A step toward justice: The pandemic is opening the theatre to BIPOC audiences
My family has never seen my work.
I have been fortunate to have projects developed and produced from coast to coast, and to be on (what I hope will remain) a steady incline in my career. But my family, whose long and beautiful histories have inspired my work since I began this journey, have never seen a single play I have written or directed. Much of what I create is about the Seminole Nation, but I have never had a cousin or an elder in the audience. Instead, non-Native theatre companies have presented my work to crowds who are predominantly (if not all) non-Native.
My family lives in Seminole Nation, hundreds (and often thousands) of miles away from the theatres that have presented my work. And when theatre is happening around them, they can’t afford to go.
Plus—or perhaps I should say “mostly”—I’m not sure my family would feel welcome or safe at the theatre. I know I have felt unsafe there many times.
When I lived in Washington, D.C., I wanted to see a particular dance company perform at the Kennedy Center. When I arrived, there was an event happening at the other end of the building, and within minutes of walking through the door, I got mistaken for a server.
As an Indigenous person and as a person of color, I clocked that interaction for what it was. Furthermore, as I walked to the box office, I noticed I was being stared at. (At first I thought it was because I was a young person, but I saw maybe a dozen others in the lobby.) When I finally got to the box office and asked for a ticket, the attendant reiterated the $45 price multiple times to make sure I “knew how much it cost” before running my debit card. After it went through, they were visibly surprised that it did not decline.
I won’t lie to you. I really wanted to leave. I did not feel welcome, and I definitely did not feel safe. When I was humiliated at the box office while other patrons were clearly eavesdropping, I wanted to turn around and head back to Suitland, Md. However, I knew that I would never get to see that dance company otherwise, so I put a smile on my face, ignored the stares, and made my way to my seat (even after being stopped by an usher).
There have been countless articles written about how BIPOC, people with disabilities, and so many more are treated when they attend the theatre, so this one story may not shock you. But if it does, I hope you can understand when I say that sometimes, the theatre is not a safe place. I hope you can understand that if that dance company’s production had been available online, I would have stayed home to watch it.
I live in Tulsa. Although there is a robust, predominantly volunteer-based theatre community here, I do not have access to major regional directors’ work. If theatres streamed their performances, if theatres allowed me to buy a ticket to a New York City production from Indian Country, if offering digital programming to be consumed was an option, I know that I would partake in it. I know thousands of other people would too. On May 1, over 20,000 people streamed a recording of the contemporary opera Angel’s Bone. Nearly 1 million people watched the National Theatre’s Jane Eyre. Disney+ will soon release a recording of Hamilton, and how many people do you think will stream it from home?
In this specific moment, I love the abundance of recorded plays being offered. My sincerest hope for post-pandemic theatre is that companies continue to record and share their productions and that all of the unions get on board in the name of accessibility.
Obviously theatre is meant to be experienced live. That is what makes our medium so special. However, I firmly believe that geographic, economic, and/or medical barriers should never prohibit anyone from experiencing our work. During quarantine, I cannot count the number of conversations I’ve had with friends and colleagues about how great it has been to watch plays from around the world that we would never be able to see otherwise. I also cannot count the number of times I’ve seen artists express their hatred of recorded productions because they “lessen” the quality of the work.
Here’s the thing: Accommodations make theatre better for everyone. You may hate the idea of recordings, of every performance being live captioned, or of ASL interpreters being part of every show, but that does not negate the fact that those services make our art more accessible. I am not advocating for the permanent closure of theatres or for only releasing digital recordings. I am advocating for a blend—presenting live theatre for those who can and want to attend and also making every production available online.
I imagine a theatre that gives someone who lives 1,000 miles away the opportunity to experience a wonderful production. I imagine theatre makers who are cognizant that recorded productions are necessary for folks who cannot gather until a vaccine is readily available. I imagine theatre companies embracing the fact that recordings are safer for those who experience anxiety or discomfort while visiting a physical venue. I imagine a theatre that gives audiences more choices to see amazing work because it makes so much more sense.
I imagine theatres working diligently to make their physical spaces safer for audiences through rigorous work on anti-racism and anti-ableism, and while that work is being done, I imagine them using digital performances as a tool for outreach.
I imagine texting a link to my grandma, aunties, cousins, and elders to see my work for the first time.
Tara Moses is an award-winning playwright, director, artistic director of telatúlsa, and citizen of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma. This essay is an excerpt from “I Imagine a Just Theatre,” which is published in full in The Flashpaper: Theatre’s Thoughts on Right Now, a print journal that supports indie theatre artists.