Arts & Culture

Local theaters prepare to act on their Black Lives Matter vows

Common theme: 'We know that we have work to do'

Pianist Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Ezekiel Andrew, second from right) sets Harlem afire with a new brand of music he calls ra
Pianist Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Ezekiel Andrew, second from right) sets Harlem afire with a new brand of music he calls ragtime, while the upper crust characters (at left) are frozen in time. Revival Theater Company presented “Ragtime” in March 2018 in Sinclair Auditorium at Coe College in Cedar Rapids. Like other Corridor theater troupes, Revival has posted a Black Lives Matter support statement, and is committed to presenting diversity onstage and in its programming. (Greg Billman) 
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As protesters marched across the nation after George Floyd was killed by a police officer May 25 in Minneapolis, Corridor theater troupes were among those posting support for the Black Lives Matter movement —— sparking both conversation and controversy.

Now that some of these theaters are moving ahead with virtual programming and an eventual return to the stage when the pandemic subsides, how do they plan to act on their commitment to equity, diversity and inclusion?

Old Creamery posts bring controversy

The executive director and co-artistic directors at the Old Creamery Theatre in Amana wrote the area’s most definitive action plan, calling for policy and programming changes and creating a scholarship fund to remove employment barriers for students, interns and young artists.

The statement was posted online June 10, but the plans hadn’t been vetted with the board. Shortly after, the staff was told to remove it.

“Any time you’re making policy or having discussions of direction of an organization, it’s appropriate to have (the) management team involved in those discussions,” board president Peter Teahen said.

“Obviously, the kind of anti-racist work we were committed to doing was not going to happen overnight and certainly not at the cost of the survival of the theater,” Ashley Shields, who joined the staff as executive director in early March, told The Gazette in an email. “But outlining some of the necessary steps was critical to creating a path of both action and accountability. “And, specifically, because of COVID-19, the entire arts community has been forced to pause, and we chose to see that for the real opportunity that it was — we could be meticulous, mindful and deliberate in the way we went back to producing theater and educational programming at Old Creamery,” Shields said.

In mid-July, the board prepared its own statement committing to diversity, inclusion and equity, but Teahen said they didn’t have access to the company’s computers at the time so it couldn’t be posted publicly until July 22.

In the meantime, when the Paycheck Protection Program funds ran out June 30 — which Teahen said covered the professional troupe’s salaries of about $20,000 a month — the board voted to terminate 10 staff members July 2, retaining the general manager.

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That action touched off a firestorm of criticism, with staff members asserting the original Black Lives Matter statement led to the firings.

Teahen denied that and maintains the decision to close the theater’s doors, suspend outdoor and online programming and terminate the staff was driven by financial circumstances. The remainder of the 2020 season had been suspended May 11. With revenue losses, the theater already was facing a deficit of $150,000, Teahen said.

While the closure is indefinite, he said the board is committed to reopening when it’s safe to do so, and is looking forward to celebrating the company’s 50th anniversary.

Mirrorbox: Acting on commitments

The Old Creamery board’s new pledge to support diversity, inclusion and equity mirrors that of other area theaters, with none outlining specific steps, other than vowing to listen and learn and improve upon their inclusivity efforts.

However, leading the way since its 2018 inception and on through the pandemic is Mirrorbox Theatre, a small professional troupe in Cedar Rapids, founded by Cavan Hallman.

Performing in CSPS Hall’s intimate first-floor theater until the COVID-19 shutdown in mid-March, the company presents Iowa premieres of contemporary plays, and has consistently staged works by diverse voices and starring diverse casts, beginning with “Exit Strategy” in April 2018, which called for four people of color out of its seven roles.

Hallman invited Iowa City spoken word artist Caleb “The Negro Artist” Rainey to participate in that inaugural show, which led to him also being cast in “Luna Gale” in August that year.

Mirrorbox has built on that commitment to inclusivity for people of color and LGBTQ actors, directors and playwrights, drawing from connections Hallman has made throughout his theater career in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, New Orleans and Cedar Rapids.

Rainey, 25, said that kind of inclusivity is having a “monumental impact” on casts, crews and audience members.

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“I never identified as an actor,” he said. “I think acting is a mostly a white people’s world and we get lucky if we get a Will Smith who makes it, or a Denzel. But it’s not really a viable option, so that’s part of the reason I never did acting. ...

“I think it’s really huge for Mirrorbox to be finding plays that asks for those voices, asks for characters that are outside the normal realm.”

He cited “Exit Strategy,” in which he played a Black teenager at a Chicago school that’s on the brink of closure.

“That is different than many of the plays I’ve seen, setting-wise, let alone what they were talking about, what they were tackling,” he said. “As a performer, it gives me this hope — and this openness of thinking there is more for us. There is more space for us as Black performers than what we sometimes think there is.

“It brings a really special kind of joy to support Mirrorbox and see that Mirrorbox is getting people of color on the stage. It really means more than I can put into words, not only for performers, but knowing that white people will go to see this play because they love theater, and then realizing that they are having more exposure to Blackness or to people of color than they might in their in their everyday lives,” Rainey said.

Presenting diversity onstage and in the Mirrorbox “Out the Box” online play reading series is “a very conscious choice,” Hallman said. “I’ve believed for a while, when you put a play on stage, there are three big choices when it comes to clear representing: Are you choosing to show the world as you see it; as you think it should be; or the world you want it to be? I personally believe I’m living in a diverse and connected world and community, and so I wanted to put the kind of world that I want to see onstage.”

