Features BroadwayNYCOff-Broadway Published 9 July 2020

How The Doors Were Opened, and What Comes Next

The George Floyd protests opened up theater lobbies and has prompted a new dialogue about theater and race. Joey Sims investigates.

Joey Sims

Artwork by Brianna Pippens in front of The Public Theater (Photo: NoHo BID)

In the summer of 2016, following the murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, actor Reggie D. White was performing at a prominent regional theater. White and his cast asked if they could include a moment of silence following a performance, in memory of Sterling and Castile. 

“We had a meeting where they explicitly told us we were not allowed to do that,” recalls White. The theater’s artistic director “flatly told” them no, White said.

“In the past there has been a, ‘Well, the show must go on’ vibe,” said White, now also artistic director of student productions at Atlantic Theater Company. Right now, he said, “I’m grateful that neither I nor any Black actor has to be at a theater going through grief and being told by the leaders of that company: ‘Sorry you are having a rough moment, but the show must go on.’”

“The show has stopped,” he said. “So we’re going to pause for a moment, and try to address all the systemic things that have been swept under the rug.”

While theater may be paused by the pandemic, the protests following George Floyd’s killing have pushed American theaters to engage with fundamental questions of their role and existence going forward: Can the predominantly white-run theater join the fight for racial justice, and face its own role in upholding white supremacy? And what could systemic change look like?

On June 8th, the “Dear White American Theater” letter was published with signatures from over 300 BIPOC artists, including White. The letter shook up the theater world, unsparingly pointing the finger at white theatermakers and institutions. 

It read in part: “We have watched you use our BIPOC faces on your brochures, asking us to politely shuffle at your galas, talkbacks, panels, board meetings, and donor dinners, in rooms full of white faces, without being willing to defend the sanctity of our bodies beyond the stages you make us jump through hoops to be considered for.” 

Close to 80,000 signatories have since joined the letter in solidarity, while over 5,000 have signed the Broadway Advocacy Coalition’s accountability pledge as of June 28th. On July 8th the group followed up with a comprehensive list of demands entitled “BIPOC Demands For White American Theatre,” which lays out detailed principles for building anti-racist theater systems.

Many more efforts are gearing up at the same time. Black Theatre United aims to combat systemic racism within the industry and develop mentorship programs for young Black theater artists; Black Women on Broadway is celebrating the work and legacy of Black women in theater and on June 29th hosted a virtual appreciation day; Black Work on Broadway is building a comprehensive record of Broadway works written or created by Black artists; and the inaugural Antonyo Awards, held on Juneteenth by Broadway Black, celebrated Black work both on and off-Broadway in the past season.

Across these varied efforts, one message is clear: This time will be different. 

“This is the first time, in my career, that [BIPOC artists] have collectively shared our experiences, our traumas, our discomforts, and put those into statements and into mandates for the predominantly white institutions,” said Kelley Nicole Girod, playwright and executive director/founder of The Fire This Time Festival. “My optimism lies in our collective effort.”

The fight is not waiting on theatrical institutions — it’s happening now. But what does joining the fight look like? 

How the Lobbies Opened

On May 31st, in the first weekend of city-wide protests against police violence in New York City, Declan Zhang was maced by a police officer. Zhang was the executive fellow at New York Theatre Workshop, one of several theaters that released statements in support of the protests and the Black Lives Matter movement that weekend.

Jim Nicola, artistic director at NYTW, reached out to Zhang on Sunday to check in. Nicola also said the theater was looking for ways to help. After taking the day to recover, Zhang replied at 2 a.m. with an actionable step: hand out water and snacks, open up your bathrooms, and offer protesters a place to sit. 

New York Theatre Workshop (Photo: Casey Mink)

“When I got maced, I really needed somewhere to sit for a while,” Zhang recalls, “and there was nowhere to go.” By 2 p.m. that same day, NYTW’s lobby was open.

When Declan approached us about opening the lobby in support of protesters, we were moved by their passion and creative thinking and were honored to be able to embrace and support their efforts,” said Jeremy Blocker, managing director of NYTW, who worked most closely with Zhang on the details. 

The theater publicly committed to keeping police out of the building, which Zhang had insisted was essential — but in those first few days of operation, with police brutalizing protesters across the city, it was hard to know what to expect. On Tuesday, the line for the bathroom was down the block, with some protesters arriving in Ubers just to pee. When a march looked to be heading down 4th Street, Zhang recalls preparing the line to quickly disperse if a heavy police presence arrived, fearing escalation. That march ultimately turned a different corner.

Zhang was present every day for the first week, managing volunteers drawn from the staff of NYTW and other theaters. The group figured out best practices as they went — bathroom cleaning, managing the flow of people in the lobby, and coordinating supply drop-offs. Zhang also gave tutorials on how to flush mace and tear gas out of the eyes, sharing what they had learned from the street medics who treated them.

Just around the corner, the Public Theater scrambled to respond to events. On the Monday NYTW opened its doors, the Public had intended to hold its annual gala — albeit virtually. The theater took heat on social media as cheesy, humorous videos from gala host Jesse Tyler Ferguson remained up on their platforms while the city erupted. By Sunday evening they had been deleted, replaced by a statement of solidarity and commitment to accountability. The gala was postponed. Perception remained that the theater “of, by and for all the people” — a theater whose founder, Joseph Papp, was himself a frequent participant in protests against inequality — was responding slowly.

