This is the keynote speech I gave to ground the Theatre Communications Group People of Color Affinity Session for the 2020 Virtual Convergence Friday, May 8, 2020. (There have been a few tweaks and clarifications :- )
(Guide 3 Collective Unison Inhales/Exhales)
Feel free to call and respond throughout this talk with your reactions and in the chat.
There are only a few things, for me, that are truly grounding
Among them is the Truth.
And the Truth is...
My truth is...
The ground on which we stand…
The ground on which we all stand... is shaky.
It’s cracked. In some cases, it’s gaping. It’s shifting.
Some things are crumbling around us.
The Coronavirus has definitely shaken the earth.
But it’s not the first time the ground has been shaken. And, let’s face it: we people of color are used to having our worlds rocked. We’ve become adept at dealing with viruses - that is, entities that invade our cells and use our energy to multiply their image. Small pox. Yellow peril. Syphilis. Typhus. Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome. Enslavement. Colonialism. Yes, we all have inherited some shaky ground. And, in that sense, as the current generation alive and still reppin’ our bloodlines, I suppose we could declare victory over those past viral mentalities. After all, we’re here. Alive and kicking. Some might say surviving those viruses has made us stronger. Immune even. Perhaps.
Yet, if we’re being completely honest, we cannot deny that we have suffered many casualties on the “viral” front lines. We’re still here, yes, but at great cost. Many of us have lost the natural evolution of our sense of self-determination and identity. We’ve lost our values and the ability to create social systems that reflect the Truth of Nature. We’ve lost a culture of balance, for a culture of dominance. We’ve lost a culture of order, for a culture of hierarchy. We’ve lost a world view of abundance and generosity and potential, for one of scarcity and hyper-individualism and limitation. We’ve lost our language. We’ve lost our land. We’ve lost our history. We’ve lost familial connections. We’ve lost our food. We’ve lost our spiritual practice. We’ve lost our sacred cultural expressions to commodification and misappropriation. We’ve lost our health. We’ve lost our wealth. We’ve lost our voice. And in some cases we’ve lost our mind. Pun intended. Many of our people have suffered because of these past viruses. Many have been systematically humiliated, hunted, scapegoated, tortured, neglected, exploited, marginalized, criminalized, dehumanized and maimed. Many, many have died. Many, many have been murdered. Truth.
But WE... WE are STILL HERE.
And yet, in an ironic twist, it is our survival that has allowed many of us to become more susceptible to this particular viral attack. Many of our adaptations and coping strategies have actually resulted in us having all the risk factors that make us even more vulnerable. Diabetes, asthma, heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity are critical factors to COVID susceptibility, and it could be said that they all, in many ways, point to unhealed trauma; the relentless attack on our bodies and spirits; the physical and mental invasion of previous viruses.
Our people are more likely to be uninsured medically. Our communities are more likely to be discriminated against at a hospital. Our communities are more likely to have their physical and psychological pain go unacknowledged and untreated. Our communities are more likely to distrust the healthcare system, and to refuse to engage it at all.
Our people are more likely to live in substandard housing, to experience discriminiaton in housing. Our people are more likely to live in multi-unit dwellings. Social distancing is a privilege.
There’s an old saying, if white america is sick - black america has pneumonia. COVID is only adding to the evidence that suggests this statement is true for all people of color. In NYC, LatinX people make up 34% of deaths, but only 29% of the population. Two indigenious pueblos in New Mexico have higher infection rates than any county in the nation, and many reservations can’t seem to get water and healthcare supplies, but they are sent bodybags. Asian families with children are being openly berated and attacked on the streets - a woman punched in the face at random, dislocating her jaw. There’s just no data collected at all for the ways in which this is impacting our middle eastern population, ‘cause why would anyone consider them?! And black people? In majority black counties - ‘cause you know segregation is still a thing, right? - the COVID infection rate is 3 times as high as in majority white counties. And in Louisiana where blacks are 34% of the population, they are 70% of the COVID deaths. Seven for every 10. Seven. For every ten. These things are true.
Let’s talk some more truth. Let’s talk employment. Our communities are more likely to be economically unstable - we can’t afford NOT to go to work. Social distancing is a privilege. Many of our communities are not well represented on the successful business ownership front. Our dollars earned are likely not kept to benefit our communities. Our people are more likely to work jobs that don’t allow us to work from home. Our people are more likely to work jobs that serve those who can work from home. Our people are more likely to have to use public transportation to get to work. Our people are more likely to be unemployed and underemployed. And in the world of theatre - a world where unemployment is an expected part of the “regular” experience, particularly for individual artists - in the theatrical paradigm, you wanna talk about unemployment of people of color!?!
