March 31, 2017

Dear People,

Who are Of Color, Women, LGBT, Muslims, Mexicans, Immigrants, Individually Abled

I Conspired Against You.

I Am an Accomplice to the New Rule.

I Am the Ink on the Executive Order.

I’m Sorry.

I’m Sorry as I know I’m Sorry won’t Help. I’m Sorry.

My Flaws Streamline as it took Fascist Rise to Realize

The Reality My fellow beings have Lived- Continue to Live.

I, like you, ignored the Inherent state of Oppression.

But if you’re dwindling, still, in the, ‘I can’t believes this happe’- STOP

Whirl winding in the state of self inflicted delusions.

It’s here, wake from Surreal- It’s really really Real.

Either-

You Shift and treat your Consciousness; Or

Stay Dormant. Like you have.

Understand, I am not here to shame you. I’m not.

That is not my Intention.

It’s just- My Attention Tensions Retentions of Neglected Successions.

If like me, remorse criticizes you- Then What Are We Waiting For?

This I know to be true…

We sat back, ignorant to the facts of existence.

I put Me in Mute. Refused to Refute

Around family, friends, acquaintances, Strangers as they

Elevated Egos in Entitled Entitlement

It’s Privilege. Fueled my Stagnancy. To not Conceive-

My Uncle saying, “These N******”

My Sister Petitioning against neighborhood Mosques.

My Father disrespecting his Latinx employees

My Lover describing her co-worker as ‘Jew-y.’

A Stranger yelling “Go back to your country”

For years, I hushed my Guilt.

My Guilt- The Guilt I refused to call my Guilt-

It came in forms of,

“I don’t think that way, so it’s Okay.”

“Yes, I agree. I really do think Women should have equal Pay”

I even frame liking Black Lives Matter. On Facebook. As enough.

You know what- Maybe for You it is Enough.

I’m not here to tell you that it isn’t-

Actually,

No- No. I don’t think it is.

It isn’t Enough

To Feel the Feels

Passion ain’t Passion until it’s put to Action.

I recall Christmas 2008 - 9 -10

“He’s got no Spine.

He’s awful. Worst President.

His Wife looks like a gorilla”

Even at “Show your papers.”

I still didn’t affirm their reactions stemmed from Nothing but Loathing a

Black President.

A Person of Color as your Leader.

Just Melanin.  Gave you Again, Reasoned Resonant Superiority.

It Was & Is My Silence.  Reverberating Aid against Equality.

I’m Sorry.

I’m Sorry when I know I’m Sorry doesn’t cut it.

Sorry won’t evaporate the thrusted Disgrace.

For, my Seeds have long went to Waste.

When I didn’t Militantly Dismiss Ignorance.

Being Inactive, I Nourished Racism

As it stemmed from my Roots.

Our Deformed Perspective.

How can we Shift it?

If Empathy is a continuous Restoration

I Vow

To Tend to Comprehend. Listen

All my missed opportunities,

To Fuel Soldiered Alliance.

I need You to Join Me.

Take your time if that’s what you need.

Just Know, We’re fighting a sickness that’s Festered over Years, Decades,

Centuries, Generations, and with it, Genealogies.

It’s in Our Blood.

Our Healing comes with being at the Fore Front.

I Vow.

I Will Stand.

I Will Rise.

Beyond the Occasional Check In.

I Vow. To Challenge. I Vow. To Rise

Beyond tears for a Syrian Refugee holding her Dead 3 Old Daughter.

Between the Police Bullet and the 17 Year Old Black Boy.

I am the Wall Blocking Building Bricks of Separation.

The Concrete Rebuilt Defaced Cemeteries.

I am Airport Echoes

“No Hate. No Fear. Refugees Are Welcome Here.”

Obedience of Preferred Gender Identity.

Disobedience of All Straight White Male Hierarchy.

I Vow to Rise

Frozen from Water Cannons, below 20 degrees –

Pepper spray in my Eyes. To Protect your Right.

Your Right to This Land.

Your Right to Live.

Your Right to Your Rights.

Your Right as a Human Being.

Your Right.

