Guest Columnist

Allegations of racism and silencing in Iowa's theater community

Staff laid-off from the Old Creamery Theatre speak out against the board

Scenes like this, from the Old Creamery Theatre's  production of #x201c;Mamma Mia!#x201d; last fall, won't be happening
Scenes like this, from the Old Creamery Theatre’s production of “Mamma Mia!” last fall, won’t be happening in the Amana venue during the coronavirus outbreak. So the troupe is creating a virtual cabaret to showcase the talents of area performers and raise funds for five Corridor theaters. (Erich Aschenbrenner)

I take tremendous pride in supporting the shared cultural fabric of our corridor communities — as a patron, performer, volunteer and donor. The recent succession of events at the Old Creamery Theatre Company, then, was especially disturbing.

The executive director and interim artistic directors of the Old Creamery Theatre Company developed and posted a public statement supporting the Black Lives Matter movement on June 10. The board of trustees Immediately directed its removal, which was done June 12, without any public explanation or replacement diversity statement. On July 2, the Board terminated 10 of the organization’s 11 staff members and abruptly canceled all remaining scheduled summer programming. Board members cited financial losses and COVID-19 as the reason; staff members believe that the board’s decision to terminate them — without even discussing cost-saving options with the staff — was made in retaliation for the Black Lives Matter support statement.

The thoughtful Black Lives Matter support statement developed by the OCTC creative staff and approved by the executive director presented a robust approach to addressing racial disparities in staffing, programming, and casting. It included inspiring action steps toward building a more inclusive and equitable theatre environment at OCTC and certainly served as a model for other theatre companies. It would have strengthened our cultural fabric. This OCTC board’s swift, unexplained directive to erase it from all theatre communication platforms was a stunning and dismissive affront. With no context or justification provided at the time, their actions also painted a very worrisome picture for patrons and community members regarding motive. Why would they not support this message of inclusivity? Their continuing silence on the issue of BLM has become deafening. As of this writing — now more than a month after the original statement was shared — no other statement has been communicated. This calls into question their termination of the entire staff — without notice — soon after the statement being erased from social media.

I understand how the financial landscape created by COVID-19 would likely have created an eventual need for layoffs. Instead, the OCTC board chose to abruptly terminate the staff with no notice, hastily putting each of these dedicated and hardworking individuals out as if they had harmed the organization, and leaving them in the position of now having to forever explain themselves to potential future employers for having been fired from OCTC. Why in the world would they choose to do that to those they have called family? The answers provided on behalf of the board by the president and vice president don’t hold up. Furloughed employees are eligible for unemployment and are always able to pursue other employment. Only one of those fired staff members had vacation/health insurance benefits to protect, as the board used as part of their justification for the timing.

It is heartbreaking for our cultural community to lose some of its brightest creatives. Given the timing and implausible explanations of the board’s actions, it is nauseating to consider the possible reason why this has happened. The future of OCTC demands forward thinking and active support of diversity and the BLM movement. It is the responsibility of the board to lead in this direction to strengthen the cultural fabric. If they are not willing to do so, they should step aside and make way for those who will.

Marcia Hughes is a 30-year resident of Cedar Rapids. She has appeared on numerous area stages as an actor and vocalist, including the Old Creamery Theatre Company. She is a past president of the Iowa Cultural Corridor Alliance and has served on numerous nonprofit leadership boards.

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