It takes more than #OpenYourLobby to address racism in American theater | Performing Arts Feature | Chicago Reader

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It takes more than #OpenYourLobby to address racism in American theater

UrbanTheater Company and other BIPOC theaters deserve solidarity—and funding.

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On June 3, Chicago theater artists flooded my social media with #openyourlobby; a call for theaters around the nation to open their doors to #blacklivesmatter protesters. As the producing artistic director at UrbanTheater Company, a Black and Mexican Chicago native, and mother, this call exposed the truth about our theater community: the privilege of deciding to close our doors and separate ourselves from our neighbors is nonexistent.

When you grow up in and around your audiences, people hold you and your organization accountable in ways that a mainstream theater has never experienced. You see, UTC is a theater of color founded by, led by, and for people of color. This May, our beloved organization turned 15. Founded in 2005, and having done work in Humboldt Park since 2006, we use grassroots marketing to draw audiences who have never seen a live theatrical performance. We’ve never had the privilege of putting up art, just for art's sake. Our mere existence is a rebellious act. We exist because of need.

Our audiences raised us. Many of our neighbors have worked assembly lines with our grandparents, gone to school with our parents, and have had their children taught by our artists. Closing our doors would be turning our backs on our family. We are and have always been in service to them. UTC has been a donation center many times over, a press conference room, a polling place for numerous elections, a place for healers to gather, a screening location, and so much more. We’ve had an open-door policy since occupying a permanent space in between the Puerto Rican flags on Division Street. By partnering with our nonprofit neighbors, like El Rescate, Vida/SIDA, the Honeycomb Network, and the Puerto Rican Cultural Center, we are able to provide accessible theater productions to our residents. We are and will continue to be a theater based in our community.

Our last season was titled "Born and Raised: Chicago Stories by Chicago Playwrights." It began with a commissioned piece, Not For Sale/No Se Vende, written by Chicago native Guadalís Del Carmen and focused on the issues Humboldt Park residents face with gentrification. We closed out our season with Back in the Day: An 80’s House Music Dancesical, written by myself and inspired by José Echevarría's memoir on Chicago dance crews, The Real Dance Fever: Book One. Both stories reflected the voices of the residents in our community and had sold-out runs.

And yet we are constantly on the precipice of exclusion because of the coming and going of artists seeking to enhance their career, resulting in the gentrification of Chicago theater.  Because UrbanTheater has not been given the same value by the institutions that are committed to Eurocentric ideology, our contributions to the ecology of theater are overlooked. It is a cycle of value that is perpetuated through academia, the press, and the regional theaters themselves that make BIPOC artists reject the learning or support of BIPOC theaters, in lieu of investing in the regional ecosystem.

The larger Chicagoland theater community will protest at Victory Gardens asking for fair and equitable treatment but will not rally, uplift, or visit UrbanTheater, while selectively choosing whose work to amplify. Why is that? Theater artists should not believe the lie that theaters of color are inferior to white-founded larger institutions. Larger institutions are inequitably funded in comparison to theaters of color. Marginalized artists will continue to be drawn to spaces where microaggressions feed their internalized inferiority by being sold on the idea of equitable pay. American theater began during the colonial era and gave birth to blackface, so why do we continue to uphold a model that was meant to exploit us?

In American Theatre magazine’s November 2019 issue, dedicated to Chicago theater, there was an article entitled “How Chicago’s Scrappy Storefront Scene Sustains Itself." As one of the few theaters of color with a space, UTC’s contribution to theater was entirely overlooked. Our existence was absent, as were all Chicago theaters of color. Only white-founded organizations were covered. When our executive director wrote the author of the piece explaining how UTC “tends to be left out of the narrative,” we were e-mailed the following response: “I'd prefer theater companies focus on treating their actors well and producing meaningful work, rather than telling writers and critics who they 'should have' written about—essentially, how to do their jobs, which is what you are doing here.” After making a Facebook post in a space for artists of color and tagging the editor of the magazine, we immediately were sent an apology e-mail. “I realize my response was unnecessarily aggressive and defensive, and I sincerely apologize for it—you are right that erasure is a very common issue for companies of color and a very valid concern.” American Theatre is not the only publication that has left us out. The journalist of this story is not the only author to respond to us with a tone rooted in white supremacy. This is all very common.

UrbanTheater’s legitimacy was never dependent upon receiving a Joseph Jefferson Award or being featured in American Theatre. While Not For Sale, a show that featured white actors, received a Jeff nomination, Back in the Day, a fully immersive experience centering queer Black and Brown stories, did not receive any Jeff recognition, even with double the budget of any show in UTC history. Both productions received critically acclaimed reviews, and even so we cannot ignore that access to more resources is a result of more mainstream press and awards.

The truth about American theater was exposed last week. A truth that BIPOC theaters have known for quite some time: very little has changed. Solidarity statement after statement flooded my inbox while I was still grieving, still hugging my Black sons, still praying they never have to call for me the way I read George Floyd called for his mother. I will never watch that video and I will never know what it’s like to write a statement in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. As you can tell, I am teetering between anger and sadness, as I put words to paper.

As an artistic leader, the following has never been clearer to me: our artists need to come home and BIPOC theaters deserve to be funded in order for us to adequately do so. We deserve to heal and we deserve to sustain ourselves while serving our communities. We deserve to have our voices lifted in every publication. We deserve to have whatever resources are needed to tell our stories. We deserve to have capacity to implement it all. We deserve to exist. Being in solidarity with that radical thought is nice, but being an accomplice and implementing that ideology is the most anti-racist thing the American theater can do.  v

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