I Vow to Rise. I Vow

I won’t just Stand By

Owais Ahmed is a Chicago native and proud ensemble member of Definition Theatre Co.  Theatre credits include: The Invisible Hand (Milwaukee Rep), Orange (Mixed Blood Theatre), The Qualms (Steppenwolf), Heartland (PlayPenn), Blood & Gifts (TimeLine), The Reckoning of Kit (First Floor Theater), and Red Handed Otter (A Red Orchid). Other theatre credits: Anon(ymous), The Merchant of Venice, Much Ado About Nothing, and Passion Play. Film/TV credits: Batman V. Superman: Dawn Of Justice, Age of Ice, and Empire. Owais is with Gray Talent.

March 30, 2017

Good allies.  We all need them.  We don't all know how to be them.  But now is the time to learn. We asked a few eloquent Chicago artists who graciously offered their definition and thoughts.  These words come from people who are angry, terrified, sad, frustrated and who want change.  Please consider these words with an open heart - our community will benefit tremendously from it.  

I have to start by laying bare the in-between space I inhabit with regard to privilege. I was born here in America to parents of different races who were also born here in America. I'm cisgendered, heterosexual, and very light skinned. In fact, people are often surprised to discover I'm Latinx. I'm five foot two. No one is scared of me. I have experienced discrimination, but I do not inhabit a body that police deem criminal, that strangers deem threatening. For these reasons, I find myself most often on the serving rather than receiving end of allyship.

The first thing I had to learn as an ally (and that I continue to learn and re-learn) is how to combat any knee-jerk gut feelings of defensiveness that pop up during discussions of experience. My day-to-day experience does not look like the day-to-day experience of a trans woman of color, no more than yours may look like mine. If, during a conversation about identity, people start talking about the privileges afforded to light skinned women of color, and I start mentally skimming through a catalogue of experiences looking for the right one to prove I have in fact struggled, then I'm not listening. If I'm not listening, I'm going to miss the actual point that was being made by mentioning the differences in society's perception of light-skinned versus dark-skinned women. Maybe, in this not-so-hypothetical scenario, I do actually have something to offer up to the conversation, but I've found the most positive way to do so is to wait until the feelings of defensiveness have dissipated. This way it doesn't become a contest, this way no one feels silenced.

Asking questions as an ally can be great. If you are truly seeking to understand and empathize with someone's lived experience you have no reference point for, questions are an essential part of that journey. What I have to be careful of when doing so, however, is making sure these questions aren't phrased as a challenge. "Do you really think that had to with your race?" is an entirely different question than, "I'm not used to recognizing race as a factor, how can I learn to better recognize it?" That said, for as long as I can remember being conscious of race, I can remember being asked about it by white people. I think I embody this very non-threatening, different-but-not-so-different-she's-not-relatable presence in my (white) friends' lives. These questions don't tend to bother me, nor does that role. However, if I didn't hold so much privilege it might be more difficult for me to play the role of teacher. If I ever want to ask someone to clarify how oppression operates in their life or something of that nature, I need to go into that conversation fully recognizing their right to not want to talk about it. I would also say, if you are going to ask your friends of color to explain issues of race and identity to you, demonstrate that you are making other efforts to understand outside of these interactions. (Also also! Remember that people of color are not monolithic. You can ask me about the black experience, but it's unlikely I'll have anything intelligent to say.)

Lastly, I try to remember we all have implicit biases. No one expects otherwise. The path to ridding ourselves of preconceived notions and prejudice is long, winding, and weird. Be prepared to be uncomfortable. Be prepared to do some self-reckoning. At all costs, seek to listen, learn, and take care of those around you.


Phoebe González is a Manhattan-born Chicago convert who splits her time between acting and writing when she's not working one or more of her three other jobs. She is about to start rehearsals for Teatro Vista's La Havana Madrid and incredibly excited about that fact. While a student at Northwestern, her play The Next Left was written in partnership with Jenny Avery and Next Theatre, and received its first public reading as an extension of the Agnes Nixon Festival. Her short play Losing it: a revolution was also a part of the 2016 Cherry Picking New Plays Festival at The Wild Project. 

March 29, 2017

Good allies.  We all need them.  We don't all know how to be them.  But now is the time to learn. We asked a few eloquent Chicago artists who graciously offered their definition and thoughts.  These words come from people who are angry, terrified, sad, frustrated and who want change.  Please consider these words with an open heart - our community will benefit tremendously from it.  

