Live Town Hall: In Conversation with Claudia Rankine
Presented by ArtsEmerson
Hosted by David Dower and David Howse
Review by Afrikah Smith
ZOOM — In the “Live Town Hall with the Davids: In Conversation With Claudia Rankine,” ArtsEmerson artistic director David Dower and executive director David Howse discuss with Claudia Rankine her latest publication Just Us: An American Conversation. They unpack the issues of normalizing whiteness, staying in the room, and the importance of holding conversations around human problems. A lot is said about the current politics in the theatre world that Boston area theatres and artists can benefit from by listening.
Paralleling the ongoing movements of addressing inequities in the theatre world for BIPOC artists and allies in movements such as We See You White American Theatre, Just Us: An American Conversation is a book of questions that demands close reading for necessary self-reflection. It asks for the time that it takes to sit with pages that are conversations themselves and by no means are solutions.
Taken from her own process, Rankine states that Just Us is about “enacting something, with the hope that the enactment will allow openings in your own conversations.” In reading the book, she hopes that people can approach conversations more easily, without the notion that success is comfort. Success, which she defines later in the conversation, is not saying things for the sake of others to be comfortable.
Unlike Citizen, which Rankine framed in a second perspective, Just Us shows that these conversations are “… of life; showing up every day.” Using the self as subject, readers can see a glimpse of the perspectives of those in much more privileged positions who distance themselves from these human problems of racism and the inability to name them without becoming the problem (especially in white allyship) that Rankine names during the town hall. In giving us the varied interior lives of whom she has these conversations with, who are majority cis-gendered, white individuals in positions of power, Rankine highlights the importance of naming the problems present and staying in the room. During the town hall, Rankine names how both are necessary, as there is a level of extra work required to stay in the conversation on both sides, and showing up to do the work.
As theaters closed for live performances, 2020 has revealed the need for anti-racist work in predominantly white theater institutions. There is an ongoing demand for equitable practices. With the rise of movements such as We See You White American Theater and recognition of the Broadway Advocacy Coalition, BIPOC artists are calling to rebuild a table for a conversation that demands action to dismantle the systems that perpetuate racism and inequity to be taken seriously than to just be heard.
Local initiatives like Boston BIPOC Theatre have circulated on social media, sharing stories submitted anonymously by BIPOC artists & cultural workers who have been affected by harmful practices perpetuated in Boston theaters like the Huntington Theater Company, whose leadership staff has one position occupied by a person of color as of this year. Despite BIPOC making 47% of Boston’s population, as reported by WSYWAT, it is clear to see to whom theaters are catered toward and the lengths willing to maintain that by disenfranchising BIPOC artists & workers.
On their website, WSYWAT states that their “calls for long overdue change sweep every aspect of our society, we as Black, Indigenous, and People of Color theatre workers are meeting the moment, developing a new social contract for our work environments that cares for and sustains our artistry and lives.” For Howse, who speaks to this experience of the desire to get closer to naming these problems, had been met with the assumption he had a hidden agenda of “making ArtsEmerson a Black theatre,” solely based on his identity without seeing that these issues are everyone’s issues.
Howse and Rankine noted that this is a common experience in being silenced by others’ projection of a single story just because of one’s racial identity. In being in the room, we see how things will be received and what happens afterwards; pushing forward the importance of the need for discomfort.
In discomfort there is growth. Rankine brings up in reframing success as “being able to move a bit forward, even if there is discomfort.” In being in a space that holds room for accountability, there is also a chance to reframe injustices against BIPOC as human problems and create goals pushing for equity practices than for diversity alone. In reciprocal recognition and taking responsibility for one’s actions in named issues at hand is essential in this process.
In this specific naming, Rankine points out that with equity:
“It doesn’t matter who is in the room. It means across the various levels of an organization, community, etc. If we are taking care of everyone, everyone is taken care of. It would serve us better.”
She notes the only reason diversity is put in place is “despite attempts of equity, we have put protocols in place to suppress certain identities and create a lack of access.”
But what does this all look like? How do Boston theaters & theater-makers take action towards diversity, equity, and inclusion, that is sustainable and proactive? Part of the answer in this needed conversation lies in the willingness to be vulnerable and to sit with the discomfort. It is actively listening, being present, and staying in the room. In addition, not placing the burden solely upon Black, Indigenous, and People of Color theatre workers to enact change. The rest is in process.
As the town hall slowly came to an end, Claudia Rankine read an excerpt from her book that left us with a question she invites us to explore and process: Where can we go? What if?
To catch the replay of the Live Town Hall with the Davids: In Conversation With Claudia Rankine, hosted by ArtsEmerson, visit the ArtsEmerson Youtube channel.
If you’re interested in purchasing Claudia Rankine’s books Just Us and Citizen, you can purchase them at the Brookline Booksmith (brooklinebooksmith.com) through 1/1/20 with a 15% discount using the coupon code RANKINEEMERSON20.