The strength of community

At the end of September 2020, I wrote a piece for the Reader titled “Black artistic leaders take charge at several Chicago theaters,” which framed the influx of new (and preexisting) Black leadership in Chicago theater against the backdrop of a historic disruption in the industry. That disruption was powered in part by COVID-19 leading to budget cuts and mass layoffs, and in part by intense public criticism of the shortcomings of many predominantly white theater institutions, with a call to action for faster and more concrete gains in racial equity in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement’s impact on the arts sector. 

Many, including myself, tentatively hoped that the tsunami of these external forces would lead to a watershed moment ushering in a golden era of transformative changes that would completely redefine the industry as we know it. 

The cynic in me, however, had doubts. 

The reality has landed somewhere in the middle. While ticket sales might not yet be back to pre-pandemic levels, theater is back in full swing for just about everyone except for the immunocompromised, who are left with the agonizing choice of participating at their own risk or not at all, as COVID precautions such as masking have become less frequent to nonexistent. On the other hand, some of the temporary accommodations for accessibility have led to completely reimagining what theater can look like, with those early humble Zoom performances opening the floodgates toward permanently blurring the line between screen and stage. The heartbreaking number of theaters that have closed temporarily or permanently due to insolvency or mismanagement has also energized discussions about the long-term efficacy of board leadership

On the racial equity front, the final tally has yet to be counted. And frankly, if success isn’t obvious, based on historical track records and the continued excellent reporting of my colleagues, I think it’s quite fair to make assumptions. 

My first instinct was to approach this recap through the lens of how many artists have been retained in their positions and how many have moved on, to capture a snapshot of the health of artistic institutions. 

And doubly frankly: it doesn’t matter.

For me, the endless spin cycle of hand-wringing about whether or not fundamentally inequitable organizations can or will change after yet another misstep, scandal, or blindingly white season is beginning to feel like a lens best left in the trash bin like a used KN95. 

“The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and you spend 20 years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of this is necessary. There will always be one more thing.”

Toni Morrison

So much precious energy from so many talented artists has been wasted on so many recalcitrant and bullheaded organizations. So much ink has been spilled verbally prodding these stubborn oxen uphill. We know in our hearts that many simply will never budge. And that even the one obstinate step they are shamed into taking is just simply not worth the effort. At times, I as a writer have felt low, seemingly writing the same article over and over and over again, calling for a change that never seems to arrive.

I workshopped a few much more graceful ways to say this, but this feels the most authentic: People are fucking tired. I’m fucking tired. We need rest. 

“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

Audre Lorde

When Jerrod Carmichael hosted the Golden Globes recently, his opening monologue was quiet, contemplative, and light on the jokes—a drastic tonal shift from the typical biting zingers of award shows past, leaving quite a few people puzzled. To me, his monologue of fact—simply stating “I’m here because I’m Black”—acknowledged the sham, the repetition, the predictability. He was exhausted.

During the pandemic the organization ArtEquity held a series called BIPOC Surviving Predominantly White Institutions geared toward supporting artists who found themselves exhausted from the neverending struggle for respect. This movement toward healing is not new. It’s been a plank of Black liberation for eternity, from spirituals to recent movements such as #BlackGirlMagic #BlackBoyJoy, Toi Derricotte’s poem “The Telly Cycle” (opening with the line “Joy is an act of resistance”), and Congo Square’s recent work of community healing, What to Send Up When It Goes Down.  

The pandemic forced us to rest. Now it is mandatory that we embrace rest and pull together to heal and care for one another.

In my opinion, the best metric of success for Black artists—and all artists, frankly—is that they continue to find joy, renewal, and creative satisfaction in whatever role they choose, whether that choice is to stay in their position or move on to a new position. My wish for every artist is to find roles that offer them a better-than-living wage, benefits, schedule flexibility, the space to use their authentic voices, collegial support, and careers that allow them to grow or that happily help to launch them toward bigger and brighter futures. 

My wish is that we all luxuriate in the strength of community. Real, nourishing, supportive community.

My original piece highlighted seven leaders: Sana Selemon, the executive director of BoHo Theatre; Kamille Dawkins, the interim artistic director of Strawdog Theatre; Regina Victor, the artistic director of Sideshow Theatre; Donterrio Johnson, the artistic director of PrideArts; Mikael Burke, associate artistic director at About Face Theatre; Anthony LeBlanc, the interim executive producer of The Second City; and Charlique C. Rolle, the executive director of Congo Square Theatre. In an addendum to the article after press, the article also added Arlicia McLain, the artistic director at Halcyon Theatre, and Myesha-Tiara, cofounder and artistic director of Perceptions Theatre.