For most of 2016, I was producing a series of shows in a D.I.Y space in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood. The series showcased an extremely diverse group of artists and curators. When I started that series, I would have considered anyone a good ally if they used the right language, did some passive advocacy work, and shared a few, conscious social media posts. What I learned from that year is that allyship requires a lot of work if you want to be good at it. It also requires a lot of humility and patience. Therefore, I would rather use the term “effective” instead of “good” when describing the best practice. I think if any person did all three of these things, I would consider them an “effective” ally. 
 
Effective allyship is an active, conscious choice to advocate for a marginalized person or group of people. As Black and Gay, I have needed many allies to be seen and heard, both personally and professionally. Many people have used my race and sexual orientation as an excuse to dismiss my value, work, or to treat me poorly. There have been times when an effective ally went to those people and made it clear that I was competent, talented, and uniquely qualified to do the tasks set before me. Allies have helped me be seen and heard in circumstances where I could have been easily dismissed. 

An effective ally also extends their platform. This is one of the most powerful tools allies have. Unfortunately, it is rarely done well. Many people believe they are being allies, but instead they use their platform to talk on behalf of marginalized people. It is possible they believe they're being advocates or sharing much-needed information. However, this approach steals focus from marginalized people and only serves as an advertisement for the ally’s newly-minted ‘consciousness’. There was a video trending last year that showed a best practice. During a White House press conference, Gloria Steinem is asked how to “empower the voiceless". Instead of answering the question, she silently passes the mic to Amani Al-Khatahtbeh. I highly suggest watching the video, as Amani says what I’m trying to say much more eloquently.

Effective allies understand that they need to exist in the spaces and places of marginalized people. In my experience, this is very difficult for many White allies. I have experienced so many one-sided friendships that I simply don’t participate in them anymore. Over the years, I’ve received so many excuses as to why people couldn’t come to my house, my neighborhood, my family gatherings, my… anything. However, I was expected to know their children’s names, parents names, go to housewarming parties, parents’ funerals, eat their food, and celebrate their milestones. My most effective allies have made a conscious effort to leave their comfort zone and be a part of my life. I am sure it is uncomfortable being the only White person in a room on the other side of town, but an effective ally recognizes that their friend is most likely equally as uncomfortable being in the ally's spaces and places. An effective ally also recognizes that their friend probably experiences that discomfort daily; every time they walk out the door, clock in to work, warms up for rehearsal, eats hummus at a potluck, or drinks that latte with artsy-foam. An effective ally empathizes with this daily burden, by making a conscious effort to regularly exist in non-majority spaces and places.
 
Erick Deshaun Dorris is an Artist and Educator. Dorris is Co-Founder and Administrator for United In Excellence, an education advocacy and community arts program in his hometown of Joliet, IL. He also produces a series of live performances and recordings called "WERKSHOP," featuring nationally renowned musicians and vocalists. Erick has developed arts education and mentorship programs at Steppenwolf Theater, Lookingglass Theater, Fort Knox Studios, and Chicago Public Schools. He is currently a Research Associate for the Health Humanities Program at the University of Illinois College of Medicine and sits on the Board of Inspectors for Joliet Public Schools, District #86. Erick holds a Bachelor's in Theatre Arts from Millikin University and a Master's of Performing Arts Administration from Roosevelt University's Chicago College of Performing Arts.

March 28, 2017

Good allies.  We all need them.  We don't all know how to be them.  But now is the time to learn. We asked a few eloquent Chicago artists who graciously offered their definition and thoughts.  These words come from people who are angry, terrified, sad, frustrated and who want change.  Please consider these words with an open heart - our community will benefit tremendously from it.  

These are my thoughts as a Latinx/Genderqueer/Gender Non-Conforming/Non-Binary Trans actor/artist/human...

Immediately, this is what comes to mind for me and in my experience, but a good/helpful ally fits the following criteria:

1) If you know me personally & if you know what my pronouns are, you will be sure to use my correct pronouns when referring to me, especially when I'm not around or present. An ally will also correct others if they hear someone misgendering me.

Example: 

Person B: Avi was so great in that show! She moves so well!

Person A (Ally): Avi was definitely great in that show and I believe Avi uses they pronouns. 

Person B: Oh? I didn't know that, what do you mean?

Person A (Ally): Yeah, Avi is Gender Non-Conforming and uses they/them/theirs pronouns. But Avi is just such a cool person and I hope to work with them one day!

