As Communications Director at Intrepid Theatre Company, I’ve organized a lot of surrounding events for our mainstage productions. Because our mission statement is to produce theatre that creates conversation and inspires change within our many communities, deepening the impact of all of the stories we tell through surrounding events is one of the key components of fulfilling the goals of our theatre company: to cultivate empathy, to engage our audience, and to be relevant in a world that is in constant need of navigation.
A few months ago, as our attention shifted toward our fall production of Suzan-Lori Parks’ Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3), I met with our Producing Artistic Director Christy Yael-Cox, who would direct the production, and our Artistic Director Sean Yael-Cox, who would be playing the role of Smith. We had all been looking forward to this stunning story that would close our seventh season ever since the moment Christy and Sean discovered it in Toronto and immediately applied for the rights. We had received the San Diego Theatre Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Production for an unprecedented three years in a row with similarly hard-hitting dramas that opened conversation and helped shift prevailing opinions. We were eager to pursue similar avenues of change surrounding this show.
We were about to launch into our typical brainstorming session of community partnerships for this production — “How can we deepen the conversation around the themes of this play? What talkbacks can we organize? Which panelists should we invite?” — when we all paused.
Father Comes Home From the Wars would be unlike any play we had ever produced. Parks has written a story that sears into the current consciousness of America, that turns the lights on in the dark corners of racism that have been part of the mainstream narrative in this country for too many years. Depicting the story of a slave, Hero, who is offered his freedom for fighting on behalf of the Confederacy, this play is tinged with today in a way that is neither subtle nor accidental. Parks does not pull punches; her words and characters hit their marks from the first refrain of song to the final line of poetry. And now, we had asked for permission to usher this play — a play that enlightens, but also challenges and begs for real and immediate change — into a community of San Diego theatergoers that, with the exception of some liberal-leaning pockets of arts supporters, tended to reflect the very conservative perspectives of the city as a whole.
And also: the three of us are all. so. white.
While the play inspires conversations that need to happen — difficult ones, but necessary ones — we couldn’t help but ask, “Is it okay that we are in charge of opening that dialogue with our audiences? What would we need to learn in order to have these conversations effectively, bravely, and with great sensitivity? Were we woke enough to do it right?”
The conclusion we came to in response to this last question deeply informed the unfolding of our community engagement throughout the run of the production: no matter how savvy and aware we thought we might be, we just assumed the answer was no. And also, maybe we should just never say “woke.”
And so we began asking questions. The dramaturgical research we did for the play was about the Civil War, plantation acreage-to-slave ratios, and the bodily location of human branding, but it was also about white privilege, equity vs. equality , intersectionality and institutionalized racism.
As we began rehearsals, the conversations with our thoughtful and brave cast were some of the most meaningful we have ever had while working on a production. And while these conversations were about telling the story of Hero’s journey, they were also about telling the stories of today, right here, right now. They were about the fact that the actress playing Penny was stalked and verbally assaulted with racial slurs while on break from a rehearsal one day. They were about the fact that two of our actors, while running lines alone in a corner of the theater, were racially profiled by staff from a neighboring building and questioned as to whether or not they should be there while security was called. They were about how the actors had to desensitize themselves when they walked out of the rehearsal room and back into the world. They were about the experience of being black in this country, but not on a collective, historical scale. These conversations hinged around the individual experience, these personal moments that were built into everyday life.
For the first time, (insert shameful hesitation here) I personally began to understand in an immediate and visceral way what it means to walk through America as someone other than a white woman. I had understood it in theory, in the abstract, in the peripheral frame. But Parks’ words and the table work conversations surrounding the play and — life — made something click into place in my head and my heart that hadn’t clicked before.
How could we make it click for our audiences?
We wanted to have conversations about reparations. About accountability. About privilege. But one Google search of Brené Brown will tell you all you need to know about shame in this country. Did we really want to make our audiences uncomfortable by pointing out their privilege and demanding their accountability?
Yes. Yes we did. But tackling that head-on wouldn’t achieve our goal.
We needed to create an environment where dialogue could be developed, encouraged, and introduced in a safe way without pointing fingers or leveling blame. We needed engagement. But we also needed willingness.
