black History Month continues, I know I stand on the backs of giants. People who fought and died for my freedom as a black man, as a creative. Believe it or not, they fought and died for ALL of our freedoms. I believe as artists we have the power to speak for those who cannot. We have the power to see solutions where there were none. We have the choice to open our hearts so others can open theirs. And I sincerely hope that gives you purpose and meaning beyond the stage lights and audience applause.

*In California, there are over 174,880 men, women, and children currently impacted by the justice system (CDCR Spring Projections 2020). Many of these individuals are people of color and come from communities that have been under resourced, devalued, and divested.



 



 

IN THE GREENROOM WITH…



What has been the proudest moment of your career so far?
I would have to say playing Anna. Liesl Tommy and the Disney family decided to break all the rules and cast a rainbow of colors in that original cast of Frozen. It was life changing. I got so many messages from young girls and their mothers telling me that they were insired to see me on stage representing them in such a great way. So many conversations with college kids and speaking with them about their goals and their futures.

What’s the most inspiring thing anyone has ever said to you?
“It’s going to be hard. It’s not suppose to be easy when you are doing what you’re doing. But you were born for this. So never stop.”

When did you know you wanted to pursue a career in the theatre arts?
I’ve always wanted to sing. I’ve always loved it. I found theatre arts in Middle School when I first listened to the musical “RENT”. I was blown away. I wanted to play MIMI so bad at 14. My mother was terrified. But that show opened up my eyes to Broadway.

What’s your favorite self-care activity?
Taking an Epsom Salt Bath with my Essential oils.

What’s your biggest guilty pleasure?
Watching “Married at First Sight”

What is one thing that can instantly brighten your day?
Watching cat videos on YouTube

Favorite ice cream flavor?
Chocolate Malted Krunch from Thrifty Ice Cream

Current obsession?
The Crown

What’s your biggest pet peeve?
People who ask for help without doing anything to help themselves.

What is your dream role/job?
Ariel in The Little Mermaid on Broadway

What’s the worst job you’ve ever had?
I sold computer print supplies

What career advice would you give your younger self?
Two ways actually. When Oprah knows my name or When i can switch all my bills to “auto-pay”.

Tell us one thing that’s on your bucket list.
Family Meals

What’s the scariest thing you’ve ever done?
The scariest thing I ever did was move to New York. I wanted to take the chance to see if I liked it. I didn’t really know anyone. It was a rough 7 months but then i got a job back in California and moved back. I realized just how much of a California girl I am. I love New York and I had to actually live there to try it out.

If you were a super hero, what would your power be?
If I were superhero, I would probably have some water/air bending skills. I love the ocean and I love the wind. I would be able to manipulate those two things.

You’re looking for a midnight snack… what are you reaching for? Or ordering?
Chocolate Frosting… its always frosting. hehehe

 

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