(Ed. Note: The following blog salon series will focus on how theatre artists are responding to Michael Brown’s death and the oppression, violence, and resistance happening in Ferguson, MO. This series grew out of a series of discussions between Oregon based theatre-makers Claudia Alick, Mica Cole and Massachusetts based theatre-maker Megan Sandberg-Zakian, and myself. If you would like to participate in this series, please email Gus Schulenburg.)
GUS SCHULENBURG/JACQUELINE LAWTON: How has the recent fatal shooting of Mike Brown impacted you as a theatre artist? As a citizen? As a human being?
REBECCA MARTINEZ: Theatre artist, citizen and human being are the same. My heart aches for Mike Brown, his family, and his friends. I am both sickened and in shock to see the subsequent treatment of his neighbors who protested his killing by the police. He is one of a painfully large number of African-American young men who have been mistreated or killed by those in authority. THIS HAS TO STOP.
GS/JL: What actions are you taking, if any, to respond to what is happening?
RM: I am one of a large number of artists and citizens who are outraged by this type of wild injustice and continued mistreatment – artists who are working to stand against racism, discrimination, and divide in a myriad of ways – through active and continued protest, social media, artistic voice, community-engaged work, dialogue, volunteering, speaking out individually or joining forces together where we live. I was moved to go to Ferguson out of initial feelings of helplessness. I wanted to act. I had a trip planned to the St. Louis area for another commitment, started researching how to be useful, got word of THE FERGUSON MOMENT and that Claudia Alick and Mica Cole were making connections with artists in the St. Louis area, and jumped on board. On August 24th there was a gathering of artists at the Regional Arts Commission in St. Louis facilitated by Claudia, Mica, Katy Rubin, Danny Bryck, and myself; to create space for artist-citizens to meet and share in artistic response from individual perspectives. I want to keep these connections with St. Louis-area artists active. This is important, as is the work of looking internally and then locally to see where divides exist and where access to power is out of balance. As a Latina artist, I feel it is my job to help voice the stories of those often kept silent.
GS/JL: How have you engaged, or will you engage, with those who feel differently about events surrounding the shooting, police response, protests, and media reporting?
RM: I’m an ensemble member of Sojourn Theatre and as we create work, we seek out individuals with multiple perspectives – both as collaborators while we explore content and as active participants in our audiences. For meaningful connections to take place between people with conflicting views, it is vital that all sides feel represented and heard, especially those that significantly differ from our own. While in Ferguson, I spoke with people who were profoundly impacted by these events on both sides of the issue and I found that the most valuable skill I could offer was to listen.
GS/JL: What role does theatre have in changing the conditions that contributed to the death of Mike Brown, racial profiling, and the militarization of the police?
RM: Theatre has the power to play a vital role in shifting perspectives. As theatre artists, we have the privilege and the responsibility to cultivate empathy and understanding in our audiences, to bring people together across divides for dialogue and connection, to ask people to recognize themselves in those that were before invisible, to facilitate the finding of humanity in ourselves and each other, to transform ‘they’ into ‘we’.
GS/JL: How do the racial/cultural power dynamics of the theatre field challenge or reinforce the conditions that contributed to that outcome?
RM: This is an amazing opportunity for American Theatre to take the lead in working towards racial, ethnic and cultural equality. Produce work by artists of color. Seek out both established and new writers. Bring artists of color to collaborate with your company, to work on your stages, to design, to produce, or better yet, cultivate them within your community. Be intentional and strategic about who should be in your audiences and design a way for them to engage. Develop relationships with diverse communities in your area and then put work on your stage that is relevant to them. And not just once, but again and again.
If you produce work for a specific cultural community, seek out companies from different ethnic or racial backgrounds and collaborate. If you’re producing in a community where you feel there is no diversity, bring it in. If you’re feeling challenged about how to do this, reach out to our greater national theatre community. There are many amazing artists of color with the knowledge and expertise to make this happen. As a country, we need this.
GS/JL: So much of this work to make change grows out of the shining examples of artists, cultural organizers and civil rights workers in the past and present. From whose example do you draw strength?
RM: In Ferguson, we met courageous people who had never been involved in any type of protest until Mike Brown’s shooting moved them to take their places at forefront of the marches. In St. Louis, we met resilient, powerful artists, citizens and activists who were deeply affected by these events, but stood there before us and each other with their hearts wide open, determined to make a change. I draw strength from people who decide enough is enough and choose to make a stand.
Rebecca Martinez is a Brooklyn-based ensemble member of Sojourn Theatre, where she has worked as a creator/performer, choreographer, facilitator, and teaching artist on projects including Islands of Milwaukee, Waiting for You (with the TEAM at Kansas City Rep), On the Table, and Finding Penelope. She is a Co-Curator of Working Theater’s Directors Salon, Associate Artistic Director of Hybrid Theatre Works, a member of the Lincoln Center Theater Directors Lab and of INTAR’s Unit52. She has worked with Miracle Theatre, Artists Repertory Theatre, Oregon Children’s Theatre, Portland Playhouse (Portland, OR), the 52nd Street Project, Brave New World Repertory Theatre, One Minute Play Festival, and in developmental works for companies such as the Lark and Cherry Lane (NYC). Awards include four Portland Theatre Drammys (for Ensemble Acting & Choreography) and the Lilla Jewel Award for Women Artists.
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. http://jacquelinelawton.com