In presenting an ever-increasing number of contemporary shows with diversity and inclusivity, Hallman isn’t sure whether more are being written right now, or if it is because people are demanding it.

Theatre Cedar Rapids sees ‘strategic inquiry’

“Maybe there’s a little bit of chicken and egg,” said his wife, Katie Hallman, executive director at Theatre Cedar Rapids.

“Is there more art available? Is there a trend toward more diversity in theater, or are we all responding to a collective social movement, and therefore discovering or giving voice to the diversity here that wasn’t getting produced as much? I am inclined toward the latter,” she said.

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“I think from a Theatre Cedar Rapids standpoint, something that is really exciting about this very steep shift in our cultural consciousness is that it’s giving us the chance as a producing entity to really bring forward stories with diverse voices, with Black voices, people of color, their voices with more intentionality and more clarity.

“These voices have been both underrepresented, and the people in these stories have been subjected to violence and murder. I think that’s the biggest shift,” Hallman said. “I’ve been really proud of the programming TCR has done in the last three years under (artistic director Angie Toomsen’s) leadership. We have seen much more diversity on our stage and from our playwrights,” she said.

The Theatre Cedar Rapids staff and board have adopted a “year of strategic inquiry, assessing our community, our specific purpose and our chain of diversity, equity, inclusion, action and goals for the years ahead,” Hallman said.

Moving forward across the Corridor

Like the Hallmans, the management teams at Riverside Theatre in Iowa City and Revival Theatre in Cedar Rapids have been taking online courses in diversity, equity and inclusion, as well as anti-bias education and awareness.

Brian Glick and Cameron Sullenberger, co-creators of Revival Theatre, are taking online classes, one of which deals with three core principles in anti-racist theater, including harm reduction, harm prevention and relationship repair.

“It’s extremely informative. I’m learning a lot,” Glick said. “This is where we can start to be better — educating ourselves and then putting that into action.”

Revival presents musical theater pieces, and has staged “Ragtime,” “Violet” and “Parade,” all of which call for actors of color. And while the professional troupe would like to do more, Glick said that’s hard financially since they’ve had to bring in key players from out of town to handle the singing/dancing/acting demands of “Ragtime” and “Parade.”

And like all area theaters, they cast people according to talents across lead, supporting and ensemble roles.

“We always want diversity — we welcome and encourage it,” Glick said. “We’ve had conversations with our Black artists about what would they like to see done in terms of programming, and what can we do. We live in a predominantly white state and white community, and when you pay everybody, it creates limitations financially in what we’re able to accomplish. ...

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“I have always shared with our board that it’s difficult for us to do ‘The Color Purple’ or ‘The Wiz,’ because it’s difficult to find that many Black artists. If we can start doing the groundwork and communicate with Black artists in the community, and if we can reach out to activists and reach out to other individuals who can help educate us and make us more knowledgeable, we can start doing that,” he said.

Glick said they stand behind their Black Lives Matter statement. but “we know that actions speak louder than words, and we know that we have work to do.”

To that end, Revival Theatre is establishing a committee on diversity, equity and inclusion, bringing together Glick, Sullenberger, board members and diverse voices from the community. The goal is ensure “that we are always headed in the right direction, that we’re having the right discussions, focusing on the right pieces to do.”

Building bridges is a main focus in acting upon Riverside Theatre’s Black Lives Matter support statement.

“For us, there are three major components,” said Adam Knight, producing artistic director for the professional troupe in Iowa City.

“The first is representation. Our mission is to tell stories, and what stories Riverside chooses to tell matters. In this season that we just announced, we’re featuring two full productions by Black women. That’s certainly more than we’ve ever done in any season heretofore.

“Another part of our commitment is expanding who gets to tell stories, in terms of representation on our stages. This season, more than a third of the actors at Riverside will be people of color. That’s up from 23 percent two seasons ago, and in 2017, it’s up from 6 percent, so Riverside is really trying to take that seriously — going beyond just reflecting the demographics of Johnson County, to expanding and challenging our audiences to hear different kinds of stories.”

Outreach also becomes part of the plan, turning to community resources, especially when staging the all-Black production of “Skeleton Crew” in 2021.

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“That’s a real opportunity to engage with other organizations and other community members,” Knight said. “Riverside has improvements to do in terms of outreach, and that’s going to be a big focus in the year ahead.”

While Riverside hopes to build on existing partnerships, “we have to build bridges, and not just rely on existing bridges. That’s Riverside’s job. If we’re serious about being a leader in this community, we need to be building those bridges,” Knight said.

The Old Creamery has building and rebuilding to do, as well, when it’s able to open next year.

Teahen said the board wants to expand on the programming committee formed last year, designed to bring diverse voices into charting the theater’s course. Most of those members have stepped down, though, amid the controversy over the theater’s Black Lives Matter statements.

Teahen said others have expressed interest in joining the group, and the remaining board members are committed to upholding the current Black Lives Matter statement, which says in part:

“It is our responsibility as a theater to tell everyone’s stories and to make all people, artists and audiences feel welcome, regardless of their skin color or gender or sexual orientation. We can and will do better. We hold ourselves accountable to ensure that, as an organization, racism and discrimination will not be condoned or tolerated.”

Comments: (319) 368-8508; diana.nollen@thegazette.com

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