In 1970, James Baldwin (one of the best writers America has ever produced) and anthropologist Margaret Mead (the only anthropologist America has ever heard of) recorded a passionate and prescient seven-and-a-half-hour conversation, which was later turned into the book A Rap on Race.
In a show with the same title, created by Spectrum Dance Theatre, now running at Seattle Rep, Tony Award–nominated local choreographer Donald Byrd and MacArthur genius playwright/performer Anna Deavere Smith reproduced sections of Baldwin and Mead's long-form, heady, booze-buoyed discussion and cut it with spurts of drunk-jazz dance numbers.
"My hope," Byrd said in an interview published in the show's program, "is that in some ways their conversation is a model and might give us permission to have deep uninhibited conversations around race."
Baldwin (played by Byrd) and Mead (played by Julie Briskman) carry out their argument on a platform suspended high above the stage. After certain dramatic moments, dancers rush the boards and perform a dance that embodies the argument the audience just heard.
The dances included lots of white-dancer/black-dancer mirroring and graceful performances of instability. If I had to reduce the entire show to a single movement, I'd point to a moment when Alexis "Tilly" Evans-Krueger, whose versatility and strength blew me away (as much as her ability to rock a Padawan braid), bent at her waist and rested all her weight on her wrists. She looked like a mountain held up by a toothpick.
In the script, Mead freely admits she inherits the benefits of whiteness, and her idea is to repay the debts of that inheritance with futures. These futures, for her, are the hope that subsequent generations will solve the many layers of racial oppression that compose the foundation of America's ideology and policies. Baldwin can't afford to believe in those futures, because doing so would require acquiescence to the daily psychic and physical pain he endures as an exile in his own country. He knows such an acceptance would kill him.
At the climax of the show, Baldwin summarizes the conflict with perfect clarity: "We've got to make some connection between what you believe and what I've endured," he says. Like so much of Baldwin, the resonance of that line spreads off the stage and into present-day, real-life tensions. Ironically, the most immediate illustration could be found in a racially charged incident that played out three weeks ago onstage in the very auditorium at the Rep where A Rap on Race is running.
THE STORIES ARE CHANGING
Last week, I reported that a cast member for brownsville song (b-side for tray) overheard a union stagehand working for the Rep using the n-word backstage.
It happened April 7, between a matinee for schoolchildren and the evening performance of the play, which is about the life of a young black man named Tray who was gunned down in Brooklyn.
According to the stagehand, who would only discuss the incident under the condition of anonymity, the incident began with the stagehand's confusion over a line of dialogue in which one character "says something like 'Tray is just another [pause] to you.'"
The question was about that pause.
"I was talking to some other crew members about that moment and that pause, which I hadn't noticed before," the stagehand explained via e-mail. "It's kind of confusing, but I was really trying to figure out a few things: If the pause represented the word I thought it did, if the pause is intended to leave the audience wondering if she was implying that she was saying the n-word without saying it, and also if the line had been further censored for this show because it was a performance for students. Did she normally actually use the n-word and I hadn't noticed it?
"Unfortunately, in talking with the crew about it, I said 'She's not saying [n-word], right? That's the word she's not saying?' But I said the actual word. I know it doesn't make sense, but I really was just trying to clarify what was happening and understand the show."
The moment the stagehand may have been referring to was the opening monologue of the character Lena, Tray's grandmother, the woman who raised him. 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
When the incident took place, the auditorium's intercom system—which feeds into the dressing rooms so the actors can listen for their cues—happened to be on. As a result, a member of the all nonwhite cast overheard the n-word being spoken aloud by a stagehand. That cast member was moved to report the incident to the theater's human resources department.
According to Simone Hamilton, the Rep's artistic engagement coordinator, the initial response by the Rep's human resources department was to facilitate a meeting between the stagehand and the cast members, at which the stagehand would apologize. The stagehand's apology did not satisfy the actors, so they asked the theater to report the incident to the whole staff. Though none of the individual actors agreed to speak on the record about what happened, the cast as a whole sent the following written statement to The Stranger.
You have been informed correctly. There was a racially charged incident that took place during the run of Brownsville Song. It was initially mishandled, however, it is our belief as a cast that the theatre is moving in the right direction. The steps needed to correct the situation are being taken by SRT. They are promising to implement any and all procedures and policies that were not in place to safeguard against the likelihood of such an incident recurring.
This issue is much larger than SRT. We believe this is 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 THEATRE is changing. The stories being told are changing and we must challenge our institutions to be flexible and adapt with these changes.
We commend SRT for taking those first steps.
But if the actors in the show, most of whom live outside of Seattle, were eventually satisfied with how the Rep is changing, more than one person who had to stick around and actually work at the theater was not so sure.
