Columns / Discourse / September 21, 2016

Digging in the mud: An unexpected journey through race, theatre, and friendship

Gremlin Collective is a new independent theatre company that seeks to challenge their audiences and themselves by pushing the boundaries of what theatre can do and what theatre can be, both creatively and socio-politically. It creates work that is innovative, feminist and queer.

Gremlin Collective decided in the spring of 2016 to produce a play in the fall of 2016 called​ Mary: Mud & Tides, written by Niki Acton and directed by Emily Trevor. Their production team consisted of sophomore Eli Adams (stage management), senior Emma Lister (set),  senior Dakota Stipp (sound), senior Danielle Freeman (props) and junior Claire Cody (choreography). Gremlin Collective offered roles to two Knox students, junior Jayel Gant and senior Padraig Sullivan, who influenced the construction of characters during the writing process. At a production meeting, Gremlin Collective discussed what they wanted show week to look like and decided they wanted to host a series of events, including discussions about race in theatre. They sent an email to three prospective panelists: Sullivan and seniors Jordan Hurst and Tristan Yi.

EMILY

I wanted to d​irect ​Mary: Mud & Tides because I was drawn to the themes of identity and the ways in which identity interacts with society. I was excited about examining the ways in which I have seen­­ and have personally experienced ­­society telling people who to be or who they should want to be. I also appreciated what I perceived as the script’s well rounded approach of examining identity: from perspectives of class, race, gender and sexuality.

NIKI

When Emily and I agreed that she would direct the play at Knox, I began thinking of actors in the Knox theatre community I’d like to work with. I was inspired by Padraig’s skill with physical theatre, which is a huge aspect of the underwater world and by an audition monologue that I saw Jayel perform. I wanted the two of them in the roles of the Salty Lad and Mary, whose races were unspecified at the time. Because the play takes place in the 1950s, I felt that the script couldn’t leave the issue of race unaddressed, which led to the specification of Mary’s race as black and attempts to explore the implications of that in 1950s Maine. Furthermore, though the script had been attempting an anachronistic underwater grab­bag of New England history, the history presented was whitewashed, with no characters who originated before the colonization of North America. Because of this, I decided to specify the Salty Lad’s race as indigenous. The first draft in which race was addressed in the script was very understated. A fear of mistakes kept me from tackling race with the same scrutiny that I’d applied to gender, sexuality, and class. The only person to give me feedback on this draft of the script was Sandra Seaton, the playwright who judged the Davenport prize last year. She asked why race was not addressed with the same specificity that the other issues were, and I told her that as a white playwright, I was struggling with feeling like I didn’t have a right to tell those stories. She encouraged me to push past that feeling, and from there the script evolved. Ultimately, the script was attempting to explore race, along with gender and sexuality, in a historical context with a farcical tone. Due to mistakes related to historical accuracy and the depiction of the characters of color, as well as missteps with the farcical tone, the script failed to clarify that the racist moments were meant to be presented as social commentary.

JORDAN

When I first received the email asking me to be on a panel about race for this production, I didn’t know how to respond. I felt like my race was being used as a stamp of approval for this play. I was also a little hurt because this was something I had talked about doing in conversations with various members of Gremlin Collective, and I felt like one of my ideas had been taken and claimed by someone else. What angered me the most was that no white people were asked to be on the panel. All too often people of color are asked to be the spokespeople for race, as if white people don’t have one. White people hold a lot of power, and in order to overcome racism white people have to be just as present in these conversations as people of color.

EMILY

Our all white company didn’t feel like we had a right to talk about race in theatre, that our voices weren’t valid in that conversation. We assumed that in order to include a panel about race, we needed to supply a platform rather than speak about these issues ourselves. We realize now that that line of thinking fails to acknowledge our own responsibility to engage these issues.

JAYEL

When I found out that two of the characters in the play had race changes during the writing process, and that those changes were inspired by Padraig and I, it was really disconcerting. I felt that the only inspirational thing about me was that I am a talented person of color­­ and that was the take­away: skin. As one of the few people of color in the department I suddenly felt isolated. I felt like it said roles that were not specifically written for people of color weren’t for me to perform.

The group discovered that there was a lot going on behind the role offering and why that was upsetting.

