In the wake of the 2016 Presidential election, Roberta Pereira, producing director at The Playwrights Realm in New York City, felt driven to affect positive change in the world, and, specifically, to use theatre as a part of that transformation. Her first step: Enroll herself, and her friend and colleague Stephanie Ybarra (Baltimore Center Stage’s newest artistic director), in a workshop with the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond (PISAB).
The two-day training was called Undoing Racism and Community Organizing, and—unbeknownst to them—would be the start of a completely new way of thinking for them as individuals, and the beginning of a powerful, behind-the-scenes grassroots movement now working to transform the American theatre as we know it. The training’s mission is two-pronged: to talk about oppression and to actively undo the work of white supremacy.
Founded in 1980 by community organizers Ronald Chisom and Dr. Jim Dunn, PISAB has hosted over 20,000 workshops and impacted the lives of nearly one million people to date. These training events are low-tech and simply executed. Participants (capped at 40 and, as mandated by PISAB, consist one third of people of color) sit in a circle while facilitators guide them through a shared definition for racism and a history of racism in America. The aim of the workshop is to provide individuals a common baseline of analytical tools with which to identify systems of oppression that play out today, as well as a roadmap to move beyond conversation and into action. Each participant is challenged to ask themselves: What are the levers that I can pull to affect change?
“We had, what I think I can safely say on behalf of both of us, a transformative experience,” says Ybarra of the first PISAB workshop. “We’re both women of color and both relatively sophisticated in our thinking and yet—our minds were collectively blown.”
“The training invited a different kind of analysis and framework for how to look at and talk about these things,” she continues. “We took that lens and applied it to our field and haven’t stopped looking through it since—it has fundamentally changed the way we see our work.”
Next, Pereira and Ybarra urged their close friends and peers—Jacob G. Padrón (the founder of the Sol Project and Long Wharf Theatre’s incoming artistic director) and David Roberts (former executive director at the Stage Directors and Choreographers Foundation)—to participate in the PISAB workshop.
Empowered by the training’s principle that every individual can activate change, Padrón, Pereira, Roberts, and Ybarra began to consider ways in which they could use their positions in the theatre towards greater impact. They named themselves: The Artists’ Anti-Racism Coalition.
AARC's first opportunity emerged quickly.
In spring 2017, the 2018 Off-Broadway season announcements rolled in and something looked too familiar: the noticeable lack of playwrights and directors of color. Rather than express their frustrations amongst themselves as they’d done in the past, the collective decided to take action. Why not email artistic directors personally? The note went something like this: “I saw your season announcement. Let’s discuss.”
Pereira says the responses from leadership were one of three variations. “One: ‘You can’t judge from one season alone, you have to look at our body of work,’” she says. “The second: ‘But we produced ‘insert famous playwright of color’ previously.’ And the third: ‘The problem is with the pipeline, there aren’t enough writers and directors of color that are ready for a mainstage production.’”
Emboldened by their PISAB training, the collective deconstructed the first response. If more playwrights and directors had indeed been produced in the theatre’s history, then that would be evident in publicly available information. Focusing on the creators (playwrights, directors, composers, and lyricists), the group collected data on the gender and ethnicity of the artists who had been produced at the ten largest non-profit theatres in New York City over the last ten years.
“When we looked at those numbers—ten years, ten theatres—those numbers were bad,” says Pereira. “The average was around 85–90 percent white content creators across the board.”
“That’s not our opinion,” adds Roberts. “When you look at any theatre’s mission statement—about serving all New Yorkers and you look at the data on the city and then you look at the data on their audience, playwrights, and leadership—it’s not reflective. ... Theatres are outlining in their mission statements the importance of diversity and diverse work, but the data was simply not baring that out.”
The collective next shared the data with some of the foundations currently funding the city’s biggest theatrical institutions.
Through the support of the Time Warner Foundation and leader Diahann Billings-Burford (with whom Padrón worked with at the time) the collective brought a small group of these funders to Time Warner and invited them to be a part of the conversation. “This was quickly becoming a grassroots movement and we wanted to enlist them in this work,” explains Padrón. “They were funding these development programs that weren’t actually leading to a full production.”
This also addressed the “perceived pipeline problem.” Theatres were applying for funding on the basis of being artistic homes for theatremakers of color, but there was a disconnect between the development and the actual work produced on their main stages.
Assured that they now had the ear and the support of the funders, the collective organized a standalone PISAB workshop specifically for theatre practitioners in New York City—the first of its kind. “It took some convincing,” recalls Padrón of the initial invitation to “Undo Racism.” “The emotional response is often: ‘But I’m not a racist. What does that mean that you’re inviting me to this workshop?’”
But in October 2017, AARC (along with the aid of JACK’s artistic director Alec Duffy) managed to bring together 40 theatrical “decision makers”—artistic directors, managing directors, artists, and other cultural leaders—to discuss race and racism within the New York theatre ecosystem during a two-day PISAB workshop. In July 2018, the collective organized the second workshop, this time with the press, theatre critics, and additional artists.
While maintaining the privacy of the participants, Padrón says these workshops have activated the community in exciting and irreversible ways.
Collective blind spots have been acknowledged—regardless of progressive values—and the seeds have been planted for meaningful dialogue. This new conversation will be a long-lasting discourse wherein the value of racial justice and inclusivity explicitly leads to the shared mission of producing more artists of color.
“It’s about widening the circle. It can’t just belong to just the four of us,” says Padrón. “We needed more people who could join a movement—which is what we wanted to be: a sustained movement of activating systemic change.”
And a movement it has become. The cohorts from both AARC workshops have coalesced into a larger group, with members meeting regularly to share resources and information, and to continue undoing racism. “In some ways, the work that happens after the workshop is even more important,” says Padron.
“One of the tenants of the training is the understanding that nobody does this alone,” adds Ybarra. “We must all be doing the work from where we sit and together, linking arms across organizations, boroughs, and artistic mediums.”
How can you be a part of the movement?
You don’t have to attend a PISAB workshop to do the work of undoing racism. “No matter where you sit, whether you’re the artistic director or the assistant, you can affect change,” says Padrón.
1. “Question every assumption,” says Padrón of the tools readily available to each of us. “Nothing is too precious when talking about civil and human rights.”
2. Welcome a more sophisticated vocabulary. While the collective is quick to point out that conversations aren’t enough, words matter and set the stage for what actions come next. “Let’s stop using words like diversity and start saying ‘anti-racism,’” says Padrón. “In this work, in reclaiming our humanity and working towards a more just and liberated world, we have to be really intentional about our language and anti-oppression.”
3. Persist. “This is work is lifelong. You will have never arrived,” says Padrón. “Yes, continue to struggle. And when you sit in the struggle long enough, we will be holding the American theatre to its promise: that it can be a space to hold all our stories.”
“The truth is, it’s never done,” says Pereira. “We’re making up for centuries. This work never ends.”
The Artists’ Anti-Racism Coalition remains a grassroots effort and is not a non-profit entity. The collective would like to acknowledge that the PISAB workshops were made possible thanks to funding from the New York Community Trust and the Howard Gillman Foundation with the support of the Time Warner Foundation. AARC would also like to acknowledge the work of the artists who have been doing this work previously, namely, ACRE – Artists Co-Creating Real Equity, and Anti-Racism Alliance.