RENT OR CONSCIENCE?
Hamilton told me the information regarding HR arbitration was communicated to her at an all-staff meeting on April 21, which included the brownsville cast and members of IATSE, the union to which the stagehand belongs.
At the meeting, Rep artistic director Braden Abraham and managing director Jeffrey Herrmann described the incident and told the staff the stagehand was being put on paid administrative leave through the summer, but would be invited back in the fall—with the caveat that a course of sensitivity training must be completed. (The Rep plans to hire a racial-sensitivity consultant to work with the theater "on an ongoing basis," so everyone at the Rep will have to go through some kind of sensitivity training.)
Hearing this, Hamilton says she stood up and addressed her colleagues. "People of color don't get second chances like this," she said. "We don't get paid administrative leave. We get fired."
She says she went on to say that the Rep's zero tolerance policy for hate speech didn't track with their handling of this incident.
Hamilton says she likes her job at the Rep, which is to "build relationships with disenfranchised communities and organizations that service disenfranchised people." But she also says she doesn't feel comfortable bringing such people into a space where behavior like the stagehand's receives only a slap on the wrist.
"I'm faced with this black-and-white decision," she told me she said at the meeting. "Do I pay my rent or do I keep my conscience?"
According to Hamilton and one other staff member who wishes to remain anonymous, another employee who works for the Rep stood up at the staff meeting and said he'd dealt with other racially charged issues at three other Seattle theaters, and that it distressed him to see this pattern continue at the Rep.
Others at the meeting stood up to defend the stagehand, calling for forgiveness and mentioning the fact that black people use the n-word, too, and so what's the big deal?
Hamilton and other employees at the Rep think the stagehand should be fired. That's not the Rep's plan. In an e-mail following the all-staff meeting, Abraham and Herrmann wrote:
We know there was sentiment voiced by some at the all-staff meeting last week that the employee in question should be terminated. But our original decision to place the employee on administrative leave until sensitivity training can be completed stands. We believe this is the right way forward in this particular circumstance, a position that has been affirmed by outside legal counsel and that aligns with our company policies as well as the collective bargaining agreement with our union partners.
Hamilton was disappointed by the decision for several reasons, not least of which was that she believes this incident was not isolated.
"People make mistakes, I get that," she said, referring to the stagehand. "But that's not what this is."
Hamilton told me she witnessed the stagehand in question raising their voice at a group of students from Washington Middle School, who were predominantly but not all people of color. During a talkback after the first student matinee of brownsville song—which was being supervised by someone from the school who had a bullhorn, Hamilton, and SRT's education director—the stagehand was talking to the students about life backstage.
The kids were very vocal and excited, and they applauded after every response the stagehand gave. It'd take the kids a little while to settle down, and in response to this, the stagehand raised their voice and demanded that the students be more respectful. Hamilton and the other supervisors felt uncomfortable enough with the stagehand's tone to report the incident to HR.
From Hamilton's perspective, the situation is clear: A stagehand who had already yelled at several students of color for being insufficiently respectful felt comfortable enough with the n-word to speak it aloud in a work environment where other people could hear and take offense. This person then failed to apologize in a way that satisfied the people who were offended, and got punished with a four-month paid vacation.
"Personally," the stagehand wrote via e-mail, "I believe my action does not warrant termination as I wasn't calling names and I wasn't trying to hurt people, I was trying to understand the script. 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."
It's worth noting that although several people were willing to give me information and perspectives for this story, practically no one was willing to do so on the record, or by name. And in all cases, it's easy to see why.
Actors from brownsville song did not reply to follow-up questions—but then, professional actors have a strong interest in not alienating potential employers.
Abraham and Herrmann would not go on the record about details concerning the incident with the stagehand, nor concerning their conversations with the union—but then, they are in charge of a huge institution. The last thing they need is trouble with a union, or the perception that one of Seattle's best known arts organizations is harboring a racially insensitive work environment.
Two Rep employees who spoke at the meeting did not respond when asked for comment. Three employees who did respond did so on the condition of anonymity. People would confirm that certain events took place, but they didn't want to be the ones who told me that those events happened in the first place. To be sure, some of this is simply the price of doing business when reporting on something thorny. Also, this is Seattle, where uncomfortable conversations in the arts community—from critical opinions about work to ad hominem slurs to substantive accusations about professional behavior—tend to happen behind people's backs.
But as I watched the opening-night performance of A Rap on Race, I couldn't help but note the disjunction between the goal Donald Byrd has for the show, namely that it "might give us permission to have deep uninhibited conversations around race," and what I encountered: the deep inhibition of several arts workers to discuss something "around race" in their own backyard.
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