NIKI

Because of our recent experiences in the theatre department and a feeling of isolation from the pool of artists we would have to draw on for our show, the members of Gremlin Collective were scared that no one would audition for Mary: Mud & Tides. We were worried that inaccurate rumors were influencing people’s interest in the show and decided that we would have to be direct about addressing those rumors if we wanted the best possible people on our team. It took us a long time to unpack everything that had gone wrong with offering a role to Jayel. We quickly understood that the actual offering of the role was racist, but it took a long time and a lot of conversation for us to understand the ways in which our communication with her was also an issue. I finally realized that it boils down to this: Emily and I were taught that we needed to be assertive in order to be successful, but we never thought about that assertiveness as a privilege, something that was encouraged in us because we’re white. In our exchange about roles, we were speaking two completely different languages. Jayel was being polite, because that’s what she had been taught, and we took that politeness at face value without examining the ways in which her experiences informed our interaction or the ways that our assertiveness was damaging to her ­­because that’s what we had been taught.

EMILY:

In Knox College’s Studio Theatre, pre­casting is prohibited. As Gremlin Collective is a new, independent group, we operate under different rules, and we do allow pre­casting. Our company views both actors and designers as equally­ valued members of the collaborative team. Just as we wanted specific designers working on Mary: Mud & Tides, we wanted specific actors. We offered to individuals the roles of Mary (black), the Salty Lad (indigenous), the Seaglass Girl (white) and the Marsh Witch (unspecified). We were regrettably operating in an idealized frame of mind: we didn’t realize that offering a role that is specified in the script as a person of color to an actor of color could tokenize that individual.

JAYEL

I was strongly encouraged to audition for the show in the spring (when it was still being done in Studio) and I said I would. When Gremlin Collective decided to put the show on as their found play, I received a message asking me to audition again. At that point I had been told about the change in race of Mary and the Salty Lad. I decided not to respond for a variety of reasons, but mostly I just did not know how. A couple days later, I received another message asking me again and explaining how the character was inspired by me. It just felt like a lot of pressure for me to give a definite answer, and I didn’t want to. What really changed that discomfort to anger was finding out that a director in Studio had been asked not to cast me because Gremlin Collective wanted to, because of my skin. That was oppressive in that it undermined my desires and agency as an actor to be in shows I wanted to be in.

On Saturday September 10th, Gant, Hurst, Sullivan and Yi along with juniors  Willa Coufal and Ben Rezko wrote and sent an email detailing racist aspects of the script and Gremlin Collective’s specific actions. That night, Gremlin Collective responded with an email that addressed some of their concerns and suggested a meeting to discuss further.

JORDAN

The idea to write a letter started out as a joke, because Jayel and I didn’t think we could actually do anything to change the situation. We realized that talking about it to each other wasn’t going to change anything. We also were a little bit afraid of going to talk to people we work with closely, most of whom I am also friends with. After talking with Tristan and Padraig, we realized that we were not alone in our experiences, so we asked more students of color if they would be willing to write a letter with us. Five of us met in person and dissected everything that was racist, both in the play and its execution. For all of us to come together, name these things, and express our feelings about them was a really therapeutic experience. After we sent the letter, we were scared that everything we said would be invalidated. After Gremlin Collective responded, we all knew that we needed to talk, but we didn’t know how exactly to go about it.

EMILY

When I received the email pointing out the mistakes we had made in terms of race, I felt the floor fall out from under me. I was suddenly faced with everything I didn’t know and didn’t realize I needed to learn. I was terrified of confronting the oppressive ways in which I­­as someone who has always considered myself an ally ­­was thinking about race.

On Sunday September 11th, everyone involved met in CFA Commons to discuss in person the emails and the problems addressed within them.

JORDAN

We were terrified that this dialogue would just end up with a lot of invalidation and hurt, but everyone in the space was committed to the dialogue and the goal of finding a solution to the problem itself, as well as deconstructing the racist dominant narratives that caused it. The first thing that we did was set up ground rules, the most important one being the creation of a brave space instead of a safe one. Talking about race can be really uncomfortable for both white people and people of color. In this space we challenged ourselves to ride through this discomfort so we could really talk about the issues at hand. It is also very important that we did this without any faculty or staff. More often than not, faculty and staff create a power dynamic which adds another level of discomfort that is unnecessary in an inherently uncomfortable dialogue. There was a lot of fear and discomfort in that room and we could all feel it, but what is important is that it didn’t stop us.

EMILY

We, as a collective, are so grateful for the gift of the email and the conversation that followed. I am so impressed by the bravery of the individuals that came forward and told us that what we were doing was racist; that’s such a hard thing to do and it’s much easier not to. There was so much fear from every angle of this situation. Walking into the room for the conversation, I was terrified of the hurt I knew I had caused, knowing there was nothing I could do to fix it. I was terrified of engaging with my racist thinking and possibly losing friends. Fear was ever­-present throughout this entire situation, and we all acted in spite of our fear and did what we knew was right.

