Posts in: Anti-Racism


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Anti-Racist Theater and Social Media Activism: A Genzenniel’s Perspective

I was born to be an activist and educator. There was no possibility of me ignoring the world around me or sitting on the sidelines. As a second-generation American Jew of mixed heritage, with family who escaped pogroms and the Holocaust, the act of being born was already a form of resistance.

I was in eighth grade when Trayvon Martin was killed. Attending a majority white private school, I was surrounded by excuses (“Well, if he had just put the skittles in a bag…” “If he had just taken his hood down…”), but I knew why he was killed. He was killed for being Black. Trayvon Martin was not the first Black boy to be killed because of the systemic racism in this country, but it was his death, widely publicized on social media, that set me on the path to anti-racism work.

When I was 15, Michael Brown was murdered. I was 16 when we learned he would not get justice. I took to Twitter to express my disgust with the injustice, which resulted in a lot of arguing with only 140 characters. The next day, instead of talking about the actual issue, the murder of Michael Brown and the injustice that followed, my school decided to focus on what was “appropriate” social media use. When an institution focuses on the potential negative effects of social media instead of the activism created, they are taking the safe route. Of course social media is complicated, as well as social media activism, but standing up for the rights of human beings is not complicated.

I was constantly warned growing up that our social media presence is investigated by potential employers almost as much as our resumes. One wrong step and you could be unemployed, or not be hired in the first place. Naturally, there is a distinction between employers not wanting to see pictures of me at a frat party, and me sharing my political beliefs. My activist and personal profiles are all public, and proudly display my beliefs in highlights or pinned posts, and my wild college years stay documented on a private account.

It is my belief that Central Square Theater shares the values that I post on my social media. When I post about something I am passionate about, I know that I represent Central Square Theater. There is an entire discussion to be had about whether or not your employer should have such access to your personal life, but I believe that any one of my posts represents CST’s values. If CST and I were not aligned in our fight for social justice, I wouldn’t be working for them. Who I am as a person and who I am as an employee can’t be separated. I am a passionate, hard-working, outspoken individual, and that carries over into my workplace. CST has shown me they are a theater that values everything I bring to the table as a human being, not just as a theater worker. Theater, more than other jobs, is about humanity. We must be able to take our personal values and connect them to our industry. We can’t create anti-racist theater without also being anti-racist in our personal lives.

Social media, whether it is for an individual or a theater, is intertwined with anti-racism work, and will continue to be whether we like it or not. Social media activism has created movements, spread information, and educated the ignorant, all in a very public way. The publicity of social media has forced the theater industry and theater workers to take a closer look at how systemic racism has permeated every facet, from casting to employment. A majority of theater call-ins, or telling a theater when they have made an oppressive comment or action, are happening on Twitter and Instagram. It is an expectation now that a theater will respond publicly to these call-ins. “We See You, White American Theater,” for example, was created on social media, and began as an anonymous collective of BIPOC theater workers who exposed racist practices within specific theaters and the industry as a whole. WSYWAT (as it is abbreviated) was a catalyst for more public responses from theaters, especially as they expanded their work beyond anonymity to publish multiple articles on Medium as a collective.

Theaters, now, are socially obligated to put anti-racism statements on their websites to demonstrate that they are doing the work required to create a more equitable industry. The public nature of social media puts pressure on predominantly white institutions to be very visible about their values; it additionally opens up a line of communication between the theater and patrons from around the world. We must lean into discomfort to create a more equitable industry, whether that means having difficult conversations or making peace with the larger role social media has in our lives and activism. I challenge all of us, including myself, to stand up and speak out for what we believe in, whether it is online or in the workplace.

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Carolyn Saxon performing at Starlight in 2002. Music Director David Freeman Coleman.Carolyn Saxon performing at Starlight in 2002. Music Director David Freeman Coleman.

Community Engagement vs. Boots on the Ground

The word “community engagement” has been tossed around in the media so much it has become just another buzzword. It’s devolved into an abstract agenda item or an ill-defined business outcome. In my opinion, community engagement should not exist just as a “noun”, but as a “verb.” It must involve action. I would describe this as: “Boots on the ground”, collaborative advocacy and person-to-person involvement where values and stories are shared. It is rare for urban theater organizations to have this sort of direct community investment. They often exist within the confines of their four walls and treasured stages. With the creation of Starlight Square, CST had a rare opportunity to directly inject their values through performing arts into the local Cambridge community.

As a part time, BIPOC, Front of House Associate, having the chance to walk amongst the local community and actively engage individuals in free artistic performances completely revolutionized the concept of working at a Boston based theater. I have been privileged to attend various outdoor theatre performances, but many of them have been in traditional grassy, wooded areas (think Shakespeare in the park). But this was Central Square; it is not a grassy park. It is a diverse urban area with a wide demographic of individuals from all walks of life. Thus, my role quickly shifted to more than reception and operations management. It was now about connecting, sharing stories, and building relationships–I was truly engaging with the people. Just as my role shifted, so did my perspective of CST. Their productions became less about artistic expression and more of a service for the people.

