Amplifying the Conversation

How BIPOC artists are making their voices heard in San Diego’s theater world

The nationwide unrest following the death of George Floyd has put the spotlight on racial justice and equality for BIPOC communities. Arts organizations like San Diego Repertory Theatre are continuing the conversation.

In a three-way partnership with The Old Globe and La Jolla Playhouse, San Diego REP created a virtual discussion series where BIPOC artists across the entertainment spectrum share their industry experiences. Titled “We Are Listening,” each episode starts as a group dialogue in which co-hosts Ahmed Dents, a local radio personality, alongside Jacole Kitchen, La Jolla Playhouse’s local programs manager and casting director, ask individuals from various artistic disciplines about their backgrounds and perspectives.

These discussions tackle the lack of representation of BIPOC artists across a range of performing arts professions and genres, including arts leadership and casting positions, plus pushback on diversity programming in arts companies.

In the series, influential BIPOC artists discuss what “they’ve seen in theater and the performing arts over their career, especially from the perspective of being Black in the arts in whatever discipline they come from,” said Dents. “What things have they seen that have stuck with them over the years that either was something that has really bothered them through their whole career [or] is this something that sort of propelled them through their career?”

Each episode is held via Zoom and streamed live through San Diego REP’s Facebook page. Dents worked as a host for Smooth Jazz 98.1 KIFM before transitioning off the air in March due to COVID-19. He originally started at San Diego REP in 2007 as an in-house ticket seller but is now the theater’s development coordinator. When Dents was initially asked to host, he was hesitant, he said, as he wanted to start this project for the right reasons.

“Was it sincere?” Dents said. “Was it to actually spur actionable items in this industry moving forward, starting with our organization first? Or is this going to be some, ‘Well, the mood is right now, let’s just look good.’”

Kitchen says the partnership between the three theaters has only strengthened the quality of the series.

“It’s created a space for the conversation that it was never given before,” Kitchen said. “There has been a history in this industry of knowing that diversity is something that’s important. But it is one of the things that is easily moved down on the priority list as other theater emergencies arise. And I think that this period of time has created a reckoning in which there is no longer a choice.”

Following the events of the summer, Jacole said La Jolla Playhouse created an Anti-Racism Action Plan in which the theater outlined steps it would take to actively combat racism and commit to growing relationships with BIPOC artists. The Playhouse has committed to producing three shows by BIPOC artists, hiring a director of color and giving half the theater’s yearly commissions to BIPOC writers. But Kitchen hopes that there will come a time when such diversity initiatives are no longer needed.

“My ultimate goal is for us in theater, as in life, is that we get to a point where we don’t have to be having these conversations anymore. Where we get to a point where theater is for the people again,” Kitchen said. “That’s where this medium started, and I’d love to get it back to that place.”

The Old Globe released a statement on Sept. 2 saying the institution is actively listening to its community and strives to support Black artists. In the days following the murder of George Floyd, the theater met with the San Diego Black Artists Collective and drafted a Social Justice Roadmap to remain consistent in combatting racism.

“As the three biggest theaters in town, La Jolla Playhouse, The Globe and San Diego REP are always looking for ways that we can collaborate or work together,” Kitchen said. “And the very first episode of ‘We Are Listening,’ you know, when Ahmed started this, when the REP started this, nobody knew that it was going to become the series that it did.”

Dents said in the months since the launch of “We Are Listening,” the series has acquired a national reach. The broad range of artists and performers sharing their perspectives truly speaks to the need for change, now more than ever before. While parts of the conversation are focused on ways the industry can improve, Dents says artists want to see an industry that is inclusive of everyone.

“It’s kind of good to have these conversations because, you know, as we talked about in the last episode, they all come out of a place of love,” he said. “We’re all speaking from a place of love because we love this community. We love this industry.”

One of the most important parts of the series, Dents said, is the lack of censorship and the creation of a space for authentic conversation.

San Diego performer Eboni Muse spoke on “We Are Listening” at the end of August and says there needs to be more diverse representation in all aspects of theater, both on and off-stage, and got real about how artists are tired of seeing diversity initiatives pander to BIPOC artists, creating space for dialogue while not actively working to enact change.

“It’s sending out your Black representatives — that one Black person in your company to talk to the Black folks, to talk to the minorities — it means nothing anymore,” Muse said. “We need to see the owners of this organization talking to us and actually making moves.”

Muse said that while she has support from friends and family in turning down opportunities in which a company is racist or expresses microaggressions, other Black artists may not feel that they can speak out against injustice.

“I have family who will help me because they believe in what I want to do, but they also believe that I have the right to be treated as a human being and treated as an equal,” she said. “People should not be put in positions where their dignity is what they have to sacrifice in order to pay a bill.”

The next “We Are Listening” livestream is scheduled for Oct. 29 and will feature Gamal Chasten, a founder of The Breath Project Festival, a virtual showcase of theatrical performances by BIPOC artists happening this weekend (Oct. 24 to 25).

In response to the murder of George Floyd, Chasten wrote a monologue titled 8:46 — the length of time Floyd was kept from breathing.

“I felt like it was a way of not forgetting what we had witnessed as a country — as a world, like everyone in the world saw that image,” Chasten said. “I thought it was a way for us to not forget that. I lived in New York during 9/11, and we’re always reminded to not forget 9/11, which we shouldn’t, you know? But we shouldn’t forget 8:46 either.”

After writing the piece, Chasten with Marieke Gaboury, the other co-founder and managing director, decided to create their own festival featuring work written by BIPOC artists.

“It was more about capturing this moment in time, whether it was about COVID, whether it was about you being separated from family, whether it’s by loss, whether it was about immigration, whatever that might be, you know, that you felt like in this moment," Chasten said. "That was the hope in terms of the work we received.”

The project has an online collection, or “archive,” consisting of selected submissions created by BIPOC artists. The virtual archive will premiere at the two-day festival this weekend, with two streamings on Saturday at 2 and 5 p.m., and one streaming on Sunday at 5 p.m. Like Chasten’s monologue, all works are 8 minutes and 46 seconds in length.

Multiple theaters like the Cincinnati Playhouse and Southern Rep Theatre in Louisiana have partnered with the project. The purpose, Chasten says, is to create a more equitable theater community and dismantle racism within the industry.

“The cool thing is that we’re also pushing the envelope with what American theater is in this moment,” Chasten said. “Theater has shifted for a minute. So I think that the work that we received definitely touches on that.”