Back to Normal Isn’t Good Enough

The performing arts will return. When that day comes, I hope to see true diversity on Bay Area stages — not just hollow hashtags...

Remember how last year was supposed to be the year that Ellen DeGeneres fell from grace? The “Queen of Nice” was exposed as significantly less than congenial. It’s bad enough for a multimillionaire to complain that working-from-home is “like being in jail” — a gaffe made during a show DeGeneres’ broadcast from one of her numerous homes, with the help of a skeleton crew that critics say helped her skirt union laws — but it’s nothing compared to the deluge of stories from former and current employees alleging systemic abuse, racism, and sexual harassment from DeGeneres and her staff.

She gave the standard celeb mea culpa, then put the show on a short hiatus before returning in the fall. There’s some debate as to how much the scandals hurt her image, if at all, but the show is still very much on the air, helping pay the mortgage on one of DeGeneres’ palatial “jail” cells.

I thought about that scandal back in January, on my 40th birthday — an occasion I marked, as I usually do, by taking a solo hike around San Francisco. After descending Twin Peaks with very sore feet, I eventually wound up in The Mission, where I was surprised to walk by Borderlands Books, still very much open for (socially distant) business.

For those who don’t know, this past summer’s reckoning with racially (and sexually) abusive businesses made Borderlands the subject of a scathing exposé in Mission Local. The shop’s owner and proprietor, Alan Beatts — known for his libertarian disdain of minimum wage — was accused of several things that prompt me to issue a trigger warning before linking you to said said story.

Despite calls for Beatts to divest from the store, there’s no evidence that he’s done so and, COVID notwithstanding, it’s business as usual at Borderlands. So, too, at Hot Cookie in The Castro, which faced its own laundry list of accusations last summer.

For a city and country meant to be coming to terms with institutional racism and misogyny, that lack of repercussion is upsetting.

The world of theater is no different. You may recall that this past summer I wrote about Bay Area companies who made a big show of solidarity with PoC and BLM, despite having long histories of blatantly racist acts toward their casts and staff. Many of those acts were detailed in the infamous “Living Document” spread around the community, in which BIPoC members of Bay Area theatre aired numerous grievances ranging from micro-aggressions to acts of overt violence.

Several months on, the Living Doc’s entries have slowed to a trickle. There hasn’t been much heard from the theater companies accused, but then there hasn’t been much of, well, anything in regards to theater.

As if a worldwide pandemic weren’t enough, last year found our industry still in the middle of a thankfully-now-over presidential administration that all but delivered a killing blow to the arts. Whereas retail has had a good 25 years or so to carve out a niche on the internet, theatre is still figuring out how to do more than poorly-coordinated Zoom calls of badly-framed heads reading a still-in-development script. But if — nay, when — live theatre is safe to resume, we PoC are still wondering what it will even look like.

Speaking as someone who’s been part of the Bay Area theatre scene from nearly every angle (actor, writer, director, producer, box office manager, critic), I speak from experience when I say that I know how resistant Bay Area theatre’s (mostly white, incredibly old) gatekeepers are to change for the better.

In last summer’s piece, I mentioned Jim Tobin’s racism resulting in his expulsion from Grace Cathedral and the SF Movement Arts Festival. It was a big deal at the time, but Tobin appears to be the only lamb sacrificed in the hopes of theatre companies dodging controversy and returning to the status quo. Oh sure, we’ve recently seen Neal Benezra’s step down from his directorship of SFMoMA (which he swears had nothing to do with accusations of racism), but that doesn’t directly relate to our local performance community. And even if it did, that would make Benezra’s departure the only such corrective change in the San Francisco arts world since Tobin was sacked last year. The problem is, those two are hardly the only problematic individuals in the community.

I’m not only a person of color with deep ties to the local theater community. I am also one of the few PoC critics covering the Bay Area art scene. As such I have a unique perspective and a duty to call it like I see it.

I’ve continued to review shows all through lockdown as I’ve tried my best to keep up with what’s been happening officially with most companies. Some have closed completely, some have moved exclusively online, some have announced seasons that will begin online but hope to have vaccinated audiences meet them this autumn. Few, if any, chose to address the accusations they are facing.

Credit where credit is due: Marin Theatre Co. has publicly released an accountability report, Shotgun Players has diversified its board and selection committee, and the often super-white SF Playhouse has commissioned its most diverse season ever, including a new full-length from Native American playwright Claude Jackson, Jr.

These are good steps, but they’re baby steps.

A much more telling action is that of TheatreFirst: after artistic director Jon Tracy was criticized at length in the document, he soon announced he would step down from his role. After several months of searching, the company announced Brendan Simon — a Black actor and already a member of the company’s board — would replace Tracy.

That sort of thing means a lot more than a bunch of hashtags and platitudes because it shows real change in effect. It shows a specified problem being addressed and resolved in a manner that one hopes would improve the situation. It doesn’t mean the company will never have problems ever again, but they (and everyone who follows them) now have an effective plan of operation on how to deal with similar problems, rather than sweeping them under the rug.

Look no further than Transcendence Theatre in Sonoma: after several former staffers (most notably, Nikko Kimzin) revealed a company history of racially condescending behavior by executive members, the company did nothing more than issue that standard “We’ll do better” statement. Such a statement rings all the more hollow considering that Kimzin, a Latino actor, was brought to the company for the express purpose of taking part in company programs to improve diversity. Those programs may need some improvement.

Look, when all is said and done, PoC actors, writers, directors, and tech workers all want the exact same thing as audiences just now pondering a return to live venues: they want to feel safe. Sure, you can put the characters on stage in danger, but the artists themselves should never feel threatened or intimidated simply because they don’t fit into archaic preconceived notions about what is or isn’t “real” theatre.

It’s unfathomable that the people who have written or contributed to these essays and documents did so for the sake of amusement or to seek attention, especially since so many of the anecdotes were written anonymously. No, these were cries for help delivered from artists who finally felt comfortable sharing their stories publicly. The question isn’t “Why did they take so long to speak out?” The real question is: “Why are fans still supporting people and organizations that incite these stories to begin with?”

It shouldn’t take a worldwide pandemic for employees to finally feel comfortable speaking out against Ellen Degeneres, it shouldn’t take a documentary to demand Justin Timberlake finally apologize to Britney Spears (and Janet Jackson), and it shouldn’t take the deaths of George Floyd for Bay Area theatre to finally confront its long history of racism. But it did.

And now that it has, everyone’s going to be paying attention to how theatres behave between shows just as much as the shows themselves.

Listen, it’s gonna be a while before most of us feel completely safe watching a live show, yet we remain optimistic that such a thing is within reach. But a return to “business as usual” won’t do. “Business as usual” isn’t sustainable, that’s why so many companies are dying. An inability to evolve just leaves a lot of fossils.

Hollywood can afford to shift online because film is a technology first, an art form second. You know what theatre is without an audience? Nothing. If you want those audiences to return, it’s your responsibility to make sure it’s a safe space. That means vaccinating every cast, crew, and staff member (audiences have that responsibility themselves) just as much as calling out an in-demand director for being a racist, sexist shit.

Let’s face it: if this past year has taught us anything it’s that it sucks to perform for an audience you can’t see.

Charles Lewis III is a San Francisco-born journalist, theater artist and arts critic. He’s online at TheThinkingMansIdiot.wordpress.com.

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