In response to worldwide protests over the killing of George Floyd and other Black citizens by police, many arts organizations and other nonprofits publicly proclaimed their solidarity with the protesters and the Black Lives Matter movement. Second City tweeted their support on May 31, along with a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King (“There comes a time when silence is betrayal”) and the message “To say nothing is to be complicit. Black lives, stories, art, and souls matter.”
Dewayne Perkins, a Marquette Park native and DePaul grad who worked with the Wells Street comedy behemoth in several capacities, including as a member of a national touring company and in 2015’s Training Center show No Selfie Control before becoming a television writer (he has written for Brooklyn 99, among other projects), retweeted Second City’s BLM statement.
And he added several more of his own. “You remember when the black actors wanted to put on a Black Lives Matter Benefit show and you said only if we gave half of the proceeds to the Chicago PD, because I will never forget.”
A tsunami of tweets from other BIPOC artists and Second City alumni followed, calling out institutional racism. It was reminiscent of the controversy surrounding the 2016 Second City e.t.c. revue A Red Line Runs Through It, when half of the cast quit in response to what actor Peter Kim described in a Chicago magazine essay as an environment where audiences “hurled increasingly racist, homophobic, and misogynistic comments at me and my castmates: comments demeaning my Asian ethnicity, using the f-word to degrade my homosexuality, and shouting ‘whores’ at the women.” In response to the exit of the actors, Andrew Alexander, Second City’s owner, CEO, and executive producer, shuffled around some of the management team.
But after the Twitter backlash, and with the Second City empire (which includes outposts in Los Angeles and Toronto along with the mothership in Piper’s Alley) shuttered by COVID-19, Alexander, 76, announced his departure on Friday, June 5 in a memo now available on the company website. In this valedictory, he appeared to accept responsibility for the failures to address institutional racism in a meaningful way.
“The company has grown significantly–yet culturally homogeneously. There is no excuse for it, and I am not defending it,” Andrews wrote. “I succumbed to (what I now realize was) my unconscious biases, the biases of the theater community, and the biases of the city in which The Second City is embedded. I surrounded myself with people mostly of my own race and culture. As a theater producer, I like to think I have good instincts, not just commercially, but also as it relates to what is right. As an administrator, I have not always had good instincts. While diversifying the theater artistically, I failed to create an anti-racist environment wherein artists of color might thrive. I am so deeply and inexpressibly sorry.”
Alexander went on to say, “I am stepping down and fully removing myself from overseeing The Second City’s operations and policies and will divest myself from the company as it stands. The next person to fill the Executive Producer position will be a member of the BIPOC community. That’s a commitment I’m proud to make.”
Alexander, who produced the legendary sketch television series SCTV, took over the Toronto Second City operations in 1974 from Second City cofounder Bernie Sahlins and then became co-owner of the Chicago original in 1985, also overseeing revues for decades as the executive producer.
Alexander owns 50 percent of the company, and under his leadership, Second City expanded its brand through a range of initiatives, including corporate training and expansion of both the Training Center facilities and additional performance venues in Piper’s Alley. It’s unclear right now how the for-profit enterprise will move forward with changing leadership and who might be in contention to take over Alexander’s role, particularly given the economic turmoil of the coronavirus shutdown that has caused massive layoffs and drops in revenue throughout the entertainment sector.
In addition to the announcement of Alexander’s departure, Second City publicly committed to several other steps to address the problems with lack of diversity and institutional racism called out by the alumni on Twitter and by many others over the years.
“The Second City commits to reviewing internal hiring, casting, and student recruitment practices to ensure we are actively identifying and removing barriers to access and opening the doors to BIPOC in every area of the company. The Second City commits to using our resources to produce art by and for BIPOC artists and diversifying audiences in our theaters. We commit to company wide anti-racist training and education. The Second City will make ongoing financial and in-kind donations to organizations working to dismantle systems of oppression, as well as to Black-owned businesses and schools in underserved communities.”
How that plays out also remains to be seen. v