2) An ally to me is someone who will be my buddy, supporting me when I go the restroom, especially if they are labeled "Men" and "Women." Since neither one of those restrooms feels right to me, somedays I feel bold and go into the Men's and will have someone wait for me outside the door or come inside with me if it's multiple stalls, and if they read as a cisgender male. The same thing applies to the Women's, so if I'm with a cisgender female I'll ask if she could come inside to wait if it's multiple stalls. But this is only if I feel unsafe in the space and am worried about someone questioning me or stopping me. 

3) An ally will make sure to start implementing non-gendered language or non-binary language to refer to groups of people, in rehearsals, in meetings, events, pre-show announcements, etc. 

For example:

When addressing an audience....Instead of: "Good Evening & Welcome Ladies and Gentlemen" Try: Good Evening & Welcome Everyone" or simply, "Good Evening & Welcome"

When addressing a group of actors/artists...Instead of "Alright guys n' gals we're back in 5" Try: "Alright Company/Actors/Friends etc. we're back in 5" 

[Also, "guys" is not gender neutral or inclusive because it still assumes a gender, assumes the binary, and gives fuel to the fire of the patriarchy.] 

4) An ally will start normalizing stating their name and pronouns in introductions and will apply all of this regardless of whether or not a Trans/Gender Non-Conforming/Non-Binary person is present. 

For example:

"Hi, I'm Frida and my pronouns are she/her/hers" or "I'm Diego - he/him/his"

 [Also, if you would like to ask someone their pronouns, be sure not to ask: what are your preferred pronouns? That is a transphobic phrase. People's pronouns are not preferences nor is a name really. Your pronouns are YOUR pronouns and your name is YOUR name.]

5) Allies will begin to write in Genderqueer/Gender-Non Conforming/Non-Binary characters into their scripts/stories without needing to heavily comment on their identity. I can't wait to play a character where my identity and the color of my skin do not have to be stated or discussed. I can just exist. 

[So, with that, an ally will educate themselves and do what they need to do to tell someone else's story. For example: do outreach and see who can be a helpful resource. If you're writing Trans narratives, then invite a Trans person who lives and breathes being Trans everyday into the process. Then, of course, cast a Trans person...and a Trans person of color would be great. Intersectionality is real, truuust me, I know.]

[And also with that, it is important to look beyond one idea of what Trans looks like or is. Some Trans or Non-Binary folks go through hormone replacement therapy and have surgeries. Others may not. But it's great to start being open to including a Trans person in a play or on screen that doesn't have to be 100% "transitioned." It seems that many people think that a Trans person is only Transgender if they undergo a 180 degree Male to Female transition. However, people come in all variations under the Trans umbrella because GENDER IS A SPECTRUM.]

6) Lastly, allies might make mistakes and that is okay. It's a process, but the effort to make these changes are appreciated and so, so helpful. Therefore, if someone offers a correction, take the correction, make the correction, and move on. And above all, allyship is active and always changing. Allies are always listening. Allyship is always shifting, and it's about asking what someone wants or needs. 

Avi Roque adores the arts, is passionate about the arts and they do what they do, not for themselves, but to inspire others, to give someone else the opportunity to simply feel, and enter worlds unknown. Through any piece of art there is always a story to tell, and Avi sees the world, as well as their experiences, as inspiration to create.  Avi is a proud Latinx/Gender Non-Conforming/Genderqueer/Trans artist and uses the Pronouns They/Them/Theirs.  Avi is also a company member at FIRST FLOOR THEATER, THE COMEDY DANCE COLLECTIVE, & COLLABORACTION.

Good allies.  We all need them.  We don't all know how to be them.  But now is the time to learn. We asked a few eloquent Chicago artists who graciously offered their definition and thoughts.  These words come from people who are angry, terrified, sad, frustrated and who want change.  Please consider these words with an open heart - our community will benefit tremendously from it.  

What do I need my allies to do?

    Quit or resign from your current position and recommend that an under represented individual take your place. 

     Refuse to take work that asks of you to perform a piece that doesn't reflect you in any obvious way (if you are not Latino, don't audition for In the Heights unless there's a role specifically for your nationality and state that you are auditioning for that role AND NOTHING ELSE.)

