#Trayvon: Cross-Cultural Dialogue & Tell-Tale Hearts

by Jocelyn Prince

in Activism,Diversity & Inclusion

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(Ed. Note: The following blog salon series will focus on how theatre artists are responding to Trayvon Martin’s death, the trial and verdict, and the subsequent cultural response to those events. This series grew out of a series of discussion between myself, our Diversity & Inclusion salon curator Jacqueline E. Lawton, The New Black Fest’s artistic director Keith Josef Adkins and TCG’s Director of Communications & Conferences Dafina McMillan. If you would like to participate in this series, please email Gus Schulenburg.)

GUS SCHULENBURG: How has the outcome of the Trayvon Martin trial impacted you as a theatre artist? As a citizen? As a human being?

JOCELYN PRINCE: I was stunned and shocked by the verdict. It was honestly like a bomb had been dropped, and there was a deafening silence and a ringing in my ears. I spent my childhood on Chicago’s South Side, but I spent my teenage years in an all-white, upper middle class suburb of Chicago. I have a younger brother, who was particularly upset by the verdict. Trayvon Martin could have easily been my brother walking home one evening, wearing a sweatshirt. The morning after the verdict came down, I joined a national conference call, organized by Million Hoodies, an amazing multiracial grassroots organization, formed to address violence directed at young people of color in the U.S. I was comforted to hear that many of the people on that call shared my frustration, disappointment, and fears. I also attended a vigil on July 20th, organized by the DC chapter of the National Action Network at the E. Barrett Prettyman Federal Courthouse in DC.

GS: What actions are you taking, if any, to respond to that outcome?

JP: As Connectivity Director at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, I work on community and civic engagement for the theater. Woolly has a 34-year history of producing not only new and innovative work, but also work that is deeply engaged with the world around us. I love working at Woolly because of our unique mission to ignite explosive engagement between theatre artists and the community with new plays that have both aesthetic and civic challenges. In response to the outcome of the Trayvon Martin case, I was inspired to organize a Town Hall meeting here at Woolly to address the verdict. Our 34th season theme, entitled “America’s Tell-Tale Heart” is an exploration of what lies under America’s sunny exterior, and what remains unsaid when talking about the myth of the country. When I presented this idea to our Artistic Director, Howard Shalwitz, he was immediately convinced that this was something that Woolly should organize given the plays we are producing next season, which address a whole host of relevant issues, including race and racism. Howard was also, personally, deeply disturbed by the verdict. The purpose of the meeting is to provide a safe space for local academics, activists, artists, and policy makers to share, process, and organize around this horrifying verdict, and its implications for the black community, and our nation as a whole. For more information about the event, visit: http://www.woollymammoth.net/performances/woolly-mammoth-presents/.

GS: How have you engaged, or will you engage, with those who feel differently about that outcome?

JP: To be honest, I have deleted a few Facebook friends in the wake of this verdict. I was really shocked and saddened to read some pretty offensive comments on the pages of some of my online acquaintances. As a Black American, this is a particularly painful issue for me (as I think it is for most Black Americans). While I am a person who is open to accepting and acknowledging differing viewpoints on a variety of issues, I have a hard time engaging with those who go out of their way to be spiteful or vitriolic.

GS: What role does theatre have in changing the conditions that contributed to the death of Trayvon and the acquittal of George Zimmerman?

JP: I continue to believe that practitioners and administrators in the American non-profit theater industry are uniquely poised to facilitate cross-cultural dialogue and art-making, and that this exchange can positively affect both individuals and our society at large. Struggles against anti-Semitism, racism, sexism, heterosexism, and all other forms of oppression have historically been, and continue to be, aided by theater artists and theatrical performances that reflect our everyday lives back to us in a way that helps us focus and direct our thoughts and actions in a positive way. Theater can play a huge role in changing the conditions in our society that facilitated this tragedy.

GS: How do the racial/cultural power dynamics of the theatre field challenge or reinforce the conditions that contributed to that outcome?

JP: The issue of American theater institutions being led, almost exclusively, by white men is a serious and troubling fact that I have been very conscious of throughout my career in the theater. Of course, many of these white male Artistic and Executive Directors are allies. However, these leaders must be vigilant in maintaining an awareness of the place of privilege that they operate from, in continuing to explore the implications of that privilege, and in learning more about how to be a professional and personal ally to members of communities of color.

GS: What actions are you taking, if any, to change those conditions within the theatre field?

JP: I have been an advocate for increased diversity in programming, staffing, and leadership in the American theater throughout my career, both in Chicago, and around the country, and I will continue that advocacy. I was a Co-Founding Artistic Director of The New Black Fest in NYC, a festival dedicated to providing a space for the development of new work by Black writers across the diaspora and to facilitate activism around issues relevant to Black theater artists. Despite current discourse about the idea of a post-racial American society, particularly in the wake of Barack Obama’s election to the presidency, I still believe that safe spaces are still needed and necessary for black artists and audiences. Much of the advocacy I engage in outside of identity-specific Black organizations happens in less public spaces like Board and staff meetings, private conversations with co-workers, and in blogs like this one.

GS: So much of this work to make change grows out of the shining example of artists, cultural organizers and civil rights workers in the past and present. From whose example do you draw strength?

JP: There are too many examples to list here! They are living and dead, famous and not, and none of them are perfect in their ideology or practice. But, here are a few of my shinning inspirations for my life and work- Gloria Steinem. Toni Morrison. Alice Walker. Martin Luther King. Chuck Smith. Suzan-Lori Parks. Morgan Jenness. George C. Woolfe. Tony Kushner. Martha Lavey. Lydia R. Diamond. D. Soyini Madison. Harvey Young. Jack Reuler. Mahatma Gandhi. Athol Fugard. Howard Shalwitz. Oskar Eustis. Barack Obama. Eric Rosen. Bonnie Metzgar. Audre Lorde. Lucille Clifton. Melissa Harris-Perry. Nikkole Salter and NSangou Nijikam.

Jocelyn- The New Black FestJOCELYN PRINCE is the Connectivity Director at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in Washington DC.  She recently served as the Artistic Associate at The Public Theater in New York City where she produced the Public LAB Speaker Series, numerous new play readings, workshops, and audience engagement events. She also coordinated the selection process and helped facilitate the 2010 Emerging Writers Group. Dramaturgy credits include A Raisin In The Sun (Juilliard School of Drama); Black Diamond: The Years the Locusts Have Eaten (Lookingglass Theatre Company); Invisible Man, Raisin and The First Breeze of Summer (Court Theatre); The MLK Project (Writers’ Theatre); My Julliard, Kingdom and Eyes (eta Creative Arts Foundation); Teibele and Her Demon (European Repertory Company);Daughters of the Mock, Spunk, King of Coons, and The House that Jack Built (Congo Square Theatre Company); and Intimate Apparel and Harriet Jacobs (Steppenwolf Theatre Company). Jocelyn has directed at the Bailiwick Repertory Directors Festival, The Movement Theatre Company, Around the Coyote Art Festival, and 20 Percent Theatre, and has assisted Mary Zimmerman on Mirror of the Invisible World (The Goodman Theatre), Eric Rosen on Wedding Play (About Face Theatre), and Hallie Gordon on The Bluest Eye (Steppenwolf). Jocelyn is a Co-Founding Artistic Director of NYC’s The New Black Fest. Her social justice and political work includes positions with the YWCA of Metropolitan Chicago and Obama for America. She holds a MA in Performance Studies from Northwestern University and has written for TimeOut Chicago, TimeOut New York, The Chicago Reporter, Afrique Magazine, and the African American Review.