The Performative Arts

The Bay Area arts community touts its support for Black Lives Matter, but its track record tells a different story.

It was inevitable that corporations would co-opt “Black Lives Matter.” On the one hand, it’s encouraging to see the founders of Ben & Jerry’s return to their social justice roots; on the other, did we really need a statement from Gushers? Naturally, there was a backlash: it’s hard to take the NFL seriously about standing against police brutality after they infamously marginalized Colin Kaepernick for taking a knee.

The NFL doesn’t usually have much in common with the arts, but COVID-19 changed that: now, both industries are trying to operate without their usual live audiences. And both have come under fire for their performative activism in light of their contradictory histories.

Just as “The Weinstein Effect” encouraged victims of sexual harassment to speak out, a post-George Floyd effect is taking industries to task for their racist practices. Now we have the founder of CrossFit stepping down as CEO and famed Vogue editor Anna Wintour wondering if she’ll soon be out of a job.

In the San Francisco arts community — which relies on a lot of fake smiles and forced compliments in order to secure funding and venues — a combination of COVID-related isolation and socially-conscious inspiration has made everyone a lot more honest than they were in January. Key figures like Jim Tobin, longtime director of the SF Movement Arts Festival, have come under fire for making racist statements. Elsewhere, SFMoMA’s labor union, a former employee, and artists are calling out the the museum for engaging in subtle and explicit discriminatory practices.

As both a Black theatre artist and one of the few PoC arts critics in the Bay Area, I know that the above episodes and allegations are not unique — in fact, they don’t even represent the worst of what the San Francisco art community is capable of. No sooner had I begun writing this very piece when the Weekly received a tip accusing the Oberlin Dance Collective (ODC) of years of racially-based “abuse [..] and cruel treatment of their dancers.”

I pitched this piece after being emailed a link last week. It was to a crowd-sourced “Living Google Doc” by PoC theatre artists in the Bay Area. Typical of crowd-sourcing, it is messy — some “current” descriptions are out-of-date and many rants veer wildly off-topic (the creator now promises closer oversight) — but that doesn’t negate the common thread tying the document together. The picture painted is one of systemic racism and harassment toward theatre artists of color; from micro-aggressive comments to racial epithets and physical assaults.

And almost no company is spared. As of June 17, companies as large as ACT, Berkeley Rep, and Cal Shakes were excoriated alongside regional darlings, like Shotgun Players, The Magic, and the SF Gay Men’s Chorus. Theatre critics, too, are lambasted for their chronically problematic reviews.

I haven’t submitted to the shared document, but I’m not at all surprised to recognize the names it mentions. I’ve seen their shows, I’ve attended their galas, I’ve even collaborated with some of them. I’ve also held my tongue as they went on racist tangents. You learn to roll with it after a while. Few offenders are mentioned by name, but their descriptions rang true.

In fact, the only thing surprising to me were the names not mentioned. I could probably write my own multi-volume tome naming the condescending white theatre folk who — among other things — forced me to cast a white actor in a role explicitly written for a Latino, complained that “there are no local Black actors willing to play queer characters,” or had a meltdown over a negative review I wrote about their show. One such review called out the racism of a local production, resulting in the director repeatedly emailing me. She insisted that the show couldn’t be racist because she alone didn’t think it was racist. These are the same folks posting black squares all over Instagram.

Now, that doesn’t mean that healing and growth are out of the question. But doing so will require allyship within the community and a willingness for companies to own up and improve. Sketch troupe Killing My Lobster got called out in the shared doc for a recent faux pas, but their immediate and sincere apology has been, as near as I can tell, warmly accepted. A less contrite organization won’t get off so easy. Their problems are ingrained into their infrastructure. They’ll need to integrate PoC voices the way they’ve integrated intimacy choreographers, which a lot of them flat out refuse to do.  

Few arts groups have PoC board members and many performance groups still rely on whitewashed casting. With federal funds always drying up, art sponsorship still relies on money from old white donors who make up old white audiences for shows put on by old white curators. I personally wrote locally about the infamous Profiles Theatre shake-up in Chicago in 2016 and that may be a preview of an upcoming fallout. Expelling the most problematic members of the arts community would put many organizations in the position of having to shut down permanently.

Good. Let them.

If these people and companies can’t foster a safe environment, then they don’t deserve our support. If the audience inside their venue can’t better reflect the world outside it, then the company is obsolete. If they can’t lift up PoC artists the way they have so many white ones, then they deserve to fall like so many Confederate statues. True, doing so won’t immediately solve the problem, but one can’t expect to heal a cancer without first tending to malignant tumors.

Removing these problematic people won’t erase the admittedly great work they’ve created, but it will hold them accountable. Art can be bold without someone else suffering for the artist’s amusement.

No art form has ever failed by choosing to embrace diversity. Sure, the older audience may abandon you — taking their fat purses with them — but no one can say that Andy Warhol’s career suffered from collaborating with Jean-Michel Baquiat. I can’t count how many mission statements I’ve read boasting how these organizations “take risks,” “instigate change,” and “lead by example.” If that’s true, then get with the times and stop marginalizing Black and PoC artists just because they call you out on your hypocrisy. They deserve to be heard just as much as you.

Treat their concerns the way you want everyone to treat your art: take it seriously.

Tags: , , , ,

Related Stories