     Bring up in your social circles how uncomfortable you feel that the entire room looks like you and that there are not enough eclectic minds to challenge your ideas and point of views. 

     Volunteer to ASSIST teaching (meaning you answer to an under represented individual in a position of power) in the south and west side of Chicago who's main demographic is not of your own nationality. 

     Mentor a young person of color in your field of expertise. 

     Create a program at your theater / organize a program at your theater that not only comps under represented students their tickets but also provides a stipend for their transportation. 

     If your creative endeavor involves under represented individuals, consult with at least 5 of them about their perspective on the story you're trying to tell. 

     When you feel that under represented individuals are asking ridiculous demands, instead of being skeptical, adhere to them for at least 6 months.  (TJ Medel)

I think the core of being a good ally is being aware of issues that don't necessarily directly affect you. Listen to other voices. If you don't see/hear them around you, figure out why and seek to do something about that. Also avoid saviour complex...not everyone wants or needs your input or wants to change what they're doing. You can support an artist or venue as they are. Allyship is also really about putting your money where your mouth is. Give money to marginalized artists. Don't expect them to do artistic and emotional labor for free all the time. Tons of us do because we want to and it means something to us, but I think that often lack of "legitimacy" based in racism/sexism/ableism fuels that expectation. Look at your spaces and events. Are they disability accessible? What is your awareness of disability accessibility--do you think that you're wholly accessible because there's a ramp? Do you have captioning or an interpreter? Do you know how to access those services? If your audience spaces are accessible that's great--what about your artists' spaces? Are your dressing rooms and stage entrances accessible? Are your audiences mostly, or entirely, white? Do you know why? Always look at the table you've laid out and think about who you don't see and how to help them feel welcome there.  (Terri Lynne Hudson)

For me it's someone who is willing to put their ego aside and listen.

A lot of not-listening comes from the "well, not me" defensiveness that <majority members> feel when a critique is leveled at the group with which they identify. If they can step back from that initial reaction they'll be able to see the assumption that we're speaking uncarefully or lowkey targeting them as a facet of their privilege defending itself. So, it's not only the ability to listen that is important, but the ability to, while remaining silent, not be distracted from listening/understanding by their ego.

...Them having done a little homework because they're curious enough to have done the legwork on their own time also goes a long way. 

Another feature of good allyship is understanding intersectionality because if you're really "down for the cause" you're not down for just one or two of them but fighting for ALL oppressed people to be recognized/respected. It's why the Amy Schumers and Bill Mahers out there do us more harm than good.  Their allyship is tainted by the privilege that allows them to be dismissive of some groups while paying lip service to the idea of equality which tends to cause infighting... (Jayson Brooks)

I appreciate an ally who doesn't make assumptions. I'm Persian- so most people ASSUME then that I'm Muslim and put those expectations of knowledge and understanding of that experience on me. 

I appreciate an ally who does research. Why I love telling people about where my family is from and my religion (Zoroastrianism), it can get really tiring. Now if someone comes in with a specific question, and doesn't just want me to spell it all out, I really appreciate that. It shows they took the time and cared enough to do a Google search. I'm so much happier to have a conversation that is two sided, not just a teaching moment.

I appreciate an ally who puts their pride aside. If I call someone out for assuming I'm South Asian or Muslim, don't make it about you. Take the correction and try to do better. I do it myself all the time. It's so frustrating when a person gets defensive because then it quickly becomes about me making them feel better. They spend all their energy trying to defend their own sense of morality and stop LISTENING. 

The main thing is that every experience is different. And each person might need something different in order to feel safe, feel heard, and feel respected. Come into a conversation with an open heart and mind. And know that if the person needs advice from you, they will ask. As an ally, you need to accept that you are there to support in any way possible.  (Vahishta Vafadari)

TJ Medel, a 2015 Second City Bob Curry Fellow, has performed and improvised with Second City, LOL! Theater, The Annoyance and iO. He is an ensemble member with Chicago Slam Works Poetry House Ensemble, Stir Friday Night, Hip-Hop Collective Elephant Rebellion, SoChi Voices, Theater Unspeakable, and the improvised Spoken Word collective PREACH. He is a teaching artist for multiple schools all around Chicago

Terri Lynne Hudson is an actor, improviser and performance artist living and working in Chicago. She has spina bifida.  

