By Christian Wills, Arts Journalist in Residence
On March 21, Del Shakes held a Community Discussion via Zoom on its recently developed Antiracism Policy and Action Plan. Christian Wills shares his perspective on the event.
As time moves on, the conversation around race starts to grow more vividly, showing no sign of letting up. Those devastated by a system that supports inequality based on the color of their skin have a hard time proving their acceptance in a country they call home. It is only when we allow others to stand tall and speak proud that their stories and experiences begin to shine. For Delaware Shakespeare, their platform has elevated many to speak their truth; bringing forth the voices of actors, producers, staff members, and attendees all over.
In circumstances of representation, protection, and historical allegiance, people from all backgrounds, shades, and colors touched on each subject with care and attention. The fascination of listening to a Zoom call with over thirty individuals actively speak on these issues became a breathtaking experience. The ninety-minute long conversation had left attendees feeling strong and passionate about the topics concerning antiracism, myself included. While the format of talking on Zoom itself can be a little shaky, there was no denying its sheer overall impact.
Setting the Standard
The beginning phases of the conversation helped to shape the tone of the room, create a space for dialogue, and make way for internal reflection. Delaware Shakespeare gave time for a moment of silence for the eight victims of the recent Atlanta shootings. Definitions were given for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) and for BILAM (Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian, Multiracial). Logistics of racial demographics with staff members throughout the years became clear, as well as other progressive oddities within Del Shakes. While this may seem unnecessary or redundant to some, it was great to see the organization double down on the intricacies of their own inner workings. Luckily, this portion did not take up much time in the conversation and all specifics related to Del Shakes quickly came to a halt.
Breathing exercises soon took shape; allowing others to slow down and ready themselves for the conversation ahead. Through iambic pentameter, we slowly closed our eyes and took deep breaths together in the space. In an instance, the audience became one as we began breathing together in unison and rhythm. Thinking back on these techniques, I believe they were effective in creating a safe atmosphere for people of different experiences, even if some weren’t able to keep up or show their faces one hundred percent of the time. While the response wasn’t as clear, the passion put forward into expressing these beginning phases showed itself tremendously.
An Open Conversation
The leader of the conversation, Arreon Harley-Emerson, would carry questions throughout the conversation that ranged in difficulty. He noted the importance of “truth seeking,” “truth telling,” and the use of “I Statements”; focusing on a person’s feelings and emotions when it came to discussion. Tension began to loosen as the conversation crawled to an open forum. It felt impactful to sit down and listen to other’s experiences.
Many of the participants took turns raising their hands, joining in discussion and debating on certain topics. Some preferred to use the open chat menu, while others designated themselves to go off of mute. Emerson would often call on people, which helped further discussion when the room grew silent. As the level of noise crept up and down from the responses of passionate speakers, the amount of mutual appreciation grew even bigger as time drew on.
On the other side of things, not everyone fully participated in the discussion. Many audience members were muted in the Zoom or became silent altogether. Some arrived late and missed other parts of the call. At different times, you’ll see the same people break out into conversation again and again. About one-third of the entire call actively spoke and replied to each other on certain topics, leaving moments in discussions or debates much to be desired.
Representation, Protection, and Decolonizing the Process
The concept of representation and its impact became clear for many on all sides. Those inside and outside of the production studios chimed in to suggest many possible solutions toward representing BIPOC and BILAM. Those suggestions included adding “diversity in leadership positions,” incorporating “diversity at all levels” for strategic planning, and meeting minority and other ethnic groups “where they’re at” in the entire process. As more built on these suggestions, we found there was less push-back and more acceptance for diversity in all areas. Producers, actors, viewers, and audience members were starting to see eye to eye on this major subject, as well as more to come.
Microaggressions, side comments, and distasteful responses are nuances that each and everyone of us practice, sometimes without knowing. The issue of protecting actors and producers from these disturbances became a longer dialogue within the overall conversation. In a broad sense, we all came in accord about educating audience members on inclusion, meaningful thought, and community feel. Most agreed on the idea of giving performers “praise without the caveat”; celebrating the performance and the person displaying their talent without comparison to other majority groups. Seeing the theme of protection and disruption cross paths and correlate with the idea of Black churches and ambassadors revealed to others, as well as myself, that there was still more work to be done in the theatre industry.
Another part of the conversation process concerned the “Old White Guy,” Shakespeare himself. This was more than likely the most uncomfortable part within the strings of dialogue we’ve had so far. This argument on decolonization notably challenged the minds and ideas of myself and others in the call. The discussion revolved around “decolonizing” and “reimagining Shakespearean worlds”; turning largely White dystopian settings into relatable, relevant works of art for all to enjoy. One notable point that was touched on was removing “the art” from “the artist,” appreciating the work Shakespeare created without celebrating Shakespeare in the process. Hard as it may have been, I believe that this topic played a huge part in critically thinking about why Shakespeare is still relevant today.
As I take a step back to examine how the conversation around antiracism influenced my way of thinking, I now see how everyone has their part to play in the theatrical world. Despite the desire to see more people speak up, the amount of information I took afterwards was incredible. Above all, I realized how actors, producers, and staff members, as well as audience members, contribute to their own perceived levels of fair treatment. No one is truly ruled out from the equation. Silence and inaction can speak louder than words ever could.
Our voices matter in all that we do; whether we’re on stage, watching from the crowd, engaging in discussion, or carrying the conversation. It’s difficult at times to often speak your truth on subjects previously mentioned, but these truths need to be heard in all facets of life. Our differences can connect us to characters portrayed in any production, just as these characters reflect and depict a portion of our own worlds. It’s important that we educate ourselves to help protect each other from hateful speech, create a community of reassurance, and decolonize supremacy in the process. Only then, can we all move forward.
My last hopes are that future conversations will lend themselves to be more inclusive to others. A possible livestream or podcast format with Q&A sections could help shake things in the right direction. Leaving room for more anonymous responses for the “shy and passionate types” and those without a microphone and camera could remedy the low engagement from others that want to participate. The conversation should also not be for the elites, but for those they are actively trying to support. Group conversations at minority-lead schools, prisons, or communities may help in the search for active change around antiracism. There’s a chance at opening this discussion to a bigger and more diverse audience in all parts of Delaware.