Chinaza Uche (left) and Denise Burse (right) brownsville song (b-side for tray).
Chinaza Uche (left) as Tray and Denise Burse (right) as his grandmother, Lena, in brownsville song (b-side for tray). The play ran at SRT in April. Chris Bennion

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There’s a racially charged drama going on behind the scenes at the Seattle Repertory Theatre.

On April 7th at the Rep, between a matinee show for school children and an evening show of brownsville song (b-side for Tray)—a play about the life of a young black man gunned down in Brooklyn—a white, union stagehand used the n-word with another stagehand in a conversion about the play.

According to the stagehand, who would only speak to me under conditions of anonymity, there was a part in the dialogue where one actor says, “Tray is just another (pause) to you.” The stagehand in question wondered whether the pause indicated an implied use of the n-word in the script or if the actor was censoring herself (and the play) for the sake of the school children at the matinee.

While talking to a co-worker about that moment, the stagehand claims to have said, “She’s not-saying [n-word] right? That’s the word she’s not saying?” Instead of saying “n-word” the stagehand used the actual word.

There is no use of the n-word in brownsville song. The moment the stagehand may be referring to is Lena’s opening monologue. Lena is Tray’s grandmother, the woman who raised him, and she begins the play by trying to describe for the audience the grief she feels at the loss of her grandson and the resentment she feels for a public who might reduce Tray’s death to a few lines in the newspaper: “Same Old Story so you gon feel bad and move on/ Cuz he just another/ Ain’t he/ To you.”

The stage’s intercom system happened to be on, and one of the cast members overheard the stagehand using the n-word. That cast member then reported the incident to the human resources department.

SRT launched an investigation into the incident, which took two weeks. Artistic director, Braden Abraham, said during the investigation the Rep talked to the cast and to the crew to make sure the playhouse was doing its “due diligence” in investigating the issue.

Following the investigation, SRT placed the stagehand on administrative leave through the summer. The SRT’s season ends in May but the stagehand was supposed to work at the Rep through the summer months.

Both Abraham and Jeffery Herrmann, the theater’s managing director, wouldn’t discuss the details of the incident. They also would not comment on whether the stagehand will be paid while on administrative leave. They also would not comment on conversations they’ve had with IATSE, the union to which the stagehand belongs.

According to Sal Ponce, President of IATSE, the union will not challenge SRT’s decision to put the stagehand on administrative leave.

Abraham said SRT will hire a sensitivity consultant “as soon as [they] possibly can—within the next week,” who will not be a permanent staff member but who will work with the theater on an ongoing basis. He says the consultant will work with the staff on issues of racial sensitivity, and that before returning to work the stagehand will have to complete sensitivity training.

I spoke with the stagehand and they expressed regret for causing the cast and others to suffer offense and said that they feel terrible. “I know there is work to be done to make the Rep feel like a safe space for all to work, and I hope I will be participating in that work,” the stagehand said.

Abraham said that the theater takes this situation “very, very seriously” and that SRT believes it’s “never appropriate” to say the n-word outside the context of a play. He added that the theater’s focus now is on trying to heal as an organization and as a cast.

“Our main course of action is how do we unite around this challenge and bring people together,” Abraham said. “How do we unite around this and step into this challenge and do better?”

This situation has added urgency to the equity measures [SRT] put in place when Abraham and Herrmann started at the Rep 18 months ago, Abraham said. The two administrators started at SRT around the time of the Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society’s production of The Mikado on the Rep’s Bagley Wright Theatre in July of 2014. G & S was criticized in The Seattle Times and elsewhere for casting white actors to play Asian characters.

On April 21st, the day of SRT’s 2016/17 season reveal, the theater held a full-staff meeting to discuss the n-word issue in the Leo K. auditorium. The cast of brownsville song was there, as well as members of the stagehand union.

According to a staff member who attended the meeting and who wishes to remain anonymous for fear of repercussions, emotions ran high. Abraham and Herrmann read prepared statements at the meeting, according to my source. “They gave us a very clean and sparse version of what happened, dripping with white guilt,” said the source, “[but] I trust these men and seeing them so upset was upsetting.”

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The meeting went on for nearly two hours, the source said, with some in attendance standing up and asking how the Rep’s implied “no-tolerance” can mean anything less than termination in this case. One SRT employee, a man of color, “choked back tears” while he spoke and another employee, a woman of color, said she wondered how many other times the stagehand had used the n-word with co-workers. The second employee added that, as a woman of color, no one has ever given her a second chance at anything—but this stagehand, a white person, is being given a second chance despite three actors and four staff members at the meeting saying that they felt as if SRT was now an unsafe and violent space, the source said.

I e-mailed Chinaza Uche, the actor who played Tray in brownsville song, a week after this meeting took place. Uche said he spoke with the cast and together they said that they felt as if the situation involving the stagehand was “initially mishandled,” but that it is now their belief that “[SRT] is moving in the right direction.”

They added that the issue is much larger than this one situation at SRT, and that this incident serves as an “opportunity for SRT to learn and grow, putting them on the forefront of a conversation that is happening, or needs to be happening, all across the country.”

The stagehand will return from administrative leave in the fall to begin work on the construction of Lorraine Hansberry’s play, A Raisin in the Sun.

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