For some local theater companies, racial equity and inclusivity efforts came to the forefront of their practices following the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery in 2020. But for other groups, such principles have been a part of their daily fabric from the beginning.
Since its 2010 launch, Different Strokes! Performing Arts Collective has “consistently [called] into question the social norms and quiet acquiescence that allow racism, discrimination and other forms of oppression to thrive,” notes the organization’s website. And for its 12th season, founder and Managing Artistic Director Stephanie Hickling Beckman is taking that commitment a step further with a selection of plays that adhere to the theme of “Representation Matters.”
“Casting a play with a majority of Black actors continues to be difficult in Asheville, yet we do not see it as a deterrent,” she says. “Choosing and casting plays that tell more diverse stories is now more important to Different Strokes than ever.”
As other theater companies likewise embark on new seasons, Xpress checked in with representatives on the progress of their equity and inclusion goals. While important strides have been made over the past two-plus years, missteps have nevertheless hampered some initiatives, prompting leadership to regroup and rethink their procedures.
Putting in work
To further its efforts to diversify theater in Western North Carolina, Different Strokes has committed to supporting artists of color in specific ways. Through its Apprenticeship Program for Emerging BIPOC Artists and Administrators, the company selected two students — Wellesley College junior Zaria Bunn and recent high school graduate Brittany Long — who have been working with staff since May on stage management and set design, respectively. Both apprentices spearheaded efforts for the company’s current production, Blood at the Root, which runs through Saturday, Sept. 10. The show also features three Black actors — Sharvis Smith, Righteous Luster and Melvin AC Howell, who doubles as the show’s choreographer.
In January, Different Strokes also launched its emerging Black playwrights program, A Different Myth, in partnership with American Myth Center. Together, they’re currently working with Howell and fellow Black playwrights Lisa Langford and Mildred Inez Lewis on the completion of three full-length plays that will eventually be produced by Different Strokes.
“Many companies continue to struggle with how to initiate and build relationships with BIPOC artists within our community. Those relationships can only be established through trust, consistency and time,” Hickling Beckman says. “There is still significant work to be done at the most basic level, in regard to direct and active recruitment of BIPOC artists and producing more work by BIPOC playwrights.”
Asheville Community Theatre is taking steps to achieve such results. Alongside Different Strokes, ACT was one of the first local arts organizations to publicly acknowledge racial injustices in early June 2020 and pledge to become better allies with the Black community.
“We made a statement because we needed to directly address the issues that we were seeing play out in our country,” says Tamara Sparacino, managing director for ACT. “We know the importance and necessity of participating in creating a more just and equitable world. The best way for us to do that was to embark on doing this work in our own organization.”
In August 2020, ACT launched a diversity, equity and inclusion committee made up of board and staff members, and contracted with two local anti-racist consulting firms. Aisha Adams Media conducted an equity audit of the organization’s policies, procedures, programs, digital footprint and physical space. The following April, ACT began working with alexandria monque and david greenson at Collaborative Organizing on a four-phase contract.
“We instated anti-racism training for all staff and board and undertook an in-depth assessment of our institutional culture,” Sparacino says. “We finished our initial contract [with CO] this spring, and we established a Cultural Change Agent Team to continue our [diversity, equity and inclusion] work. We’re currently talking with CO to prioritize the next steps we need to take.”
In addition, the values of ACT’s DEI work have been integrated into its governing documents by the board of directors, and its hiring practices have been changed to include transparency in salary, an open application process and using a standardized rubric and a single-blind review procedure to minimize biases.
In turn, Sparacino notes that it was important to hire a new artistic director committed to centering equity in all of ACT’s operations and productions, which they found in Robert Arleigh White. Though White is not a person of color, ACT has added two new full-time staff members of color and four board members of color in the last two years.
“The voices at the table making artistic and fiscal decisions for ACT are more diverse than at any time in our company’s history,” Sparacino says.
As such, the company’s upcoming season will feature increased diversity onstage and behind the scenes. Sparacino reports that its current production of Our Town (which opens Friday, Sept. 30) has a diverse cast; two of the five mainstage productions will be directed by women of color; and plans are in place for live Spanish translations of two of those shows, during which audience members can listen to a Spanish-language broadcast of the show through a headset.
“We’ve chosen to explore cultural issues artistically via the shows we selected for this year’s season and plan to initiate conversations about these themes in our Q&A talkbacks and highlight them on our social media throughout the season,” Sparacino says. “The art speaks for itself, and we can speak with the art by emphasizing and prioritizing conversations that promote understanding and change.”
Reflection and recalibration
ACT’s efforts, however, haven’t been without issues, particularly in regard to its Artistic Partner Fellowship. Created alongside local playwright Maria “Ria” Young in early 2021, the paid, yearlong position was designed to give local artists of color opportunities to hone their skills with experienced ACT staff and share stories of underrepresented communities.
But following this April’s premiere of her play, Transition, Young filed a five-page grievance letter with ACT and its board of directors, that, as she shared in a Facebook post, detailed “every single issue, misuse, challenge, barrier and harm [she and her cast/crew] encountered, as well as things that were not carried out by [ACT].” The fellowship was subsequently dissolved four months before its scheduled conclusion.
“My cast, crew and myself were consistently met with apathy, disregard, disrespect and an overall ill-mannered feeling while preparing to share a vulnerable piece of Black art,” Young wrote in her post. “I would not recommend any Black artist be subjected to even half of what my cast and I experienced in that space.”
Young, who declined to comment for this article, added in the post that ACT “has made an immediate pledge to address everything brought to their attention in [her] grievance, and others brought to their attention by individuals who were [her] cast/crew, but only time will tell if tangible changes are made and willing to be sustained within that organization.”