Jayson Brooks is a musician, poet, and actor whose main pastime is writing love letters to the Chicago arts scene. He has performed with Second City (South Side of Heaven, Letters To Santa); Bailiwick Chicago (Passing Strange, Dessa Rose); Porchlight Music Theater (Ragtime, A Wonderful Life); and done readings with many local companies. He is also the frontman of JC Brooks & The Uptown Sound (a post-punk soul band), and also the K.i.D. (a thetawave r&b project). He sits-in and writes with various bands around the city including Dead River Revival, Chicago AfroBeat Project, Sidewalk Chalk, and Akasha to name a few.

Vahishta Vafadari is an actor and dialect-y/combat-y person around the city of Chicago. She is a graduate from the Theatre School at DePaul with an MFA in Acting and loves being in an artist in this town and in this community. Vahishta is currently working on A Wrinkle in Time at Lifeline Theater with an amazing cast and crew.

March 20, 2017

There is an ongoing conversation in the entertainment industry about diversity, inclusion and representation: the lack thereof, the abuses, the confusion and perpetuation of the problem as well as the strides towards diversification.

As a Black writer and actress it is my mission to tell stories that reflect the world I live in which is diverse, nuanced and female driven. It is my passion to challenge old concepts or structures

that uphold the status quo and keep the industry stuck. This conversation is at the core of who I am as an artist.

First in this ongoing series on diversity and inclusion in the entertainment industry I will examine three popular American plays, make observations, ask questions and challenge playwrights who strive toward diversity and inclusiveness in their writing.

Disgraced, This and Good People are contemporary plays with interracial couples comprised of a White man and a Black woman. Each couple is in conflict. They argue, one up each other and

show little to no affection. The precursor to these plays is the mother-of-all-interracial-relationships portrayed in Lanford Wilson’s 1969 play The Gingham Dog.

In Gingham Dog we meet Gloria who is Black and Vincent who is White as they pack up the remnants of their marriage in the NewYork apartment they shared. Gloria is described as “well educated if somewhat vulgar.” Wilson writes that “she must have a personal charm, an energy that outweighs a kind of frantic, superficial, vulgarity, a detachment from most things” Vincent is described as a “strong, good looking man though he looks now, sometimes, rather like a tired young executive.” Gloria and Vincent hate each other. Vincent refers to her as an “educated Nigger”. When Gloria talks about the child they never had she says, “And now the thought of that child curdles me and I, oh Lord, I only thank the benevolent God for being wiser than me, because if a son existed now, I swear I’d bash his brains against the goddamn radiator.”

Just like Boys in the Band the 1968 play by Mart Crowley served as an indictment of homosexuality, The Gingham Dog is an indictment of interracial relationships. There is no hope and no counterpoint.

In twenty years not much has changed. Jory from Disgraced is a high powered lawyer described as “commanding, forthright, intelligent. Almost masculine” In her one scene in the play she dismisses her husband Isaac’s opinions, complains about him, disagrees with his politics, digs at him and mocks his ideas. She is also the comic relief in this sober play.

Kate from Good People is described as “attractive, pleasant”. She is in counseling with her husband who had an affair before the play takes place. He is not a willing participant in the counseling.

Kate has a young child with her husband. Kate is critical of her husband’s habits. She is nice to strangers but not nice to him. She shames him and doesn’t appreciate his humor. She serves

as comic relief in her only scene.

Marrell from This (a role I enjoyed playing) is described as “African American, 38”. Marrell (like Kate) is the mother of a young baby who “sleeps in fifteen minute increments”. She is

controlling and critical of her husband Tom. She shames and dismisses him. She is enamoured of a Frenchman she barely knows. She contemplates leaving her husband due to her

unhappiness. She is also comic relief throughout the play.

While I can only assume that the playwrights had good intentions when they wrote these characters I question whether they considered the ramifications of making them Black women. I question whether the playwrights considered the implicit bias in their choice.

In Disgraced and This the White male engages in an affair with the White female protagonist. The Black woman learns of the affair throughout the course of the play. The relationship between

the White man and the Black woman is left damaged and unresolved.

