(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.)
I recently saw FRUITVALE STATION, powerfully written and directed by Ryan Coogler. I urge everyone to see this extraordinary and poignant film about the murder of an unarmed Oscar Grant by a BART police officer in 2009. The parallels to Trayvon Martin are unsettling. I found myself overwhelmed and shaking with tears afterwards. I applaud President Barack Obama for speaking out about the Trayvon Martin incident. After all he’s in his second term and what are second terms for if one can’t tell the truth as they see it?
I saw the film at the end of an emotionally vulnerable week that culminated in my overflowing tears at the end of the evening. What I can’t seem to shake is that no matter how much I achieve, or how many good deeds I perform , or how much I contribute to society, America at large still sees me as an outlaw. A Public Enemy. A gangster. In fact Chuck D once rapped ”The minute they see me, fear me, I’m the epitome, a public enemy.” When I was a pre-teen and then a teen and then a young man and then a mature man I just assumed that whenever I entered a retail establishment I had to anticipate an escort. The clerks usually said something like: “Can I help you?” Or if they decided to be more aggressive it was: “Are you buying anything? If not, you have to leave.”
Once while on Christmas vacation from college, shopping for gifts with a group of friends, all Black, we were asked to leave the Mall by Mall security and Police, because we hadn’t bought anything yet. And it goes on and on… I can tell you about the times that I’ve been stopped, frisked, cuffed, thrown down on the sidewalk, while my face kissed the asphalt. Or I could relate the times I’ve observed women grip their purses on the street or in elevators. Or the times I heard car door locks click tight as I walked by on the street. Or I could talk about instances where I was rarely addressed by eye contact even while in conversation. And I’m not even a criminal. I have no criminal record. Even though I have spent more than one night in jail, courtesy of our Nation’s finest. I’m not a criminal. I am a college graduate, an Army veteran, a former elected official, and a professional theater artist/ administrator. But to the unknowing societally paranoid gaze, my very presence is suspect and criminal.
The first time that I was ever called a nigger was by a Philadelphia police officer. I was 9 years old. So in a way the Trayvon thing ain’t really a shock. I kinda expected that it could happen to me at some point. Especially when I started to speak out against societal injustice. But after I realized that the most that anyone could take from me was my life, I was cool with that. I somehow felt liberated. Because we all have to die sometime. No one here gets out alive.
So when I see all of the racial hostility and vitriol around the Trayvon case even while we have a Black president, it reminds me that most White people didn’t vote for Barack Obama. Obama was re-elected by a progressive coalition of young people, people of color, progressive whites, women, the LGBTQI community and many other marginalized and disenfranchised people. We still have a long way to go.
Many workplaces still treat people of color as second class citizens, somehow less than. In theater, where I make my living, many people of color are systematically excluded from senior leadership positions in artistic institutions or Black artists are often relegated to February, when Black History Month rolls around. Black directors are rarely called upon unless a Black play is being produced, and even then white directors may still get the job.
While communities have become more diverse, many theater seasons still appear as if they could have been produced 20-50 years ago. We need policies to address this. Boards of directors remain the same. Uniform in their whiteness. Leadership amongst many corporations remain uniform in their lack of racial and ethnic diversity.
Even in Washington, DC with a Black President in the White House, I’ve seen more white people take personal privilege with perks and gatekeeper status than I’ve ever seen in prior administrations. As if to state, ‘a Black man is in power but make no mistake, white skin privilege trumps all.’ To access the President, or to participate in pertinent discussions or events, people of color still have to ask permission from a white person. It begs the question: Is President Obama a brown figurehead and his minions merely gatekeepers to the systems of White Supremacy?
It’s telling that President Bill Clinton had more freedom to discuss race than Barack Obama has ever enjoyed. When President Obama truthfully stated that the police acted stupidly in Massachusetts, for arresting Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, for breaking into his own home, the media backlash was palpable. Cries of “reverse racism” were heard throughout the land. This eventually forced a newly -elected President, to stage a “beer summit” charade at the White House. Obama hosted the black professor, and the offending white officer in a “We Are the World” “Kumbaya” moment. This would be comical if it weren’t so sad. Firstly it’s crucial to see the world as it truly is, before we can create the world as we would like it to be.
And the only reason all of this is important is because as long as these things remain the status quo, it further solidifies Blackness as “The Other” “An Uninvited Guest” “Affirmative Action Baby” “An Outlaw”. If we want to even begin to have a real conversation about race, we have to be willing to get real and get dirty. I recently wrote a play, PENETRATING WHITENESS CAUSES BLEEDING… If you think that it doesn’t, ask Trayvon.
Ralph Remington was recently named the Western regional director/assistant executive director of Actors’ Equity Association, effective January 2014. He currently serves as the director for theater and musical theater at the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), a position he has held since 2010. He is responsible for oversight and administration of the division’s grant making processes and development of partnerships to advance the theater industry as a whole.
Remington founded the Minneapolis-based Pillsbury House Theatre, an Equity theater, in 1992. Under his leadership, the company began a longstanding policy of non-traditional casting and diversity in its hiring practices (both onstage and backstage). As an Equity member, Remington has appeared in dozens of shows. He has also directed numerous productions, including 14 world premieres. Under Pillsbury House, Remington formed the community youth outreach program, “Chicago Avenue Project,” helping children create and perform in plays based on their own life experiences. The program was awarded the 2005 “Coming Up Taller” award, presented at the White House by First Lady Laura Bush.