The simple act of standing in a repurposed parking lot and working CST performances brought me face-to-face with the people of Cambridge in a way that most urban theaters seldom experience. I had the opportunity to have eye-opening conversations with both long-time guests and with those who would have never stepped foot into the theater pre-Covid. I had a chance to experience the flow of life within Central Square, and I did so during a troubling time of social unrest, economic instability, and health crisis. Beyond this, CST had opened its programming meetings to all of its front of house associates, inviting myself and others to share in our experiences and help shift the organization’s perspectives and goals. The theater literally became bigger than it’s building; it partnered with its front line workers and sought to interface with the community in a new and relevant way. And it started with boots on the ground. It started with community engagement.

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Left to Right: Micah Rosegrant in “The First Pineapple and Other Folktales” (Photo: Nina Groom); Hubens “Bobby” Cius and Sandra Seoane-Serí in “Pipeline” (Photo: Nina Groom); Youth Underground (Photo: A.R. Sinclair Photography).Left to Right: Micah Rosegrant in “The First Pineapple and Other Folktales” (Photo: Nina Groom); Hubens “Bobby” Cius and Sandra Seoane-Serí in “Pipeline” (Photo: Nina Groom); Youth Underground (Photo: A.R. Sinclair Photography).

Introducing Our Values

Almost exactly one year ago a national reckoning began with the death of George Floyd and the resulting protests, calls to action, and flurry of anti-racism statements. As an organization that was created at the intersection of social justice and theater, we felt we knew some of this territory, and had walked some of this ground before, but it quickly became clear that what we had been doing was simply not enough. After being challenged both by our own staff and our larger community to examine our participation in white supremacy structures we knew we needed to state our values loud and clear to our artists, audiences, and collaborators. We needed to show them we stand with them and are committed to pursuing change.

And with that, we dove into a three month process of interrogating our ideas and our work, and exploring who our “communities” are. We looked at how we want to serve our audiences, our artists and our neighborhood. While exploring our implicit, explicit and missing values, we learned more about who we are engaging with, who we may be leaving behind, and what we must do next.

Our Anti-Racism Committee (ARC) crafted the Value Statements by working with our staff (full and part time) and our Board of Directors. It was an important, necessary, and long-overdue labor. We see these values as both practical and aspirational, reflecting our past and our future. We will use these Value Statements as a guide as we continue our work: to build stronger collaborations, determine our priorities, and pursue change. In the immediate future we will use these values to select plays for our upcoming season, create a new budget, and build a series of action steps towards a more inclusive CST. We know that these values are a living document, and as we grow and change they will grow and change with us. Now we invite you, our collaborators, into this process. We ask you to hold us accountable, and to grow with us and these values as we move forward into the future.

Read Central Square Theater’s Value Statements.

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Placards created by David Fichter, Xerxes Butt and Anthony Araujo-Amaral, displayed during protests in Cambridge. Photo: Greg Cook.Placards created by David Fichter, Xerxes Butt and Anthony Araujo-Amaral, displayed during protests in Cambridge. Photo: Greg Cook.

Introducing Our Anti-Racism Committee

In June 2020, after the killing of George Floyd and right around Juneteenth, there was a movement within the greater Boston theater community to encourage theaters to take a stand against racism and commit to interrogating their role in perpetuating white supremacy. Like clockwork, theaters large and small began posting statements of solidarity. But, what I was really interested in was how many theater companies would be willing to invest the time and capacity to bring about actual change. And, frankly, I wasn’t sure what real change would even look like.

So, I was pleased and relieved (and a little nervous) when CST’s leadership initiated a series of conversations with staff to begin to imagine a new way forward. Before long, it became clear we would benefit from having a dedicated committee, who would help structure an anti-racism journey that would work for us, and guide us all collectively through the process of exploration and strategic planning.

From the beginning, the goal of the Anti-Racism Committee (ARC), as well as CST’s larger anti-racism process, was to disrupt existing power dynamics by limiting the presence of CST leadership and intentionally involving a cross-section of CST staff at all levels.

The ARC was initially a rotating committee, asking and allowing a larger number of CST staff to contribute their creativity and capacity to our anti-racism and inclusion efforts. Over a period of months, the committee included representatives from Front of House, Patron Services, Marketing, Production, Education, Development, and Artistic teams, including a mix of interns, staff, and leadership. The committee now largely comprises a standing group, though new participants are welcome at any time. Current members include:

AJ Helman, Education Assistant (they/them)
Athéna-Gwendolyn Baptiste, Assistant Patron Services Manager (they/them)
Cassie Chapados, Production Manager (she/her)
Catherine Carr Kelly, Executive Director (she/her)
Kortney Adams, Education Manager (she/her)
Timothée Courouble, Front of House Staff (he/him)

AJ Helman, Athéna-Gwendolyn Baptiste, Cassie Chapados, Production Manager, Catherine Carr Kelly, Kortney Adams, and Timothée Courouble.

AJ Helman, Athéna-Gwendolyn Baptiste, Cassie Chapados, Production Manager, Catherine Carr Kelly, Kortney Adams, and Timothée Courouble.

As someone who’s been on the ARC largely since the beginning, I’ve really appreciated the diversity of perspectives in the room. Having an intentional mix of departments (including those with more direct interaction with community members and those with more administrative positions), races, ages, gender identities, positional status, and time at CST gives a breadth and depth to our conversations. As a result, the anti-racism process we’ve designed and worked through has been organic, inclusive, and transparent. We still have lots to learn, of course, but it feels like we’re all in this together, and that there is an authentic desire to respect every person’s perspective and experiences.

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