BY ROSA LISBETH NAVARETTE
Uprisings, social unrest, and the pandemic are impacting communities everywhere. These communities are leaning on the arts for support and wellness yet arts organizations are increasingly aware of their own limitations. Art leaders are being called to finally address long-standing issues and keep up with the times. It hasn’t been an easy transition. Some theatres might feel like they’re under a microscope right now, and to them I say—enjoy the heat! Discomfort is necessary for change. If you’re suddenly feeling that you’re walking on eggshells, then you are embarking on the journey most travelled by non-white communities when they enter a predominantly white lead theatre space. Black, Indigenous, and People of color (BIPOC) have managed to navigate these discomforts for the past few decades, and I can confidently tell you that this experience will not kill you. The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond taught me, during these talks if you start to shake and your voice dries up—then you’re on the right track. Dismantling is a visceral experience, after all.
No one is immune to systemic racism. The arts have been preconditioned to identify aesthetics a certain way. The lockdown is forcing us to take a hard look at how we ourselves can unearth the good, the weird, and the ugly. Billboards, letters of support, and black boxes emerged on social media and websites promising change, and some of us wait on the sidelines wondering when opportunity will come knocking on our doors? What will it take for BIPOC to be invited to the table? What about queer, trans, and disabled communities who are a force of nature in the performance arts world? When do we become stakeholders rather than visiting artists stopping by to sprinkle the programming year with diversity? In the end, change will happen the way your organization sees fit.
I am here to say it is pivotal for your organization to invite BIPOC critics to your performances, workshops, open houses and what have you. The voices of BIPOC critics, vloggers, podcasters, and local community members will make your space more attractive, insightful, and most importantly inviting to the constituents you want to engage with.
To start, invite more diverse voices to review your current programming and provide feedback. Some of your organization’s practices and biases are possibly unnoticeable to you. For instance, have you considered that maybe your perspective in casting, finding a director, designer, costumer, or even producer might be limited to a certain group of people you surround yourself with? Furthermore, have you looked at who composes your staff? What are your values? Can you challenge these values or are you stuck? And if you are stuck, how do you shake things up? If you do not know the answers to at least one of these questions, a quick suggestion from me is to hire BIPOC people in leadership roles. If that’s impossible right now, invite a BIPOC critic to your show.
Once upon a time, I upheld white beauty. Who could blame me? That’s the world I was raised in—that’s who I saw on the stages, on my television screen, and who was calling the shots as far as I could tell from all the field trips I went on as a kid. After getting my US Citizenship, I went on a month-long trip to Europe to experience culture. I was looking forward to visiting the beautiful cities that symbolized, at this point in my life, the epitome of the arts, the crème de la crème.
I was expecting shows of high caliber. I got what I asked for and something else. Europe also served me a side dish of diversity. My first taste of it was in Dublin, Ireland with The Magic Flute performed by Isango Ensemble, a South African opera group. Later, I experienced Swan Lake with The Royal Ballet in London featuring two Latinx leads—Thiago Soares and Marianela Nuñez. Then I saw Les Enfant Dus Paradis by Le ballet à l’Opéra national de Paris which was not as diverse as the other two, but blended the worlds of cinema and dance with such precision, I was changed forever. The performances inspired me to create work when I returned to school that fall, but then came the questions.
What was up with these international theatre festivals hogging all of the goodness? Why hadn’t I seen this kind of work around me before? I had just started my Performance Arts studies and had yet to be exposed to Alvin Ailey, Bill T. Jones, and Luis Valdez of El Teatro Campesino, to name a few, but even saying that bothers me now. Why should my access to higher education be the one reason I got exposed to diverse artists creating work in the United States? What was this invisible barrier between me and these incredibly diverse artists?
Before you tell me about your “outreach education programs,” ask yourself harder questions and dig deeper. What is keeping poor and BIPOC communities from engaging with the arts, and potentially from seeing themselves represented on stage? Is this intentional?
As a critic, I look for liberation; I’m drawn to drama, magical realism, breaking the fourth wall, and representation. It is validating to see yourself reflected through a piece of art. For Latinx and Hispanic communities, it’s imperative to have our faces reflected back to society in a non-stereotypical way: it re-humanizes us. I often wonder if putting immigrant families and unaccompanied children in cages is a result of not being seen. If the tree falls.
Theater in motion reminds me of my journey as an immigrant child crossing borders, of the impossible becoming a reality, of miracles happening at the last moment when you think the hero might die. This is theater and the arts for me. Life or death.
Invite us to the table. Grow your audience. Start a dialogue. Pass the mic. Hire BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, and disabled people into your organization to help guide you into the future. Our perspectives are universal and at the same time wildly specific. Audiences who relate to our voice will connect to your organization in a more personal way. Push engagement towards exchange; make it about equity. Do not be afraid of change. Be uncomfortable. Start by inviting a BIPOC critic to your next show.
Rosa Lisbeth Navarrete is a writer, actor, and director. She is a member of the BIPOC Critics Lab, led by Jose Solís at the Kennedy Center. She is a core artist at Angela’s Pulse and is developing three original television series inspired by her life experiences.