Hearing that the Public was exploring the possibility of opening its lobby, and drawing inspiration from Zhang’s effort, Maya Quetzali Gonzalez drew up a letter to place pressure upon Public leadership. Gonzalez had interned at the Public since 2019, first in production at Shakespeare in the Park and then with the Shakespeare Initiative for the following year (with a stop-off at Under the Radar along the way). Now she was back home in Texas but eager to help from afar. 

“We, the former and current staff, employees, and artists of The Public, are asking The Public to #OpenYourLobby to the brave protesters demanding justice for the countless police murders of Black people in our city and across the nation,” the letter opened. 

Letter sent to the Public Theater

Gonzalez at first shared the letter mostly with former interns, but it spread quickly. Over 300 members of the tight-knit Public community, from artists, to interns, to front of house staff, signed within just a day. “I spent my whole afternoon and evening just approving signatures,” she recalls. By Wednesday, June 3rd, the Public announced that it was opening its lobby, tweeting: “NYC, we hear you.” Zhang joined the Public’s volunteer crew that day to train lobby volunteers, sharing what they had learned at NYTW.

Lobby bathrooms on 6/28 (Photo: Joey Sims)

Now both efforts are self-sustaining, with volunteers drawn from theater staff around the city. The Workshop coordinates with two other 4th Street locations, La MaMa and IATI Theater, to trade off days when they are open. Theater spaces across the country have followed suit and opened up their lobbies to protesters.

Zhang and Gonzalez stress that their efforts were specific only to their theaters, with the broader Open Your Lobby effort then growing organically. Both did hear from organizers at a few venues and offered advice, but they don’t know the names or stories behind most of the openings. Not unlike the protests sweeping New York City and the world, the effort is built by leaders, but is leaderless. 

Statements, Missions, Values, Oh, My

Among the larger theatrical institutions in New York that released varying statements of solidarity, support and accountability, Roundabout Theatre Company’s pledge stuck out for a final proclamation: “We will be on the right side of history.” 

Theaters across the country have spoken out in support of Black Lives Matter, and some have made specific pledges to combat systemic racism within their own ranks and artistic output. Producer Marie Cisco’s “Theatres Not Speaking Out” spreadsheet, which Gonzalez assists in upkeeping (among many others), continues to track these commitments, and looks for who is making tangible change. Among the columns included: “Donation Made With Statement?” and “Actionable Commitments Declared in Statement?” 

On Roundabout’s line of the spreadsheet, the answer under “Actionable Commitments” is currently a hopeful but uncertain: “Yes?”

In a 2018 “Commitment to the Future” statement on equity, diversity and inclusion, Roundabout pledged a “long-term commitment to creating more inclusive experiences in our offices, classrooms and theaters.” Two EDI consultants were hired for a 14-month assessment of the organization, including focus groups, one-on-one interviews and confidential surveys. 

On March 12, the day Broadway shutdown, those consultants were in a conference room to present their findings drawn from research conducted across the company to members of Roundabout staff. Based on that research, Roundabout has formed a “Transformation Team” made up of certain staff members who will, per a statement to Exeunt NYC from the theater, “dig deeper into [the consultants’] assessment, analyze the inequities and shortcomings revealed, and strategize and develop short-term and long-term action plans to address these inequities.”

In the wake of the protests and resulting shockwaves across the industry, Roundabout is one of many institutions facing a growing critical consensus that EDI values have not produced change, amid a push for theaters to shift towards their commitments to anti-racism efforts. 

“A lot of theater’s EDI work over the last five years, since that became the buzzword, was really about doing the bare minimum,” says White, speaking not to any specific theater. “It didn’t result in any substantive policy change, because if it did, we wouldn’t have had that [Dear White American Theater] letter.”

Larger ships may tend to turn slower in shifting tides. “[At Roundabout], actions take a bit longer because there are more people involved and more strings, pulleys and levers that need to happen,” confirmed one administrative staff member at Roundabout, who asked to remain anonymous. 

The staff member was glad to see Roundabout holding itself publicly to its existing commitments, which they confirmed are often mentioned internally, and have produced tangible change in programming and education work — but they also hope more is to come. 

“[Roundabout has been] pushing programs to create change in technical theater training, our ensemble of young people, and even in the work we do in schools,” they said. “I want to support that work and diverse stories, but I also want to hold the organization accountable when they fall short of delivering something that is truly doing the work that they say they are going to do, and is really shaking up what they thought they knew about equity, diversity and inclusion.” 

Amidst growing pressure for change, theaters are already facing the unprecedented financial disaster with COVID-19. The Public delayed previously announced furloughs of 160 staffers in May after receiving a grant, but this was only a “temporary reprieve.” Furloughs at other New York theaters are likely in the coming months.