Let’s look at some pre-COVID numbers. AEA’s Diversity Study for 2013-2015 concluded that their members of color receive 30-35% of employment opportunities - opportunities which only keep 3 in 10 of their entire membership employed. And, when people of color are employed, they are likely to be paid less than their white counterparts who are more likely able to negotiate for salaries above the minimum. We didn’t need a study to know that, but we’re thankful that they took the time to officially confirm that reality, and we’re thankful for their formal dedication to addressing the problem. SDC, IATSE, United Scenic Artists, Dramatist Guild, TCG - they all have formal diversity statements and initiatives acknowledging the pre-COVID disparity. What's it gonna be post?
And then there’s the issue of people of color in theatre leadership. While we’ve had an unprecedented number of people of color become the artistic heads of non-profit theatres, they still represent a fraction of the field, and we are still not well represented on boards, in executive positions or on staff of these institutions. And, real talk, most culturally specific institutions are struggling, and people of color aren’t represented well in most of the non-profit theatre audiences either.
With those realities, I can understand civilians who look at theatre practitioners of color like we’re insane - why would we choose to enter and remain in an environment so stacked against our representation, stability, health and prosperity. ‘Cause now, we’re the ones literally dyin’ in these streets. We hungry in these streets. Thirsty in these streets. We can’t breathe in these streets. Pun intended. We can’t provide for ourselves and our families, we can’t protect ourselves against attack and disease. We’re scared in these streets. We plant seeds, but damnit if they aren’t continually blown to the wind in these streets. So, why do we continue to stand on this apparently shaky ground?
We do it because representation matters. We do it ‘cause we love it. We do it because it is our calling, our gift. We do it because it’s fun and exciting. We do it for the hearts and minds we touch, for the joy and for the gratifying feeling we get when we’ve made a positive impact. We do it because we have the courage to follow our dreams. We do it for the healing and catharsis. Revolution and change. We do it out of love for our people. We do it out of love for all people. We do it because it’s our ancestral birthright to contribute to the story. We literally have to do it.
So, of course, we do it however we can. Tell the rest of the world to join the club - we’ve been doing our work on shaky ground. Slippery ground. We do it on no ground at all. And in this time where the structure of our doing may very well be changing, we can rest assured that, whatever the change, communal storytelling will not stop. We are a part of an ancient tradition that has changed infrastructures and delivery systems multiple times, but the story never stops.
‘Cause, see, stories are essential to humanity. Human beings literally cannot experience being alive without story. Story is the software to the body’s hardware. It is what gives context and meaning to our aliveness. Air, water, food, shelter, connection, protection? All animals need that. Language, organized social systems, bloodlines. All animals have that. Story is a part of what makes humans human. And further, stories are the technology that humanity has to bring awareness to our capacity for collective conscious evolution. Nature will evolve us, but with story, we can participate and direct our evolutionary path.
Storytellers, then, are craftspeople bringing awareness, focus and intention to our innate inclination and need for story. The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, about each other, about this world and about life - about the past, about the present and about the future - impact what we think, expect, feel and ultimately what we do. So, when storytellers craft story, they are purposefully influencing what we think, expect, feel and ultimately what we do. Storytellers engineer stories that shape humanity. This is the Truth. This is the truth. This is the solid ground on which we stand.
So, in acknowledgment of how our people and vocation have stood the test of time, I’m going to be bold, and I’m going to go ahead and declare victory in advance, even while I know COVID and its impact are far from over. Here’s to surviving the disease and attacks and dangers and shifts...again. But also, here’s to transcending all of that and finding whatever blessings there are for us amid, and perhaps even because of, this breakdown. Here’s to mourning those we’ve lost and honoring the sacrifices of our ancestors with our continued commitment to this art. Here’s to taking care of one another, standing up for and with one another. Here’s to taking our rightful place as active, truthful, responsible and Life affirming contributors to humanity’s narrative, to our collective conscious evolution. And here’s to doing all we can right now to root below the tremors and the fault lines of this turbulent time to reclaim as much as we can of what was lost in order to grow a new paradigm in which we can all thrive and stand.
I invite you to inhale that with me. Exhale and feel yourself grounding in this Truth, grounding in your Truth. Inhale. Exhale and feel your purpose, feel yourself take root. Inhale. Exhale.
And from wherever you are in this moment - OUT LOUD - state YOUR TRUTH! The Truth on which you stand! The purpose in which you ground! Let’s take a moment in the CHATBOX to share :)
Thank you for listening. Asé.