While it is difficult to fully implement change in theatre at a time when venues internationally are closed, two departures in the Chicago theatre community proved that the impact of the Black Lives Matter movement, and its acceleration as a result of the murder of George Floyd, is being felt in the field right at this moment.
There had already been simmering unrest for just over a month surrounding Victory Gardens Theater because, in selecting a successor to departing artistic director Chay Yew, its board of directors decided to combine the artistic and management positions singularly under Erica Daniels, who has been the company’s executive director.
In late May, this had prompted the theatre’s playwrights ensemble, a diverse group that includes Ike Holter, Naomi Iizuka and Tanya Saracho, to resign en masse over the company’s failure to consider any other candidates or consult with the ensemble in the decision-making process.
This was compounded when protests arose in the wake of the Floyd killing. At a time when some high-profile theatres nationally were opening their lobbies as waystations for protesters, Victory Gardens boarded up its venue.
This prompted the artistic community in Chicago to paint messages of support for the movement on the plywood that became the front-facing part of Victory Gardens, and the outcry over the company’s shuttered attitudes kept rising. Not only did Daniels resign from both of her roles last Friday, but so did the chairman of the board, stepping down from the position though not exiting the board entirely.
Almost simultaneously, Andrew Alexander, the owner, chief executive and executive producer of the famed Second City improv venue, announced his resignation. This was in the wake of a rising tide of outcry from current and past performers, who are black, indigenous and people of colour, over the institutional racism they had faced.
Notable among these incidents was in 2016, when half the cast of a Second City revue left the show due to the racist and homophobic behavior of the audience, which management left unchecked.
Coming late in the second week of protests, these departures certainly seem to have been precipitated by what was happening on the streets and across social media – a protest movement larger than any seen in the US since the 1960s.
Advocacy for change in theatre became manifest nationally at the beginning of this week when a group called The Ground We Stand On – echoing August Wilson’s 1996 speech The Ground On Which I Stand – issued a Change.org petition. It was addressed to Dear White American Theatres, asking people to sign up to a campaign to end an exclusionary theatrical ecosystem and acknowledging and renouncing their roles as “a part of this house of cards built on white fragility and supremacy”.
The initial signatories were a who’s who of artists of colour, primarily from the US but with some UK names in the mix. Made public with roughly 300 artists behind it, as of Thursday evening the petition had over 70,000 signatures.
It may not be an easy moment to introduce a new paradigm, but that shouldn’t deter progress
With productions on hold and staff members working on reduced hours, furloughed or fully laid off, it will only be in the months after reopening from the pandemic that it will become clear how theatres have changed, if at all.
It will also be important, when that time comes, to tease apart the twin strands of racial equality and pandemic impact. Nothing should hold back efforts towards the former, and that audiences may be slow in returning should not be attributed to a commitment to equality but due to the virus. It may not be an easy moment to introduce a new paradigm, but that shouldn’t deter progress.
There is opportunity in the forthcoming reset.