Editor's Note: This is the fifth of a monthly column on TheaterJones, in which Aaron Zilbermann and Tiana Kaye Johnson will chronicle their journey in starting a new theater company, Metamorphosis: a new living theatre, which has a mission of theater for social justice. They will write about administrative and artistic issues as they plan for a new work in the fall of 2017.
Dallas — What is the role of the arts within the context of larger social justice movements? I’ve been asking myself this question since I was participating in theater as a young teenager and every year it feels like my answer morphs. But what has remained constant to me is that the arts are central to any effective social justice movement. Part of Morph’s mission is to “use theater as a tool to effectuate social change.” We used the word “effectuate” purposefully because those of us who created the organization wanted it to put social change at the center of everything we do. We are not creating theater to send a message about social change. We are creating theater to create social change. And the impact of that significance weighed heavily on me for our first production.
Dutchman is a short play. Our typical run time was just over 30 minutes, and we debated whether or not to include a second one-act play with this production. We marinated on A Day of Absence by Douglas Turner Ward for a while and thought that the theme of each play would complement the other. But the immediacy associated with presenting a short, urgent piece like Dutchman followed by a powerful and substantial dialogue was too pressing and we ultimately decided to make the talk-back a central piece of the theatrical experience, which meant dropping the idea of a second play.
People ultimately bought tickets to a play as much as they bought tickets to a constructive community dialogue on race in America. Dutchman was only our starting point; the cast, crew, and audience shared their various experiences with personal micro aggressions. These post-performance dialogues were facilitated by Tiana Johnson and opened with the cast and crew introducing ourselves. We modeled the type of dialogue we had hoped would come from the audience. We almost started the talk-backs with dyads listening to and sharing their reactions to the play. This would have given a voice to every person in the room, however we felt a lack of control with dyads. Who knows what ridiculous things might get said privately between two people. After moving them off the table we felt more in control, so we decided against them.
Theater and social change are entangled. Art is so powerful and resonates so much with those it encounters that it only seems logical that movements attempting to influence the masses would turn to the arts as an influential tool for working toward liberation. Yet, our governments don’t take advantage of this unique connection between social change and art. The power behind such an entanglement is intensely shaped and meaningful to so many people. Artists document social change; they stimulate it, inform it, and construct it. Art is involved at every level. The problems facing our society are substantial: an angry president pissed-off at and denigrating the press, high health care costs (and soon potentially higher), poverty, pervasive racism, deteriorating public education systems, young and unarmed black men disproportionately murdered by the police, our damaged, struggling and dying ecosystems, increased suicide rates and other mental health concerns. These problems have solutions that can be worked through by artists, and yet government spending for the arts is decreasing at an alarming rate. If, as a society, we value social change and social progress, then we must identify the unique role artists can play in this process and we must fund them to participate in it.
The talk backs at each performance were quite successful. For each show, I didn’t see a single person leave after the performance, prior to the talk backs (although everyone was granted that option). Everyone remained in the basement to discuss and process what they had just witnessed, as they had just witnessed a rather awful event. Yet, as we hosted a couple of talk-backs at invited runs and ultimately hosted our first public gathering on Friday June 9, we learned a few things and made the necessary adjustments.
After our first night, we quickly realized that ground rules are essential and should always be laid out first. A couple of ground rules that became important to us almost immediately were to encourage people to listen in order to understand the narrative of another person, ideally “the other,” but at least one human whose own struggle and experience is unique from your own. So, we asked on the second night that people please refrain from responding to an individual’s struggle with a comparison to their own struggles. Every struggle is unique to every community. In fact, it is unique to every individual, and we have a great deal to learn from each other. Therefore, we asked people to stop themselves from interjecting their own narrative into someone else’s narrative, which can belittle both stories. Another ground rule that came up early on was that we asked participants not to say who they are friends with in order to grant themselves a level of authority to speak on a subject. In other words, don’t tell everyone how many black friends you have in order to sound like an authority on Black issues. We are all coming from our own unique perspectives in life and that perspective should be sufficient. You don’t need to claim authority on the subject in order to share your opinion on Black issues in America. Your own personal perspective is enough.
Many of the white, predominately Jewish, attendees to Saturday and Sunday’s performances learned for the first time how hurtful it is for black people to have well-intentioned white people tell them how “eloquent” or “well-spoken” they are. This came as a surprise to many “liberal” people, who, when confronted, expressed concern and iterated that their intentions were not bad. This is simply a representation of the white-centric culture that we ALL grew up in and are attempting to morph.
The decision to have Tiana facilitate the Dutchman talk backs was purposeful. She and I both felt that it was problematic for me, as a white male, to facilitate a discussion on race. Not that it is inappropriate for a white man to ever facilitate a dialogue on race, but the impact of a black female facilitator could have the potential to be much more powerful.
After a thriving run of Dutchman, we are beginning to ask the questions: What does a successful season look like for us moving forward? How can we most effectively serve our mission? A theater program for at risk youth seems like a great way to start. I am working with community members of Southeast Dallas, AKA Jubilee park, to develop a summer and after school program for youth in the community. We plan to continue this program into the school year and hope to be able to raise the funds for a year-round program. And now that we have made a small footprint in the Dallas theater and social justice communities in Dallas, I feel much more confident in our fundraising capacity with a major project under our belt. Spending time to produce a quality piece of theater was a wise decision for our first play. Our budget was highly restricted but I have no regrets for the fact that we paid every artist as much as we possibly could, as they are the backbone of what we do.
» Aaron Zilbermann, executive artistic director of Metamorphosis: a new living theatre, has worked with Big Thought and other local teaching institutions. Tiana Kaye Johnson, the theater's director of education, is a Dallas native and Southern Methodist University graduate, and a member of the Dallas Theater Center’s Diane and Hal Brierley Resident Acting Company. She currently appears in Dallas Theater Center's world premiere of Hood: The Robin Hood Musical Adventure.
» Living Theatre runs on the second Friday of the month on TheaterJones.com (except this July edition, which was moved back a week.)
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