Young was subsequently brought on as Hickling Beckman’s co-director for Different Strokes’ June production of Monsters of the American Cinema. Meanwhile, ACT has put the Artistic Partner Fellowship program on hold to, in Sparacino’s words, “reflect and learn from this experience” and “be sure that if/when we open this program again, we have reworked the program to incorporate what we have learned.”
“We are limited in our response to [what happened with the fellowship] due to the confidentiality of personnel and varying perspectives. However, we can say that, in hindsight, we could have offered more assistance and communication,” Sparacino says. “After Ms. Young asked to leave prior to her fellowship ending, we honored her request and decided to pause at this juncture to reevaluate the needs and expectations of the program. We want to be sure we are ready and have all available resources to guide this program successfully in the future.”
Though equity and inclusion efforts were primarily sparked by a desire to become better allies with Asheville’s Black community members, the focus has broadened to other underserved populations within the region.
Beginning with opening night of Monsters of the American Cinema, Different Strokes has prefaced each performance with Hickling Beckman acknowledging that the “beautiful land on which we live, love and create art was stolen from the Cherokee people … by the United States.” The statement concludes with a commitment to “continued conversation with the Cherokee people” and “a true effort to connect and grow” in order for WNC to become “the inclusive community it was meant to be.”
Different Strokes was inspired to add the acknowledgment after the 2020 publication of “We See You White American Theatre,” a document crafted by a collective of Black, Indigenous and people of color theater-makers from across the country. According to Hickling Beckman, the document “exposes the indignities and racism that BIPOC theater-makers face on a day-to-day basis in the theater industry and demands ‘substantive change.’”
Topping the list, under “Cultural Competency,” is the demand for “the naming and acknowledgment of American Indian, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian tribal land and its Native peoples who have lived, currently live and will live on the land where any theater activity happens.” As outlined in the document, Different Strokes’ land statement acknowledges the land local residents live on as stolen because “Indigenous Americans exchanged millions of acres of land through treaties for basic needs and rights despite the fact that every treaty was broken by the U.S. government.”
“This statement is included in our playbill, but as a theater company, we believe in the power of the spoken word and have opted to make it a part of the curtain speech in order to publicly position ourselves as allies,” Hickling Beckman says.
She continues, “In short, this is not new for us, as we express solidarity with every show we produce by partnering with a particular nonprofit; we express support of the trans and nonbinary communities every time we acknowledge the nonbinary restroom and its location in the building; and we profess outrage against the murders of unarmed Black people by including ‘Black Lives Matter’ on our website.”
In crafting its statement, Different Strokes also sought guidance from the Native Governance Center, a Native-led nonprofit dedicated to assisting Native nations in strengthening their governance systems and capacity to exercise sovereignty. The NGC provides an “Indigenous Guide to Land Acknowledgement,” which includes several tips and suggestions for preparing an acknowledgment.
“We relied heavily on this resource, and I spoke to a source at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian who said that land acknowledgments are important but encouraged us to have a reason to make it and to do our own research, and cautioned against doing it just because ‘everybody else is doing it,’” Hickling Beckman says. “We hope our statement also encourages folks to learn the truth. It is a shame that our children are being taught the same history I was — that Native Americans gave the land to the U.S. as a trade, leaving out the part where the U.S. did not keep their end of the bargain.”
ACT has taken similar measures. Its Cultural Change Agent Team collaborated with Bo Lossiah, a representative of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Tribal Council, to develop a land acknowledgment, which was presented to the Tribal Council and accepted.
“ACT will display the land acknowledgment on a plaque in the theater lobby in both the Cherokee language and English,” Sparacino says. “A part or all of the statement will be recognized before each performance in order to acknowledge and show respect for the Cherokee people.”
Step by step
While Different Strokes and ACT are seeing the results of these efforts take shape, N.C. Stage Company remains in the planning stages of its inclusion initiatives. As the professional equity theater prepares to produce its first full season of shows since the COVID-19 pandemic, racial justice has been on the minds of Artistic Director Charlie Flynn-McIver and his colleagues.
“Our focus right now is how do we create a place that is welcoming and doesn’t create harm?” Flynn-McIver says. “And what our process has been is to educate ourselves about how we are possibly perpetuating the problem before we can talk about how we can become part of a solution.”
However, he’s quick to add that “solution” is a problematic word, as it suggests that racial equity issues can be solved and disappear. “There is no end to this work,” he says. “It’s not like you can finish. You have to continue learning and always strive towards inclusion, diversity, equity and accessibility.”
Flynn-McIver notes that many white-led organizations feel they are inherently welcoming places because they’re not doing anything they perceive as damaging. But the more he and his staff inform themselves on the matter, the more they realize how easy it can be to perpetuate the problems and that it takes intentional actions from everyone who is a part of their organization to address them.
“That’s involved a lot of research — a lot of reading and listening, ranging from professionals in the field to personal experiences of BIPOC actors and designers and directors working with white-led organizations,” Flynn-McIver says. “And to hear their stories, you start to say, ‘Oh, I see how we need to be more inclusive and welcoming.’”
Flynn-McIver has also been reaching out to people of color whom he knows in the industry, being careful not to ask them to speak for a group of people but for only their personal experiences. He says their recollections overlap significantly with the findings of his research and reiterate an industrywide lack of acknowledgment of how theaters aren’t creating safe and welcoming spaces for audiences and people who work there.
N.C. Stage’s next phase is to work with a consultant on an organizational level. And Flynn-McIver also plans to keep close tabs on the equity and inclusion work being done by Robin Tynes-Miller, artistic and operations director for Three Bone Theatre in Charlotte, as well as Hickling Beckman.
“Different Strokes always has interesting stuff going on,” he says. “I’m always interested in what their perspective is.”