(This post is a part of the Diversity & Inclusion blog salon led by Online Curator Jacqueline E. Lawton. Check out further Diversity & Inclusion interviews on Jacqueline’s blog. If you are interested in participating in this or any other Circle blog salon, email Gus Schulenburg.)
Diversity & Inclusion blog salon–The Role of Allies
CONTEXT: According to Reverend Dr. Andrea Ayvazian (Senior Pastor of the Haydenville Congregational Church), an ally is a member of a dominant group in our society who works to dismantle any form of oppression from which she or he receives the benefit. Allied behavior means taking personal responsibility for the changes we know are needed in our society, and so often ignore or leave to others to deal with. Allied behavior is intentional, overt, consistent activity that challenges prevailing patterns of oppression, makes privileges that are so often invisible visible, and facilitates the empowerment of persons targeted by oppression.
JACQUELINE LAWTON: In our work as allies, we must begin by addressing our own privilege and prejudice. Where are you in this process? What are some areas where you struggle?
AMPARO GARCIA CROW: The struggle for me is the way I balance the fine line between awareness and victimization. I want to be the first to know if I am oppressing myself and/ or others and the temptation is that when we have suffered genuine “prejudice” or marginalization of any kind, the anger and sadness that results requires a certain kind of maintenance. I remember reading a quote which has stayed with me for many years, unfortunately I no longer remember who the wise person was that said it, but its wisdom has remained: “those who do not lament cause grief for others.” So in admitting and feeling the pain or disappointment that occurs when we are not included or made less of because of race or gender or whatever difference, part of the challenge is in letting those deep feelings have their place, as in lamenting actively so that I do not deny or repress these emotions and then in turn perpetuate the ‘grief’ by imposing it on others. It does require taking responsibility to let the story of victimization or blame go so that the option instead is self-empowerment. I would much rather use these deep feelings to write from or express as an actor or find some creative container to allow them their true realization, without denial or worse, lashing them all out on the next person who triggers them–thereby continuing the cycle of oppression.
JL: In our work as allies, it is necessary to take a stand when groups are targeted with unjust treatment. As a theatre artist, can you share an experience where you stood in support and solidarity with someone who was unfairly blamed, targeted, ignored or left without resources? Or can you talk about when someone stood in support or solidarity of you?
AGC; I was hired as a lecturer at the University of Texas right after graduate school. After I’d been there for three years, a full-time position in playwriting came open for which I applied. Up until this point, I had been an advocate/ally for minority students whose race, ethnicity and/or sexual preference wasn’t being represented on stage by becoming a faculty sponsor for a very dynamic and diverse group of students who called themselves “The Drive-By Players.” Their mission was to give voice to the ‘other’ through theatrical production in the student laboratory theatre. When one of the “Drive By” members was invited to be a student representative on the selection committee, he witnessed the short list selection of playwriting professor candidates. When my name wasn’t on the list to receive an interview, that student rallied with many others to get a petition going in the theatre department. They organized a community hall meeting with the local press that required the Chair, Head of Playwriting and the Dean of Fine Arts to respond to their concerns which were: “You did not include any significant candidate of color and/or who is female. We want to support the consideration of Amparo Garcia-Crow who is an artist/woman of color and who supports our concerns and interests and we are a diverse group of students whose color or concerns are rarely seen on the stage. She advocates for that, she encourages us to write about these issues and when she directs she chooses pieces that are relevant and utilizes non-traditional casting, etc.”
I was very touched by their passion and how they had taken to heart the activism that I was teaching both in class and in practice as a function of theatre-making. Frankly, while their efforts were admirable, I worried (protectively) that maybe in this situation their efforts were futile and that their stand would go unheard, considering the history of the department’s previous choices. Much to my amazement, the Dean, Chair and Head of Playwriting not only heard the students’ concerns, they in turn rallied the Provost’s Office to create an Assistant Professor position specifically for me that required a unified argument from their end to make happen. The professor they wished to create a position for in this way, is the “only person” who can teach or contribute what they have to offer students, both professionally and academically. Or at least that is the argument the administrators had to present to the Provost. Lo and behold! The Provost honored the request and more importantly, the student’s passionate efforts, and I was given a tenured track assistant professor position (which I kept for 4 years before returning to the professional world). More importantly, the students had taken to heart what we were doing in the classroom and in the laboratory theatre about activism, and they empowered themselves in the process. It was a win-win for all because I myself got to witness (and benefit from) their effectiveness in creating the change they themselves wanted to be!
JL: In our work as allies, it’s important that we support theatre artists and organizations that aren’t at the center of mainstream culture. In what ways have you done or encouraged others to do this?
AGC: As the Inaugural Director (Project Manager) for the City of Austin’s brand new, 16 million dollar Mexican American Center, it was my job to bring 150 Latino/a and/or indigenous artists to celebrate the opening of this historic building! To make the Center a reality, it had been a thirty year effort made possible by community activists, educators and citizens working together! When you fight as long and hard as many of the integral citizens did that made the Center happen, fissures over the years had occurred and long-standing differences between this very diverse group had accumulated. Because I had been primarily an artist throughout the same span of time, I did not have the history that was keeping many of these amazing individuals from reconvening with each other. I was able to be in the right place, at the right time, to serve the community by becoming a bridge of sorts, so that the various groups and individuals could all be honored, if not side by side, certainly on the same platform and ceremony that marked its historic opening. We had 5000 citizens show up to celebrate this historic moment with us!