In Disgraced Emily a White woman (described as “lithe and lovely”) cheats on her husband Amir (desribed as “of South Asian origin”) with a White man named Isaac (described as “White,

smart, attractive”). Isaac is married to Jory. It is arguable whether Emily is intended to be likeable yet her trajectory suggests that although she has cheated on her husband the playwright wants the audience to empathize with her by the end of the play. In order for the audience to empathize they

must accept and ultimately “forgive” Emily for cheating on her husband. The audience must accept and ultimately “forgive” Emily for cheating on her husband with a married man.

Does the fact that Jory and Amir; the two “victims” in the story are people of color make it easier for the audience to forgive Emily? Is it easier for audiences to see people of color harmed physically or

emotionally? Is this the theatrical equivalent of the Black character always being the first person to get killed in an action movie?

I think it is. Consider Jane; the White protagonist in the play This. Jane has sex with her best friend Marrell’s husband. The audience is asked to quickly overlook the fact that Jane betrayed

her best friend and follow the rest of Jane's journey to the end of the play with empathy. Marrell is never seen again; sacrificed for the plot much like the Black man who doesn't last five minutes in

the beginning of the first Jurassic Park.

Stereotypes are reinforced when each of the women in This, Disgraced and Good People are critical, dissatisfied with their relationships, written as comic relief and then ultimately cheated on by their White husband. The history between Black women and White men in America dating back to slavery is mired in violence, rape and murder. What are the inevitable reverberations when a White male character perpetuates emotional violence on a Black woman in a contemporary piece? There is a cost in that choice. Does it move the conversation on race forward or keep it stuck?

Disgraced is written by Ayad Akhtar a Pakistani-American. It won the Pulitzer Prize and was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Play. Good People was nominated for Best Play and was written by David Lindsay-Abaire who is White. Melissa James Gibson who wrote This is White. This was heralded as “the best new play to open Off Broadway” by Charles Isherwood of The New York

Times. I wonder if any playwrights received any feedback from women of color as they were developing the plays.

Three successful plays with the same narrative in relation to the Black characters. The plays have been widely produced across the country as well as internationally. Yet there is not another widely produced play that serves as a counterpoint. Does that in turn make the story of the dysfunctional, unsuccessful interracial relationship the default narrative?

I have played the role of Marrell in This. Here’s the tricky part. It's a fun role. It's not often that Black actresses get to play a smart, contemporary woman who is specifically written as Black.  Still I struggled while playing Marrel because I wrestled with whether I was complicit in reinforcing ideas that do not change the messaging or challenge the implicit bias. It is a published play. There was no opportunity to voice my concerns as I might have had if the play were in development.

In Disgraced Jory’s husband cheats on her. Consider the additional injury caused when it is a White man cheating on his Black spouse with a (as the playwright describes) “lithe and lovely” White woman. Consider the age old injury and subsequent re-injury inflicted upon Black women in the audience.

The character Amir doesn’t believe it when Jory tells him their spouses were kissing and says the following:

Amir: First you steal my job and now you try to destroy my marriage. You’re fucking evil. After everything I’ve done for you.

In a subsequent monologue Amir unleashes more vitriol:

Amir: Were you ever the last one to leave? Cause if you were I didn’t see it. I still leave the office after you do. You think you’re the nigger here? I’m the nigger! Me!

Jory is verbally abused right after finding out her husband has had an affair. Again, does the fact that she’s Black make it easier for the audience to witness the abuse then ultimately turn their attention and empathy to the “lithe and lovely” Emily who committed the offense?

This is Jory’s response:

Jory: There’s something you should know. Your dear friend Mort is retiring. And guess who’s taking over his case load? Not you. Me. I asked him. “Why not Amir?” He said something about you being

duplicitous. That it’s why you’re such a good litigator. But that it’s impossible to trust you. Don’t believe me? Call Mort. Ask him yourself. Let me guess. He hasn’t been taking your calls?

Jory has tunnel vision at a moment when her whole world has been turned upside down. She is focused solely on the relationship with her co-worker and not her husband that has cheated on her and walked out the door. And Jory’s reaction doesn’t include how she feels about being called a Nigger. The character doesn’t get to express a range of emotion. Jory doesn’t

get to be human.

My mission isn’t simply to point out problems. I want to offer solutions. The Bedchel Test challenges filmmakers to write more compelling female characters by suggesting that a good

screenplay should include:

1) 2 women

2) talking to each other

3) about something other than a man

If a film doesn’t meet those standards then it has failed the Bedchel Test. 69% of IMBD top 250 films fail this test. I offer a similar test for writing minority characters in a play. These

are questions playwrights can consider:

What is your intention or purpose in including a minority character?

