#Trayvon: Race, Capitalism, and Black Bodies in America and Theater

by Al Heartley

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.)

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

In thinking about this post, I wanted to respond to this very specific question as well as answer other questions that go along with this blog series.

I was hurt by the verdict that was rendered that Saturday night.  I was not surprised and I think most people of color were not surprised.  While most of the nation, if not the world stood behind Trayvon Martin, there was a giant outcry from communities of color who know very consciously the effects of racism in the United States.  I was so distraught I couldn’t even go to an event that I planned to attend the next day.  I called both of my parents, who grew up during the civil rights era, and lamented to both of them about the loss of another Black life to the criminal justice system.  I think someone summed up my feelings in this statement-“Only in a America can a Black man who was killed be put on trial.”

I was shocked by the cries of normalcy that many white people (and some people of color) called for.  There were general sentiments of “Get Over It” as if this was a very individual trial that involved very specific circumstances that cannot possibly be attributed to a larger systemic problem.  It was as if race had no place in the conversation, that “racism was in the eye of the beholder,” and that people of color were simply imagining racism in this case.  The conversation was not warranted even when it concerned a young, African American male that was made to be a stereotype instead of a human being.  But because Trayvon was rendered down to a stereotype, he was killed and his killer was set free.

After the trial I posted on Facebook that I hoped the American theater was paying attention to this trial and the reaction.  The general response of whites seeing this trial from an individual perspective and people of color (in general) from a systemic perspective was very telling and I think relate to the American theater more than we think.  When we look at anti-racism work in theater, I think we try to have a lot of conversations from individual experiences and looking at individual cases of racism.  However, people of color working in theater as well as white allies tend to notice the overall systemic problem in theater.  We are afraid to admit that there are advantages and privileges that are afforded to people that are unsaid, unnoticed, and sometimes even unwanted.  The not wanting of privilege does not discount that there are not invisible advantages by white people who make and work in theater just as a white person is less likely to be followed and profiled in a neighborhood as suspicious.

When the non-guilty verdict was read the American justice and capitalist system rendered Trayvon as being of lesser  value and another person of color who could be killed or jailed without cost.  In this case, Black men were rendered as being of lesser value and their bodies unmarked.  Capitalism has long played an important role in America’s race problem.  You cannot talk about racism without talking about capitalism.  There’s a reason that people of color fill our prison-it is profitable.  This is not to say that all criminals are guiltless, but there is something unavoidably telling when there are a massive surplus of men and women of color who are in prison in comparison to whites. People of color got the message loud and clear that night of the verdict-bodies of color are thrown into meaninglessness when in the hands of the capitalist United States.  Although this is a separate blog and thought, I think that American theater is not willing to admit that our capitalist commercial and non-profit theaters alike who focus on generating the most revenue are tied to the existing problem of racism in theater.  As TCG’s Fall Forum approaches it will be important to note how capital and racism connect.

Trayvon was painful because it was a moment where I was jolted back to the reminder that my body, the work I advocate for, the fight that I fight has to constantly be defended in the everyday operations of theater and that racism has real and active consequences.  When it comes to season planning, it’s another story that goes unheard of.  When it comes to hiring, it is another person that is not being added to the conversation that could help to thrust theater forward.  Racism can lead to a young Black men’s death and remind all people of color just how violent the consequences of racism can be.

Despite my what could be called my downtrodden outlook in this post, this work is hopeful.  Trayvon is another person I fight for in my anti-racism work.  He’s the reason that I am in theater and that I stay in theater: because America has the expectation that I will either be in jail or be killed as a Black man rather than be a theater administrator.  And that is a disturbing, but telling truth.  American theater can take a note from this important trial: do not be reactive in this work.  Be proactive.  Look beyond stereotypes.  Look beyond the everyday and look at the larger context in which our daily actions can either inhibit or contribute to racism in American theatre.

Al HeartleyAl Heartley is an anti-racism practitioner and arts leader.  He currently is the education associate at Cleveland Play House in Cleveland, OH.  He was a 2012 Young Leader of Color with TCG in Boston and in 2013 moderated a panel at the National Conference in Dallas on mentorship and fellowship programs.  He previously received training in the Multicultural Fellowship Program at Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago where he was the theater management apprentice.  He is an avid reader and writer on critical race studies in theater and culture with an acute interest in African American and Latina/o theater.