A Question of Diversity

Chicago’s Theater Community Confronts the Issue of Equity and Inclusion in a Troubling Time in our Country’s History

Though most stages are dark and classrooms empty as performing arts organizations head into the fall, artists and administrators are busier than ever. In this era when audiences can’t gather, and collaborative art is a struggle to create safely, Chicago artists are using their time to do difficult and important work around equity, diversity and inclusion, using this summer’s protests as a springboard for meaningful change. 

Equity, diversity and inclusion training as well as social equity work are nothing new. People across the country have been pursuing these goals for decades now, including Chicago’s Black Ensemble Theater– the only theater in the country whose actual mission is to eradicate racism. Founded in 1976, Black Ensemble has a rich history of bringing people together to foster dialogue and acceptance, so it’s no surprise founder and executive director Jackie Taylor has fielded many calls in recent months.

“We have had many calls and questions this summer about racism and police violence against African Americans,” says Taylor. “It is good that people are reaching out to try and understand but there is no easy answer.  We have done a lot of talking to the community, trying to help them understand the devastation that is caused by racism and what they can do about how they address the racism that exists within their own circles.”

Like Black Ensemble Theater, Old Town School of Folk Music (OTS) is steeped in decades of work in social justice. Kim Davis, senior director of Education explains, “Old Town School was founded during the early era of protest music and social justice initiatives of the latter 1950’s. The School has worked through the years to educate the students and community about social justice issues through the lens of folk music and dance.” 

Both Old Town School and Black Ensemble Theatre have worked with and supported Enrich Chicago — a collaborative of 30 Chicagoland arts and philanthropic organizations committed to ending racism and systemic oppression in the arts sector — and are passionate about supporting their artists and audiences as they learn how to be better advocates and allies.

That task isn’t always easy. Says OTS’s Kim Davis, “One of the biggest challenges of the process has been the capacity to bring everyone to the table, so to speak. We are quite a large organization with over 400 staff and faculty and more than 6,000 students in any given week in addition to our vast events department hosting more than 300 events per year. And while the school seeks to be an open community space for all, we are aware of our history as a predominantly white organization. Increasing diversity in staff, faculty and students has been challenging through the years, but we continue to be committed to investigating more pathways to that change.”

She adds, “On the whole, our constituents are eager to be part of a community where equity and equality is not a question but a given.”

Black Ensemble’s Jackie Taylor advises that other organizations that are interested in anti-racism work start at the very beginning. She suggests, “First they have to understand what racism actually is and how it exists within their world. I would suggest that they educate themselves. Take a class, workshop or course in anti-racism. Don’t assume that you know what it is. Do the homework that it actually takes to start on a very, very difficult journey. You cannot put a puzzle together if you don’t have all the pieces.”

Many Chicago organizations that are beginning equity, diversity and inclusion work are taking Taylor’s advice and starting with doing their homework to do better by their Black, Indiginous, and People of Color (BIPOC) artists. 

“The murder of George Floyd and the cultural reckoning that was sparked by it was a catalyst for kicking things into high gear,” explains A Red Orchid Theatre’s managing director Abigail Madden. “We wanted to all get on the same page with vocabulary. One of our BIPOC ensemble members and I started talking about a book club.”

Books on their list included White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo, How to be an Anit-Racist by Ibram X. Kendi, Between the World and Me byTa-Nehisi Coates, Me and White Supremacy by Layla Saad, and So You want to Talk About Race Ijeoma Oluo

Because A Red Orchid Theatre isn’t sure when they can produce in-person events again, taking advantage of this time to invest in anti-racism and inclusion work makes sense to AROT’s ensemble and staff. Madden says, “We can focus really intensely on this for a couple of months and then maintain it in a more systemic way going forward.”

Though their efforts have kicked into high gear recently, it doesn’t mean A Red Orchid and other organizations haven’t been doing some important work before now. 

Court Theatre on Chicago’s South Side has made hiring BIPOC artists a priority for over a decade. Explains artistic director Charles Newell, “Over the last 10 years, Court has been producing work where the majority of artists on stage were people of color.”

Court’s managing director, Angel Ysaguirre, adds that, while Court has prioritized hiring BIPOC artists and writers, there wasn’t a formal plan for equity, diversity and inclusion until recently. 

“That really began after the protests in Chicago started,” he says. “That Monday, we had our first staff meeting. It was at that meeting or the one after that we decided to formalize it.”

Formalizing their plan involved not only making a statement of solidarity, but taking the time to talk with and listen to staff, audiences and the folks of the South Side neighborhood where Court is located. Court is also developing an Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) committee and is creating a virtual space called Race Matters that will allow constituents to learn, grow, and express themselves.

“Everybody realizes they can’t remain silent on these things,” explains Ysaguirre. “Those conversations have become a lot more honest and are taking place a lot more.”

Newell continues, “The ‘We See You, White American Theater’ document was an extraordinary gift to us in our process.”

The document Newell mentions is the foundation upon which many organizations are building their anti-racist practices. It’s a 30-page booklet, created by BIPOC theater artists across the U.S. and lists a variety of changes performing arts organizations should make in their efforts to be more inclusive and create anti-racist environments. (https://www.weseeyouwat.com)

A Red Orchid Theatre is grateful for this resource also. 

“We’re diving into the ‘We See You, White American Theatre’ document,” says AROT’s Abigail Madden. “We’re asking, ‘What are the things we’re already doing? What are the things we can commit to in the next six months? What are the things we can commit to in the next year or two?”

One of the things AROT’s artistic director, Kirsten Fitzgerald, is working on is commissioning plays from a variety of writers. She says, “Really focusing on expanding and developing relationships with BIPOC playwrights is an important step toward hearing those voices. It’s going to shift some of our awareness.” 

She continues, “I still feel like I am working on becoming more aware of and understanding why have we remained white for so long. What is hindering BIPOC artists from being in the room with us right now?”

The Lyric Opera is asking those tough questions, too. 

“I think the biggest challenge for a lot of organizations has been coming to terms with the racist histories that are part of many industries, including the arts,” explains Lyric’s general director, president & CEO Anthony Freud.

The Lyric has recently launched their own EDI initiative called “IDEA,” which stands for Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, Access. Freud continues, “While our IDEA commitment is exciting and necessary, it forced us as a company and as an industry to think differently about our art, and our collective responsibility to bring about change.”

Those changes mean that what folks see on stage might begin to look different, and the stories being told will expand to include many more voices. Freud is ready for the challenge. “It is essential that art reflects what’s happening in our world at the current moment, and that provides a really exciting opportunity to tell traditional stories in a new way and provide new voices to be heard through the artform and our artistic decisions.”

Though this is an exciting and hopeful time, none of the organizations is pretending this work is easy. 

Admits Abigail Madden, “It’s an emotional journey, and we’re doing it in the middle of a pandemic. There’s already a deep emotional thing happening right now. People are on these individual journeys. Balancing the urgency of the work with the need to give people grace and give ourselves grace is important in a continual investigation.”

She adds, “We don’t all need to be activists, but as artists we’re all revolutionaries.”