Even so, Roundabout acknowledged in its statement to Exeunt NYC the need, “in response to heartbreaking national events and the broad call to action” to “accelerate the process.” Their statement confirmed that the Transformation Team’s work will continue, along with continued dialogue and learning efforts involving both senior leadership and their Board, and 10 weeks of weekly anti-racism sessions mandatory for all on payroll.

“We acknowledge we have a lot of work to do, but we are excited to be able to use the time while our stages are empty to deeply engage in this organizational change work,” the statement concludes. “Our commitment to be an actively anti-racist institution must encompass every aspect of the organization.”

Roundabout has also announced a winter 2021 mainstage production of Alice Childress’ Trouble In Mind, a long-heralded work never seen on Broadway that examines the racist backstage culture of a major Broadway production. Roundabout gave Charles Fuller’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play from 1982, A Soldier’s Play, its long-overdue Broadway debut this past winter. 

A Soldier’s Play with David Alan Grier, Blair Underwood, Billy Eugene Jones (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Our Doors Were Never Closed

Open lobbies and statements of intent are, of course, only actionable first steps. The bigger, tougher question lies in the long-term work.

In a June 16 piece in the Chicago Reader, Miranda Gonzalez, producing artistic director at UrbanTheater Company, wrote of the theater’s inherent connection to its community as a venue led by and for people of color. “The privilege of deciding to close our doors and separate ourselves from our neighbors is nonexistent,” she writes, noting that the theater has also been a donation center, polling place and more.

As a small beginning step, Zhang hopes theaters do not close their lobbies if or when protesters need them less, noting that upkeep has been fairly easy at NYTW. “The really beautiful and unexpected part that’s come about is meeting a lot of the familiar faces on the block,” they noted. “There’s not really any reason why during the day, when there’s no show happening, you can’t just let people use the bathroom.”

“It feels very new for people because theaters have only really considered their ability to have an impact on the world through theater,” Zhang added. “I hope that theaters wake up to the responsibility they have not just to the people who see and do their theater, but also to the people who are next to them, and live on their block. What is your responsibility to people who don’t care about theater?”

Maya Quetzali Gonzalez echoed a hope that theater spaces can exist as something closer to a community center. She suggests open rehearsals, potlucks following shows, inviting in community members for talkbacks, and financially compensating them for their time. “That sort of grassroots work would be important to confronting racism and white supremacy,” she said.

In terms of the work on stage, Girod is personally unwilling to return to the pipeline as it was. “Predominantly white institutions thought, it is enough to engage with this audience with that one play on our second stage, or it’s enough to give this grant to one playwright,” she said. “In [their minds], one is enough — and then produce David Mamet for the rest of the season.”

One of the goals of Fire This Time has, for 12 years, been bringing Black playwrights to the attention of white gatekeepers and hoping this work was embraced for those limited slots. Girod wonders, now, if she will feel able to return to that dynamic. “There will need to be a lot of work done to change those environments, before many of us feel that’s a pipeline we’re willing to go back to,” she said.

Her attention will remain focused on keeping up funding for Fire This Time, and sustaining that artistic space. “Because I don’t know where the other institutions’ heads are. I don’t know how much they see collaborations with us as necessary for their sustainability in the future.”

“You do want to hold space to be grateful for the projects that they’ve been able to make space for,” said Reggie White, noting the Public’s lavish production of Jordan E. Cooper’s Ain’t No Mo as one example. Still, he notes the elephant in the room — even white leaders who support diverse works may be holding up progress, simply by being in the roles they are in. 

“Are there implicit ways that, in holding that space as a cisgender straight white man, you are unintentually disempowering people who want to make work there, or want to be a part of that institution?” White asks. “Those are the scary conversations to have. And I hope that people can have them with grace and generosity.”

Of course, none of these elements — community engagement, a reimagined pipeline, or even structural leadership change — will dismantle white supremacy in theater overnight. As tangible first steps, though, these artists are hopeful that they would get the conversation going.

“I don’t know that I’ve seen enough from the predominantly white institutions to say that I’m optimistic about what’s gonna happen,” admits Girod, noting a concern that theaters are now focusing their digital platforms on artists of color, but not paying them for this work. “We’re still early to this — BUT the very small places where you would think there would be some awareness, I need to see more.”

#WeSeeYou has made clear what needs to change. On July 8th, they codified a comprehensive list of demands. This “living document” lays out principles for equitable presence and transformative practices, including 50% BIPOC representation in programming and personnel, an antiracist code of conduct enforced by training, salary and budget transparency, and term limits on executive leadership service.

The task is huge, White acknowledged. “America hasn’t solved its problem with racism. So we’re asking theater to lead the country,” he said. “But there is major precedent for theater already doing that. Theater has led the way, theater has started the conversation, for so many difficult topics. This feels like the biggest and scariest, but I have faith in us. I have faith in our ability to do that. It’s gonna be hard, but I have faith.”

Joey Sims

Joey Sims is a critic and playwright based in Brooklyn. He was written for Sketch Show at The PIT, and conducted research for The Civilians. His work has also been produced at Bard College, where he earned a BA in literature. Joey has worked as a script reader for Manhattan Theatre Club and The Public Theater, and has written for American Theatre Magazine. He was previously a Web Assistant at Playbill.com.