Not a Static Thing, But a Process

by Patrick Crowley

in Diversity & Inclusion

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(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?

PATRICK CROWLEY: I’m glad to be a part of this discussion. I’ve been looking at not only my privilege as a member of oppressive groups, but also my humanity. As a young person I received messages that one needs to be perfect in order to be loved that linger with me today. In my work to be anti-racist I’ve often felt enormous pressure do the right thing, to say the right thing, and to be hyper informed about race and racism. This has led me to dance around race, working so as not to appear racist. In this dance the prejudices and racism I do have get swallowed, and I lose opportunities to have them surface and be examined. I’m trying to be kind to myself about the racism I have and not label myself as deficient or evil. This is tricky because no white person with the orientation of anti-racism wants to hurt or oppress people of color with our words or actions, yet at the same time we as white people have to learn how to show. We have to learn how to show with ourselves and with those around us, so that we don’t rest on the labels of “ally,” or “good white person,” or “someone who gets it.” These labels can be a form of denial. I pick the words “orientation of anti-racism” intentionally, because I don’t believe anti-racism is a static thing to be arrived at, but a process. Just like I don’t think the label “racist” is very useful, as if someone acting out their racism is incapable of change, I don’t feel the label of “ally” serves me either. My first mentor Dr. T used to say consciousness is temporary. This helps me stay vigilant.

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?

PC: The piece that stands out is ‘Capers, a solo play by Anu Yadav that I directed. This piece was created in conjunction with a group of organizers called Friends and Residents of Arthur Capper Carrollsburg, who were fighting their forced relocation from their housing project in DC under the auspices of Hope VI. These women were not without resource, but they were largely ignored. The play, and the process of creating and refining it served several purposes. First, it got the story down, and bore witness to what was happening. One of the ladies said, “you got us on paper.” This recognition was important. Second, it drew press attention and put the spotlight on what was happening in DC, as well as what was happening nationally with Hope VI. Third, it served as an organizing tool. We took the piece on a housing project tour, brought the organizers with us, and used it as a spring board for discussion and strategizing. Several communities were facing the same pressure, and ‘Capers was another way to help residents get organized. Fourth, it built community. Anu, myself and the organizers, most specifically Rose Oliphant and Debra Frazier, continued to work together, learn from each other and make art together. I can’t emphasize the importance of this last point enough. I believe art making is such a useful tool in building relationships. Shows, especially in theatre, come and go, but relationships with some care and attention can continue to benefit all involved much longer.

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?

PC: My career has more or less been defined by this. I have always felt that mainstream theatre in the US does such a lousy job of reflecting the richness of the cultural tapestry we have in the country, and in being the hub for critical discourse and change it has the power to be. I didn’t set out trying to change all that, I was just trying to find ways to work on things that most spoke to me. This often meant that I was working with artists and stories that were relegated to the margins. Because of that I ended up writing grants and self-producing shows in order to get the work out in the world. This also meant that I worked on new pieces that weren’t created by playwrights. I developed and directed a solo play by actress Kathleen Gonzalez called The Bridge of Bodies, and worked with Grammy nominated hip hop artist Christylez Bacon on creating what we dubbed a theatrical concept album, In Pursuit of Me. The later was performed at The Intersections Festival at the Atlas Theatre. When a producer from the festival asked our opening audience how many people had never been to the Atlas before over 2/3 of the house raised their hands. I’ve witnessed a lot of hand wringing by regional theatres about trying to diversify their audiences, yet they still don’t tend to produce shows that speak to young people and people of color in familiar cultural mediums.

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?

PC: Most of my work in this regard centers on education. For the past 3 summers I’ve worked in Rwanda, one year with my graduate school program, the CUNY SPS MA in Applied Theatre, and the past two with International Theatre and Literacy Project (ITLP). While at CUNY I was playing a small part in training the first generation of drama teachers through a partnership with the Kigali Institute of Education. With the collectivist culture in Rwanda it seemed quite natural for the university students to embrace theatre for social change. They were like, “of course we will use these communication tools for the betterment of our society.” KIE graduated their first class this year, and these graduates are striking out as theatre makers and educators as we speak. They have formed companies that create radio dramas and street theatre and are working their way into the education system. With ITLP, co-director Channie Waites and I devised an original play each summer with Rwandan teens. While we facilitated the creative process, we took pains to make sure that the young people were making the important artistic decisions. This past year while working on What Hate Does, we emphasized process over product. We had incredibly rich discussions on whether the ending of our play would be didactic or dialogic. The students chose the latter, so we ended our play without resolution and challenged the audience to think about how they would respond when confronted with the confounding questions in the drama. The students afterwards reflected on how important it was to them to have the power of creative control, and how instructive it was to make decisions as a group. One of the remarkable young women reflected, “We make decisions for the profit of the group, not for the profit of one individual.” I have no doubt that many of the teenagers and college students I’ve worked with in Rwanda will become great leaders, not only in the arts, but in society at large. Playing a small part in their development is incredibly humbling.

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?

PC: I find the writings of bell hooks and Paulo Freire useful in trying to untangle identity and power relationships. There are too many inspirational artists to mention, but I most look up to people who build institutions for the work to live in year in/year out. Kamilah Forbes and the Hip Hop Theater Festival (now Hi-Arts), and Michael Rohd of Sojourn Theatre come to mind.

JL: What practical action steps would you recommend to others interested in serving as Allies for Diversity and Inclusion in the American Theatre?

PC: Create the work you want to see. Produce it. Be open and dialogic, and don’t pretend to have all the answers. Trust the multiplicity in the room, and trust the validity of your own point of view. Take chances, dare to be wrong. Be critical in your engagement, but never question your right to engage. Build amazing theatres so you can hire me to do the work I love!

Patrick Crowley is an award winning director and playwright with an emphasis on developing new work. Credits include world premieres of Meena’s Dream, by Anu Yadav at Forum Theatre (January, 2013); In Pursuit of Me, by Grammy nominated Christylez Bacon; The Bridge of Bodies, by Kathleen Gonzalez; Hip Hop Anansi, by Eisa Davis; and ‘Capers, by Anu Yadav. The past two summers he has devised original plays with teenagers in Rwanda through The International Theatre and Literacy Project. Education: MA in Applied Theatre, CUNY SPS. Recipient of the DC Mayor’s Art Award for Outstanding Emerging Artist, 2007.

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.