(Photo by Picture Man)
When people of color in the arts outsell their competitors, or walk away with the biggest prizes during award seasons, it’s easy to focus on the novelty of it all.
However, in doing so, we ignore countless vital conversations. It’s great to watch Shonda Rhimes monopolize everyone’s Thursday nights — but how the hell did she get to that position?
Everybody wants more diversity, but there’s little focus on the nitty-gritty realities of the journeys for minority leaders in the arts. And more importantly, the effect of society on shaping their ideas about leadership—both in their organizations and communities.
The necessity of this discussion has increased since we entered “Trump’s America”—where theatrical expressions already collide with the contentious political atmosphere.
In this vein, and in celebration of our leaders of color series, we caught up again with the cofounders of Theatre in the X — a theatre organization that showcases theatre pieces inspired by the African diaspora for all generations in West Philadelphia, free of charge.
Carlo Campbell, Walter DeShields, and LaNeshe White agreed to speak frankly via email about their ideas of leadership and what it’s like to create art amidst the current sociopolitical atmosphere.
What does leadership mean to you? What characteristics are necessary for a leader in community arts organizations today?
- Campbell: Discipline is a key ingredient. It’s equivalent to sugar in Kool-Aid. Vision is also an important piece, the ability to see what is not there, and to be able to communicate that vision, in some way. With those two things, I believe, there is a strong chance that one may rally their respective troops, and accomplish some amazing things.
- DeShields: A leader is a servant. If you serve the people, you ARE leading them. As an artist, especially an artist of color in a city like Philadelphia, we should be telling our community’s story. Folks respect that. They’ll want you to lead if you speak their story.
- White: To be a leader in a community arts organization means to support the artists and audiences of the community. Providing opportunities for artists of color and telling the stories that people of color can see themselves in.
Do you believe that the Trump presidency changed the responsibilities for leaders, particularly minority leaders? If so, how?
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- Campbell: Yes. At first, I wanted to say no, because the black man has never been the beneficiary of the political process, for the right reasons, by and large. It is our responsibility to realize that we — us people of color, us poor, us displaced, us disenfranchised, us subjugated — are not the minority. The custodians of the old guard of White Supremacist ideology are the minority. I’m interested in shining a light on that reality. It is the perfect time for the “minority” leader to do that, as there is little else that can be done.
- White: I don’t think the responsibility necessarily shifted. We have always been responsible for telling our own stories and supporting our own people. The only thing that changed with the 45th presidency is that those who don’t care about people of color are able to be more vocal about it publicly.
- DeShields: Nope. The struggle continues.
What role does theater play in times of political dissent? In consuming art during the midst of political conflict, do certain voices matter more than others?
- White: Art unifies people and is a great vehicle to help people understand one another. The voices of the oppressed are essential in these times because we’re only as good as how we take care of those most disadvantaged.
- Campbell: I think that someone or something feeling as if it is more important than any one is part of the problem. The politicians may feel like they are better than the people. The whites may feel more important than the blacks, the rich than the poor, the well than the sick and so on. I think the most important voice reminds others that everything has its importance, and that this whole thing is interconnected, and the thing that matters most, or what is most important is how we treat one another, as well as our environment.
With the prevalence of #BlackLivesMatter, there’s a lot of focus in the community on police brutality and institutionalized racism. What type of role do you see Theater in the X playing in confronting these issues?
- Campbell: We have. Our resident playwright Biko Esien-Martin wrote a stirring, and challenging piece on those subjects titled “Seasons.” It was a part of the reading series that we presented over the past theatre season. It was the first of its kind and hopefully not the last. We very much would like to present work that is fuel for the conversation, and more audaciously, the solution.
- White: Our 2016 presentation of Theatre in the X was themed around gun violence and institutionalized racism. We will continue to choose plays that showcase the issues and create conversations for change.
As Theater in the X looks toward the future, the cofounders have their plans grounded in their faith and responsibility to community.
“It would be nice to develop in a way that attracts black theatre artists, who are able to have a place to be expressive, to grow, and to KNOW that their voice and their point of view matter,” Campbell said.
White specifically wants to see their productions expand into North Philly and include more room for young people.
“We would like to develop an education program, where we would introduce youth to theater,” she said, “as well as incorporate young people on stage and behind the scenes doing administration and production work.”
Theater in the X is supported by various grants to keep the productions free to the public — and all three cofounders agree that this means the finances can be precarious at times. To curtail some of those challenges, they’ve organized a GoFundMe page in support of their latest season.
Next month will kick off Theater in the X’s fourth season. The company will present the world premiere of “Running Numbers” by Cheyenne Barboza, directed by Christina May. The poem, “Financial Aid” by Carvens Lissaint inspired this production, which, according to a press release, “is a drama about an inner-city high school senior whose dreams and desperation of going to college and overcoming his environment lead him to fast cash and dangerous situations.”
“Running Numbers” will run on Sundays August 6, 13 and 20, at 5 p.m. in Malcolm X Park, 5100 Pine St. Attendees are encouraged to bring a chair for guaranteed seating.
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