Recently, I was fortunate enough to gather some updates of joy from a few of this talented cohort of leaders. I want to celebrate their successes with you. 

One exciting update comes from LeBlanc, formerly artistic director of The Second City, who is thriving in his new role. LeBlanc shares, “I am working for Nickelodeon doing talent development and on-set acting coaching. It is a joy to help be a small part of fostering a new generation of comedians. But it does not miss me that every time I come back to Chicago or talk with a BIPOC comedy director that still reaches out for advice . . . that there is still so much work to do to keep improving the community . . . My constant advice is to do what you can to help to leave the community better than you found it. And if we all keep doing that, it will be harder and harder to turn back time.”

Perceptions, which started producing during the pandemic shutdown, is still going strong and rapidly breaking new ground. I checked in with Myesha-Tiara, and she had quite a bit of great news to share. 

Myesha-Tiara reports: “Perceptions Theatre is in its fourth year as a theater company based on the south side of Chicago. This is their second year in person, as their first two years were completely virtual. They have been working hard to live up to their mission to strengthen the accessibility of theater to the African-American/Black communities of South Shore and to be an economic and artistic resource for BIPOC artists and succeeding in doing so.”

Myesha-Tiara notes that the company has received over $40,000 in grants, which enabled them to employ “over 30 actors, 15 directors, and 12 playwrights.”

In 2023 they plan to do even more. This spring they are coproducing with Prop Thtr to bring the rolling world premiere of the play Panther Women: An Army for the Liberation by India Nicole Burton, which focuses on the Black women in the Black Panther Party and will be directed by Myesha-Tiara, to the south side. Panther Women is part of the rolling world premiere program through the National New Play Network; other partner theaters are Cleveland Public Theatre in Ohio and Phoenix Theatre in Indianapolis.This summer they will continue with their third annual BIPOC Play Fest that showcases playwrights of color, and will end the season with a workshopped staged reading of a piece yet to be announced that will go up in spring 2024. 

Myesha-Tiara shared a thoughtful and profound meditation for the future, saying, “This year I hope to live more in the present and enjoy each moment with my community instead of only focusing on what the future will bring.”

Over at the consistently excellent Congo Square Theatre, Rolle continues to shine as one of the hardest-working artists in the city. She shared a few impressive highlights of her work since we last spoke, which include being named in Newcity՚s Players 2022: The Fifty People Who Really Perform for Chicago (along with Congo Square artistic director Ericka Ratcliff); being elected as the newest (and second in its 25-year history) board president of the African American Arts Alliance of Chicago, a role that has been previously occupied by Black Ensemble Theater‘s founder Jackie Taylor; and being selected for the Chicago Urban League’s IMPACT Fellow Class of 2023. Currently Rolle serves as executive producer for Congo’s digital content, with the sketch series Hit ‘Em on the Blackside in season three and the audio series The Clinic in its second season. 

When asked what she might like to share with our readers, Rolle said, “I have been able to stabilize the organization to be in the best financial position it has seen in its entire existence. If there’s anything that I’ve learned, or rather that has been reinforced, amidst COVID, is that community is one of the greatest forms of currency that we have. I can say that I’ve done a lot and accomplished much on my own, but that wouldn’t be completely accurate. It’s the community that strengthens my bones and ignites my passion to continue to push boundaries, fight for equity, and ensure that our collective voices are heard.”

Some of the other artists featured, including Victor, Johnson, and Burke, have moved on from their positions toward new futures. Some, including Dawkins (now the permanent artistic director at Strawdog) and Selemon, remain. Regardless of how long or short their tenures were or will be, all of them remain threads in the tapestry that is Chicago theater and that should not mark the measure of anything more than the passage of time.

Burke’s words from two years ago on the limitations of longevity still ring true: “I don’t think there is one human being at the head of a cultural organization who can be as in touch with his community ten years later as he was when he first started.” 

Longevity of tenure is a crude and outdated measurement of success of an artistic organization, and for the artists themselves. After all, theater isn’t an institution. Theater is people. And even if every single institution crumbles, theater will still exist. Community will still exist. 

I extend my sincerest thanks to everyone in the theater community for sharing their art with me over the years. 

May every artist wander until they find the field of familiars where they can bloom. 

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