The first engagement piece came in the form of a lobby display. Inspired by a touring art exhibit that came through San Diego, our interns built an interactive messaging system, where audience members were invited to respond to two questions anonymously, and then leave their responses for other people to read and experience. The questions were: “How do you define yourself?” and “What would you like to say to your ancestors?” Throughout the run of the play, our guests wrote their responses on slips of paper and left them in the display. Others would come along and spend many minutes reading through the responses and then add their own. By the end of the run, there was conversation about privilege, about gratitude, about abuse of power, about inspiring one’s descendants, about feeling accountable, about religion, about celebrating our identities, and about changing the world. We have posted these responses in a virtual gallery on our website to continue the conversation. Step one: safe, anonymous, engaging.
The next step was actual dialogue. But even a moderated talkback after the show might devolve quickly into unproductive conversation. We conferred with Karen Ann Daniels and Katherine Harroff, who facilitate engagement programs at The Old Globe, and decided to invite audience members to stay after the performance for a guided discussion. We separated them into groups of five or si
x — being sure to separate parties and intermingle diverse participants — and handed one person in each group a slip of paper with four questions: “What about the play drew you in?” “Why do you think this play was written and produced today?” “What in regards to the subject of the piece do you want to know more about?” “What did you learn?” We invited each group to speak to each other for about ten minutes, answering the questions and discussing the responses. Then we spent about ten minutes reporting on what each group discussed. While there were often intense opinions about the character of Odyssey Dog, there were also a lot of conversations about how times have changed, how much work was left to do, what American racism is, and how the experience of racism is unique in this country. As they finished changing out of costume, some of the actors joined these small discussion groups as well, answering questions on preparing for the roles and how they navigated the messages of the play as people of color. Step two: willingness, participation, conversation.
Our next step was to engage a specific audience base in conversation, one that held even more opportunity to contribute to change. We developed an unprecedented partnership with the San Diego Museum of Man and their exhibit “Race: Are We So Different?,” a profound exploration of the biological facts and the social implications of race. We organized special weekday matinees and invited schools from all over San Diego County to experience both the exhibit and the play. These matinees had audiences full of middle and high school students. We armed the teachers with engagement activities so that they could lead their students in processing the information after they were back in the classroom. We led workshops to initiate these discussions and approach the play analysis creatively. Through this partnership, we hoped to tie together the links between art and daily life, between the impactful story onstage and the small choices made in everyday experience. But would they get it?
After these student matinee performances, the actors would remain onstage after their curtain call to answer questions from the student audience. We knew that the teachers had prepared their classes with guidelines about discussions around issues of race, but we were still unsure how the conversations would go. Would the questions even dig into the bigger issues of the play? Would they make any connections with current events? Or would they simply ask about line memorization, acting tips, and rehearsal periods? As we all settled in to start the first talkback, I could see that the cast was apprehensive; waiting, wondering. A student in the back raised his hand. He asked what it was like rehearsing this play in the wake of Charlottesville.
The entire cast leaned forward.
There are moments in theatre production when you can point a finger at something and say, “This.” This is making a difference. The conversations that Father Comes Home From the Wars opened up for the actors and those students that day were not only impactful, but were reassuring on a profound level. They were getting it. When Tom Stephenson, who played the slave-owning Colonel, talked about thinking of his role as being not good or bad, but necessary to include in this story, they got it. When Antonio TJ Johnson, who played The Oldest Old Man and also assistant directed the show, talked about how our choices define us, they got it. And when Wrekless Watson, who played Hero, stood at the end of the talkback and asked everyone to join hands and reminded them that their choices would determine the future of the country, they definitely got it.
Maybe we can never say for sure that we did everything right, but we can say that we did what we could. And that we are still learning.
On closing weekend, I was sharing a Lyft home with Eboni Muse, one of the understudies for the show, who had just performed that evening. She immediately started sharing with the driver, also an African-American woman, the details for the final performances and encouraging her to see it before it closed.
“Intrepid does great work,” said Eboni. “The company is run by a bunch of white people, but they are so woke. I love working with them.”