(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?
HEATHER HANEY: I think one of the things I’m learning now is that I don’t know a lot. I grew up in NY state, in a pretty liberal, working class family and wear the badge of “Bleeding Heart Liberal” proudly. I felt that I was pretty aware and 100% not part of The Problem.
I know, funny.
As I get older, I’m realizing that there are a lot of things that I’ve done inadvertently or not that were just plain ignorant. There were times when I could have spoken up when someone made a racist or ignorant comment but I kept silent in the interest of “keeping the peace,” always with an eye-roll of “I know better than this person.” I’m realizing now that not speaking up is just as harmful.
I’m at a point now where I want to engage and also listen. There is so much I don’t know and I’m only beginning to be aware of white privilege and what it has meant in my life. I want to do something but first I think I need to just be present and ready to hear more. Maybe that’s the hardest part – just being ready to not do, but just listen?
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?
HH: As an actor, I often feel that we are the lowest rung on the theatre ladder. There is very little that we can do to affect change within the industry; however, a few years ago I was asked to join a couple of theatre acting companies, and, in one case, was able to assist with casting. There was never a time when I was asked to make any final decisions, but I was able to open up the process through social media to the broader community and get more people seen. As a result, we were able to bring in a more diverse group of actors than the casting team had seen in the past. It’s not a huge step, but it was something.
A couple of years ago, I was involved in a production of The Ramayana with another company. I was cast as a Hindu goddess and there was a part of me that was really aware that my strawberry blonde hair and paper-white skin would probably look out of place in a South Asian epic. The director made an effort to immerse the entire cast in the culture and world of this epic and consulted with the community to ensure that we were treating the epic with the respect it deserved.
Still, at one talkback, I became the focus of a few audience members’ rage. Looking directly at me, a woman said “Do you not understand the imperialist implications of casting a white woman as this Hindu goddess?” My knee-jerk reaction was to say “I didn’t cast myself,” but I remained silent. I’m glad I did. The director was able to explain that she searched for South Asian actors to play the god and goddess at the center of the story, but was unable to find what she was looking for. It then came to her that, to her, god is everything – the entire spectrum of race and type. So she cast a white woman as Sita and a black man as Rama to show the range of humanity in the divine.
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?
HH: To be honest, I’m not entirely sure I understand mainstream culture or what it is. When selecting something to see on stage or on the screen, I tend to focus on story, actors that I know I enjoy, directors that have a unique point of view. I like to see things that will shake me up, hollow me out, or make me laugh.
That being said, if I see a production or show that is bringing me a new perspective or is trying to promote an underserved section of society, then I want to support that. I want to experience that perspective. Not having the talent to write, or the vision to cast or direct, I can only put my money where my mouth is. I will seek out theatre, film, television, books, or blogs that can bring me a new perspective.
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?
HH: I don’t know that I’ve been in a position to promote the leadership of anyone, other than voting for Obama and other public officials. I support groups with leaders of various races, genders and sexual orientation with my time and money, but beyond that I don’t know that I have done anything to create opportunities. I’d certainly be open to doing more, but I feel a little at a loss to know what to do.
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?
HH: A friend of mine passed away a few years ago – no, he was murdered in DC. His beautiful light was cut off abruptly by persons unknown. He was a lover of theatre, a lover of science, a proud Indian, and a homosexual who was beginning to express his female side. The world was always full of promise and fascination to him. I loved (and continue to love) this friend dearly. He experienced the world with an openness and acceptance that used to astonish me. When I think of being an “ally” (a term that is relatively new to me), I think of my friend. I think of being open to the world and all its people and experiences. I want to learn and participate at the same time.
JL: What practical action steps would you recommend to others interested in serving as Allies for Diversity and Inclusion in the American Theatre?
HH: I think the first step is to be open. You’re going to hear things that will make you uncomfortable. You’re going to be offended. You’re going to be depressed when you realize that you have been a part of the problem, intentionally or no. Keep listening. Stay open. It’s important to let people talk and we all need to hear what they’re saying. Then, when you see a clear step to take, take it.
Heather Haney hails from upstate NY, and is an actor and choreographer in the Washington, DC area. She has worked with Studio Theatre, Theater J, Round House Theatre, The Shakespeare Theatre Company, Forum Theatre, and other companies in the DC area. She is an Associate Artist with Constellation Theatre Company, an Acting Company member of WSC Avant Bard, and a Company member of Longacre Lea. She recently made her TV debut with HBO’s VEEP in the strangely prescient “Shutdown” episode.
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