Previous to this effort, I had been an Artistic Director for various groups that aren’t the center of mainstream culture like PRISM WORKS which I created while I was a professor at UT to support the expression of minority voices outside the academic community, with the support of UT; I created a musical workshop that explored the “carpas” (a Mexican vaudeville form that pre-dates the agitprop traditions of lets say–Teatro Campesino) which explored the civil right history of Texas in relation to the African American community and that workshop was preserved in Hector Galen’s PBS documentary LATINO, ART AND CULTURE. I have also created new play festivals of Latino plays, taught all kinds of workshops that encourage the expression of authentic, minority voices and currently, as I mature gracefully into my 50s, I am working more and more often with the subject of aging, through storytelling and the presentation of work that transforms the stereotypes of what being a ‘senior artist” means in “mainstream culture.”
JL: In our work as allies, it’s import that we find and create opportunities to promote the leadership of people in groups that traditionally don’t take leadership positions. Can you share an experience where you were able to do this or where this was done for you?
AGC: Currently as a director, I am working with 5 performing artists in their 60s whose stories are pushing the ideas and limits of what it means to “grow older and wiser.” Typically older citizens are seen as those who are retiring and/or not vanguards for what might be cutting edge. Again, new boundaries to expand as they baby boomers, many with the 1960 perspective of “question authority,” “make love not war” and/or the gamut of feminist ideas, still ring true. For obvious reasons, as I begin to transition into this crone place, I am inspired by the efforts and stories of these non-traditional artists, many of whom are late bloomers or have waited to get to their actual 60s to begin their real life’s work full-time in theatre or performance.
JL: Knowing that the work of allies is a difficult, complex, and necessary, what resources have you found useful in your work? Who are you role models?
AGC: When I was a TCG Director’s fellow in the 1990s, I was very fortunate to meet María Irene Fornés during my track of wanting to gather experience and information about new play development. I was in my early 30s at the time and she was probably the age I am now. The wisdom and presence she had for ‘embodying’ what it means to express a dynamic, original idea in play form, was extra-ordinary. It comes close to the ancient idea that if you want to learn anything, you find a Master and it is enough to stand next to them and receive their transmission! When someone loves what they do 100% and they give their life to it 100%–it is already useful to whomever encounters them.
I was also fortunate to encounter the late Howard Stein, a man who loved plays as if they were the only possible means of saving humanity! That kind of passion for any one thing, is a prerequisite for allies, because THAT is what transfers. The saying that when a student is ready, the teacher appears, has always been true for me. There so many outstanding humans I have been able to encounter at just the right moment who have said just the right thing that turned my life around. I’d like to think I am that kind of animal myself, for in truth, I have given myself 100% to theatre art-making in every single thing that I do in my daily life, even becoming a parent; it has been at the heart and soul, the creation of something so mysterious, so art-full, that now, when I just stand there and someone is needing that one word to pass go—I’d like to think it gracefully flows out of me in the same loving way that it did with my mentors.
JL: What practical action steps would you recommend to others interested in serving as Allies for Diversity and Inclusion in the American Theatre?
AGC: The first practical step is action. Like Aristotle says–character is action. What we do, how we do it, how we speak about it and then recreate it for the stage, has value. There is no wrong step, even when mistakes are made, if your desire is authentically at the heart level–then it includes and welcome diversity because it’s healthy! That is what thrives even in nature! Nature likes diversity! As an anthropology minor both as an undergrad and graduate student, I LOVED learning how the best offspring in all species come from the most diverse possibilities. In-breeding decreases fitness. That is true in the idea realm as well. Creativity thrives when we collaborate with diversity and inclusion as a primary ingredient!
Amparo Garcia Crow acts, directs, sings and writes plays, songs and screenplays. She coaches individuals to follow their dreams BY DESIGN, a creative and spiritual coaching dialogue that enlivens their art and life! As a playwright her work has premiered Off-Broadway (INTAR, THE WOMEN’S PROJECT), Actor’s Theater of Louisville and been developed at South Coast Repertory. Her films have premiered at SXSW and the Los Angeles International Latino Festival. She is currently in development with STRIP, a burlesque musical she began in residency with Mabou Mines. And in Austin, she hosts the monthly THE LIVNG ROOM: Storytime for Grown-ups.
Jacqueline E. Lawton received her MFA in Playwriting from the University of Texas at Austin, where she was a James A. Michener fellow. Her plays include Anna K; Blood-bound and Tongue-tied; Deep Belly Beautiful; The Devil’s Sweet Water; The Hampton Years; Ira Aldridge: Love Brothers Serenade, Mad Breed and Our Man Beverly Snow. She has received commissions from Active Cultures Theater, Discovery Theater, National Portrait Gallery, National Museum of American History, Round House Theatre and Theater J. A 2012 TCG Young Leaders of Color, she has been nominated for the Wendy Wasserstein Prize and a PONY Fellowship from the Lark New Play Development Center. She resides in Washington DC and is a member of Arena Stage’s Playwrights’ Arena. jacquelinelawton.com