Do you want to tell their story?

Is diversity and inclusion a part of your overall mission as an artist?

Is your choice to include a minority character a shortcut or shorthand? In other words are you using the character as a scapegoat that enables your main character to avoid accountability for their actions?

Is the minority character strictly in service of the

White characters without serving any other purpose?

Have you spoken to or sought feedback from anyone who is from the ethnic group your character represents?

Are the minority characters given the same scope of humanity as the White characters?

Including a character of color might be a stride toward diversifying but with the choice there comes a responsibility. For what appears to be progressive can still be mired in ignorance and misdirection.

Writing outside of one’s own world view must include collaboration and input from that world view. The work will be better, more honest and it will hopefully move the conversation ahead.

Tania Richard is an actress, writer and teacher. Her work can be seen in her web series mom in real life and A Minute on Racism and she is co-host of the podcast Race Bait. She served as Cultural Consultant at The Theatre School at DePaul University for two productions. She also is the director of Improv Delivery: Improvisation Training for Professional.

March 14, 2017

This week The Chicago Inclusion Project was honored by the Actors Equity Association with the Kathryn V. Lamkey Award at SPIRIT: A Celebration of Diversity, alongside such incredible organizations as 3Arts (a nonprofit organization that advocates for Chicago’s women artists, artists of color, and artists with disabilities who work in the performing, teaching, and visual arts) and The St. Louis Black Repertory Theatre (providing platforms for acting and interpretation of theatre from the Black perspective). Due to Inclusion Project business, the entire staff was unable to attend the event.  My husband, Chad, graciously spoke on our behalf.  Here's a transcript of the speech I wrote...

The truth is that right now I don't feel too much like celebrating.  While there might be more minorities onstage than there were 10 years ago, it still feels like we are getting scraps. Like we should feel lucky that we've been invited to the meal instead of sharing in the creation of the feast. Despite the good intentions, it’s not enough to designate a slot in a season or a "diversity opportunity" in an ensemble show, and this is what it feels and looks like to those wanting to see themselves in the stories we tell together.

There is still real resistance in places that I wouldn't expect to find it.  It is still much more of an uphill climb than there should be in 2017:  default casting is still white, cis-gendered and able bodied.  It's still too easy to automatically imagine a role not designated to a specific body type or ethnicity to be exactly what we have been seeing for ages.  

Listen, I do it too sometimes.  We've all been conditioned.  Implicit bias is real.   But we're living in a world right now where artists need to step up and create the counter-narrative. This city, this time and place is truly frightening to so many of us.  People are worried for their livelihoods.  We make plays. This is not to diminish what our jobs are, but to empower… The very least we artists can do is DEMAND greater representation from every single aspect of our craft.  

Producers, board members, ensembles, artistic directors, when it comes time to choose the plays, writers, directors and designers in your season, please remember how far the pendulum has already swung NOT in favor of minorities. For change to really happen, you have to be making room for new voices, and sometimes this might mean getting out of the way.  It must be more than adding a minority as an assistant or intern in the room.  We have to make a conscious effort to nurture the talent IN OUR CITY that hasn't been recognized throughout our industry's history, and put that talent into real positions where they can have a true platform for their work.  

Actors. Speak up.  If you're called in for a role you think might be a stereotype or one for which you don't culturally identify or in a play that may potentially be harmful to a community, say something.  Have that conversation - with your agent, with the director, with whomever called you in.  Your perspective is valid.  That discussion is vital to us moving forward together.

I recognize the irony of having a white man speak for me in this instance. But I'll offer it as an example of how we can be allies for each other. Which is desperately needed right now.

I also understand that everything I'm asking you to do poses a threat. Either to you or your position in this industry or your company or your sense of security (whatever that may be for an artist).  But it's not a real threat.  If we don’t begin to tell different stories in different ways, we are sending the message to minorities that they can or should be erased -- from the community and from the narrative.  The real threat is to stay exactly where we are.  
 

I believe deeply in this community and the talent within it.  I believe in the work ethic and the desire to do better with every project.  And I want to believe that this is the town to change the narrative.  We REALLY have to try.

Thank you for this recognition and this honor, words cannot express what it means.  Now, let’s get to work.