June 2, 2020
15 Commitments (+ Counting) and the Context For Them
Note: THIS IS A LIVING DOCUMENT AND IT WILL CONTINUE TO GROW AND CHANGE.
The events of this past week, and this past spring, which pile upon the raw sedimentary layers upon layers of violence done to Black people in America since 1619, are devastating for this company of artists, in addition to the country.
WELCOME: I want to say at the outset that I would be honored to share this with artists and audiences of color broadly, and Black artists and audiences specifically (and to hear thoughts in return!)…and/but also I hope my Black colleagues are prioritizing taking care of themselves and their loved ones today, and being cared for in return. These thoughts and commitments have ended up primarily directed at white colleagues. The TEAM was founded in 2004 by 6 white artists, and I believe our history of perpetuating systems of white supremacy and our subsequent work to address that unacceptable reality, and to decolonize ourselves and this company, are likely all-too-familiar to many colleagues, ensembles and institutions. My hope is this is of practical use to them.
Enormous gratitude to those colleagues & collaborators, Black and POC, and white, who have helped me shape this.
CONTEXT (feel free to jump ahead to commitments): I am writing this as the Artistic Director of the TEAM, an ensemble founded in 2004 with the goal of making work about American history, mythology, and the present moment. We acknowledge that collective liberation is not a state, but an ongoing struggle to do better, be more just, interrogate our practices and assumptions, and be willing to make regular changes to how we do things in the face of what we find we’re doing well or poorly. We believe that racial diversity is inseparable from and core to excellence. We are now deconstructing our company’s membership structure, and figuring out how to re-constitute ourselves collectively. We are a collaborative writing ensemble, that creates via a consensus-driven process rooted in the belief that the total might be greater than the sum of its parts – so it REALLY matters who is in the room.
I am also writing this as a freelance director who works to create spaces that are not simply inclusive, but pro artists of color, and in particular pro-Black.
In the coming days, some of the artists who have worked with the TEAM may also write-down/film thoughts that we will post – we want to amplify those collaborators who may want to speak, but we also don’t want any of our collaborators of color, and Black-identifying collaborators in particular, to be called upon to do any labor that it is incumbent upon white artists to do.
The TEAM is now making a new work called Reconstruction, which involves over 25 artists writing/making/performing/designing, about half of whom are white-identifying (ie “people who have come to be known as white”) and half of whom are artists of color, most of whom are Black-identifying with either African American or Caribbean American heritage. For Reconstruction, we are focused on the question of intimacy, which for brevity’s sake I will here define broadly as a deep and shared understanding of ALL that makes up a given interaction between humans in America, including all those sedimentary layers of racism and violence I referenced above. We’re interested in intimacy, and IF and HOW it might be possible – between people of color, between Black people, between white people, and between a white person and a Black person – in an America that has been and remains lethally anti-Black.
To work on this piece:
- We have taken anti-racism workshops as a company, and have hired a facilitator (herself a person of color) who is providing guidance as a “process chaplain” through the intensely demanding process for our new work, Reconstruction.
- We have tried to ensure that whiteness is de-centered as much as possible in a room still led by a white director, and I would say we have often failed at this point. Though authorship is truly shared quite equally in a TEAM work, in the past my taste has been a kind of final decider, and that feels inappropriate for this piece…
- We have invented and participated in rituals of healing and mourning and exorcisms.
To continue work on this piece, and to continue forging a truly pro-Black arts space I propose we commit to:
- Commission a Black scholar to track our process from here forward, and ensure her independence in witnessing, analyzing, and critiquing both what is successful and unsuccessful about our attempt to create a pro-Black arts space within a white-led institution. We will make her writing available to the wider field, with the goal that it will be of use to other institutions and ensembles.
- Interrogate our pay structure and discuss what Reparations mean for the TEAM specifically. We have always paid everyone collaborating on a show the same as a company, which I think has tremendous merit. But also we have come up against the fact that the emotional labor of this work is particularly draining on the artists of color and Black-identifying artists in the room. How should we meet this? Should they get paid more? Should we allocate additional funds to be donated to a social justice organization(s) determined by the artists of color so that their added emotional labor is tied directly to funding that is meaningful to them? For discussion.
- Always present the finished work Reconstruction in tandem with a significant anti-racism workshop for the community (at least a weekend long)…We will also discuss whether it’s better this workshop precede or follow the production.
- Ensure meaningful racial diversity in our audiences, with a focus on Black audiences, and think as deeply about the design and dramaturgy of the audience, as we do about the piece itself. Beyond ensuring affordable tickets, and guaranteeing that no one will be turned away for lack of funds, examples we will look at include the “Black Outs” that were such a beautiful, vibrant part of Jeremy O. Harris’ Slave Play, and the equity Taylor Mac and Niegel Smith and team built into the audience re-arrangements during 24-Hour Decade.
- We will also discuss how to ensure impact on our white audiences, because I want Reconstruction to be of use in bringing change, which includes instigating
- Develop a new company structure, including potentially abolishing or radically re-conceiving the idea of “membership.” We’ll develop a model that is collectively envisioned by our artistic community and representative of the racial make-up of the country that it’s our mission to interrogate, with an emphasis on equity and amplifying previously underrepresented voices.
Additionally, in my freelance theater life I have committed and/or do commit to:
- I will ensure that no one is the only one of “themselves” in the room – whether that’s a trans or Black artist, or an artist with a disability (and of course, thankfully, NONE of us are ONE THING!). I will also ensure this type of determination remains nuanced and is not left to my white-gaze alone, because that leads to assumptions and erasure all too often of multi-racial artists and light-skinned artists of color. I will also not lose sight of the intense reality of colorism in America (and globally). ALL of this must be thoughtfully factored into every decision made about staffing and casting.
- I will invite people to bring their WHOLE selves to any room I lead, allowing the artist to determine their boundaries in the room.
- I will ensure that every creative team I help assemble has genuine racial diversity.
- I will ensure that every cast I help assemble has genuine racial diversity.
- I will use my highly privileged platform as both a white woman and a successful director with a high degree of visibility to advocate for equity with clarity, without sentiment, and with real practicality.
- I will not use the word “diversity” in a sloppy or coded manner, but instead be explicit when I am talking about racial diversity (vs. age diversity, economic diversity, gender diversity, etc). Further I will be clear and cognizant of whether I mean artists of color broadly, or Black-identifying artists specifically, etc.
- I will not accept jobs that I feel are better held by an artist of color, which includes frank discussions with writers about their goals and values. This does not mean not working with writers of color or helping to tell stories about characters and communities of color, by any means. But I commit to being fit for and engaging in transparent conversations about what I can and cannot bring to a project.
- I will support my white colleagues with both love and clarity, as we begin or continue deepening their practice of decolonization.
- If I fail, I will acknowledge that failure and continue forward.
Thank you for reading. Please do not hesitate to get in touch with me with any thoughts, critiques, or questions. Rachelchavkin@gmail.com.