Dallas — I had an experience a couple of weeks ago that got me thinking a little bit deeper about the idea of cultural equity and what the absence of it produces in our cultural consumers. I attended a matinee performance of Theatre Three’s Passing Strange and witnessed how important cultural context is for the enjoyment of a production. The play, although accessible to any theater lover looking for a quality piece of theater, has some culturally specific references and scenarios that, without some cultural context, may seem offensive to the uninitiated. I found myself having a good old-fashioned belly laugh throughout only to realize that my white neighbors were often silent and looking perplexed. They had no idea why I was so tickled and I felt badly that they missed the humor in particular scenes.
In my opinion, one of the responsibilities that comes with presenting work by playwrights of color is to prepare your audience for the different perspectives they may encounter that might have them reacting negatively. It’s unfair to the actors, director and all involved in putting up the production to have audience members leave at intermission because they had no idea what they were going to see and once in their seats, felt disoriented because their cultural knowledge was deficient. This is what I witnessed at the performance of Passing Strange I attended.
I guess this is one of the many reasons I push so hard for cultural equity because maybe if we didn’t live in such cultural silos, and if there were equal resources devoted to performing arts not centered in the Western European cultural frame, people would have the opportunity to experience a more diverse performing arts world, not as something special that happens once during the various ethnic specific celebratory months, but on-going as a routine part of every season. Of course, I also think you’d still have to do some prep work with certain shows, but for the most part, you’d have less of an understanding gap that comes with total ignorance of “the other.”
This new era we’ve crossed over into, the Era of Extreme Intolerance, makes this more important because theater provides such a potential to build bridges. It has always been an arena for pushing new ideas out to the populace, but without some exposure beyond one’s limited sphere, one can hardly expect to embrace the unknown without some context. I would love to see some innovation around getting audiences to have some pre-performance dialog about cultural mores and how they shape the way we see our worlds.
I’m not talking about sensitivity sessions or that type of touchy/feely “awareness training” that gets done in diversity workshops. I’m thinking of maybe something like conversations over a glass of wine that explores experiences people of color and white people have that on surface may seem the same but when examined for nuance, differences emerge. Things like the experience in church during Passing Strange that was so hilarious to me but seemed to fly over the head of the white woman sitting next to me. I know I needed some serious education about Latin American theater when Cora Cardona first introduced me to it. I didn’t feel equipped to interpret everything I saw until I better understood the cultural foundation that these playwrights built upon. I welcomed Cora’s tutelage on the aesthetic that differed from what I was use to because it made my theater experience at Teatro Dallas that much richer.
I think it’s easy to forget that as Americans, despite the myth of the melting pot, almost every cultural offering we’re given throughout our early education in the arts is based on a Eurocentric foundation. We learn about William Shakespeare or Edward Albee but never about Miguel de Cervantes or Tomas Urtusastegui. Our dancers are required to understand the movements of Martha Graham but those of Katherine Dunham are only an elective. The music of Bach gets introduced in music appreciation but Duke Ellington may only be a name to many. Feminist artists will laud Jenny Holzer but they may have only a passing knowledge of Hung Lui. And who loses when this type of cultural depravity exists in our society? Everyone does because the fullness, the richness of culture is never realized.
I can still remember the awe I felt the first time I saw the Peking Opera as a child. I had never heard music like that accompanying the dancers nor had I ever seen such fantastic costumes. No, I didn’t understand everything I saw and heard but it definitely gave me a thirst for more! And isn’t that what we hope happens when an audience comes to the theater to see what we’ve put onstage for them?
Cultural equity is more than just a concept; it’s a way of living in a multi-cultural society that brings richness to one’s cultural perspective that can’t be gotten vicariously through books or movies or any other means that is absent the body. I will continue to push our city towards achieving cultural equity because I know the value it brings to a cultural community.
» Vicki Meek is a former arts manager, a practicing artist and activist splitting her time between Dallas and Costa Rica. ART-iculate explores issues around race, politics and the arts. You can also keep up with Meek's musings in her blog Art & Racenotes.
» ART-iculate runs on the last Wednesday of the month.
- Vicki Meek ART-iculates (April 2016)
- On Dallas and Cultural Equity (May 2016)
- Equity vs. Diversity (June 2016)
- An Arts Super PAC? (July 2016)
- Too Big to Fail? (August 2016)
- It Isn't Us Against Them (September 2016)
- Another Missed Opportunity (October 2016)
- Neighborhood Arts Center: Not a New Idea (November 2016)
- Save Our Summer Programs (Decemeber 2016)
- The Creative Community in the Trump Era (January 2016)
- Being a Black Artist in a White World (February 2016)