JAYEL

I realized through this process that dialogue between people who actually care about each other is a lot more challenging than dialogue without those stakes, but it was so fulfilling. I came into the room with the attitude of “I am angry, and I don’t care.” Very quickly I discovered the truth was that I was hurting because I did care; and so were the other people in the room. We stepped up to the challenge of looking at the source of that hurt, racism in its many forms, in ways that empowered me as a person of color and also empowered Gremlin Collective as white allies.

Gremlin Collective decided to cancel the production.

NIKI

The options, as our team saw them, were to take race out of the play entirely, to delay the production until the script was heavily revised, or to cancel the show. We absolutely didn’t want to go forward with the play as it stood once the issues were brought to our attention. Our decision to cancel the production was informed by many facets of the situation, including a desire to avoid further hurting our friends and the feeling that taking race out of the script would be akin to running away. The dialogue between Gremlin Collective and our friends helped me understand where the script was lacking. ­­It can be difficult to know what you don’t know ­­and see paths to achieve the initial vision for the play. I want to give the revision the time it needs and do the characters and issues justice before putting the play into the world.

EMILY

As the director of the production and managing director of the company, I am proud of the choices and interactions of everyone involved after the initial mistakes were made. While the production failed, the company did not: we made all of our decisions and acted as a team from the start of this project through to the present. This decision still feels overwhelmingly right. The members of Gremlin Collective learned more from this experience, particularly the discussion, than we would have from putting on the production.

Where do we go from here?

JORDAN

The letter, the dialogue, and this article were all the beginning of something. I am the kind of person who sees injustice and is often too scared to say something about it. This experience has taught me to speak what I see and has made me a better activist.

JAYEL

This experience has really highlighted my reality as a person of color in the world. I am still unpacking that and trying to figure out what I want that to mean for me and what I want to do about it. I am definitely interested in learning how to have healthy dialogue in the future.

EMILY

As for the future of Gremlin Collective: the company is currently beginning work on Niki’s new play, ​Before Birth. ​Taking place within a fiber womb, Before Birth traces the complex and often frightening history of childbirth in the United States through the exploration of a mother/daughter relationship and a series of vignettes ranging from the 1600s to the future. W​e want our first production as a company to be a play that our friends can support, and most importantly, a play that we can be proud of.

NIKI

Gremlin Collective is not going to stop talking about race. We are grateful for the intellectual and emotional understanding that this experience has given us, which we feel will make us better able to contribute to the deconstruction of the dominant narrative.

Why is this important?

NIKI

White people are scared of the word “racist.” “Racist” is your uncle who thinks that Muslims are trained from birth to kill us all, “racist” is Trump supporters, “racist” is slurs and beatings and murder. “Racist” is not something that ​you can be, because you are educated, you are better than that. But racism comes in all forms, and it’s not a binary. People aren’t bad or good, racist or not. Before the members of Gremlin Collective could unpack how we had hurt our friends and make amends, we had to accept that our actions had been racist ­­and that was not an easy thing to do. Our company had been trying to do anti­racist work, and learning that we had done the opposite was devastating for us. But when we accepted that we had been racist, we were able to learn and grow. Taking accountability was essential to the productive dialogue that occurred and the conversations that have happened since. Rather than viewing being called out for racist actions as an attack or a tragedy, white people need to see being called out for what it is: a gift. Someone has given you their time and emotional energy so that you have a chance to evolve, to become better at fighting injustice both in yourself and in others, and you owe it to them and to yourself to commit to that fight.

JORDAN

As a students of color we are often put in situations like this, and our response is usually to talk about it with each other. We have a valid fear of aggressive responses from white people, most of which are rooted in white fragility, when we bring these issues up. For us, it was helpful to talk to each other about it first, to name our issues with the show, and then let Gremlin Collective know what problems we had with the production. All too often racist situations like this happen, and whether the response is students talking to each other or some form of protest, nothing seems to happen after or get done. This is a great example of where to go after both conversations with your friends and protests: a productive dialogue in which both sides are committed to solving the problem and understanding what caused it, no matter how uncomfortable the room gets.

It is important to remember that Gremlin Collective is not and will not be the only company to mess up in this way. Being a person of color in the arts is very difficult because there are few parts available to you, and it is rare that a character who is specifically written as a person of color is done justice. My hope is that not only theatre companies but all groups and collectives, whether they are organizations, clubs, or just a friend group, consider the ways in which they talk about race. There is a huge fear and discomfort that comes with talking about race for both people of color and white people. This shouldn’t drive us, because it should be racism itself that we are uncomfortable with, not talking about race.

Although it was difficult, our friendships not only lived through this conflict but are stronger because of it.

Emily Trevor
Niki Acton
Jordan Hurst
Jayel Gant

Tags:  controversy discourse Mary: Mud & Tides panel queer race racism theatre

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