A group led by black women artists in the Bay Area has written an open letter of complaint about the way the Marin Theatre Company handled protests and concerns over its fall production of “Thomas and Sally,” which closed on Oct. 29.
More than 1,600 black female and male artists have signed the letter, mainly from the Bay Area, but also from New York and the greater Los Angeles Area.
“As black artists, and as black women, we are all too familiar with our histories and our narratives being imagined through the gaze of white supremacist patriarchy,” said the women in a statement. “We take issue with producing organizations whose choices perpetuate the notion that we are a voiceless, powerless group, incapable of understanding how we are being represented. We take issue with the dismissal of our concerns and the erasure of our country’s violent history.”
The theater company has not been prepared to address the pushback of the community in a responsible manner throughout the show’s inception and production, said protestors and area actors. The company’s production of Thomas Bradshaw’s play depicts the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and a 15-year-old enslaved girl, Sarah “Sally” Hemings, who bore six of his children.
Concerns started even before the play’s opening on September 28th, said the group behind the letter.
Some community members were upset by the original artwork of the playbill. The poster showed an illustration of Hemings derived from the headshots of the main actress, as an older woman with a smirk. The artists expressed their discontent on Facebook, and the theater’s response was flippant, said Tracy Camp, an actor and professor of mathematics at Laney College.
“Well, no one’s hands get chopped off in this one, in case you were worried about the gore factor!” the theater posted in one exchange.
Before the play opened, the theater replaced the artwork. But the problems didn’t end there, Camp said. The script was disturbing too.
“It portrays both Sally Hemings and her mother, who is also raped, as enjoying rape,” said Camp. “After I read the script, I knew I couldn’t see the play. It made me want to cry.”
On October 15, protesters gathered outside the theater to air their concerns. One of the group carried a single black candle.
In response, theater officials called the police. The theater company posted on Facebook, saying that the protesters used open flames and put patrons lives at risk.
The company then deleted that post and has since issued a statement admitting that they mistakenly responded to the situation.
But the approach of the theater led 13 black women artists to form The Coalition of Bay Area Black Women+ Theater Artists. In late October, the coalition issued the open letter to the Marin Theatre demanding that the company change its methods of developing diverse work.
“I think this is a key moment in the development of where the theater can go and how it can be more integrated in the community that it’s claiming to represent on stage,” said Lauren Spencer, an organizer of the coalition who also played Sally Hemings in the original workshop of the play.
“What troubled me is the continuation of, what I perceive to be, a romanticization of the narrative around Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings,” said Amara Tabor-Smith, an actor and performer based in Oakland and artist-in-residence at Stanford University, who signed the letter.
The protest goes beyond the play, said the coalition organizers.
“It’s not just about the script or the production,” Spencer said. “It’s about whether a theater company is prepared to do a production responsibly.”
The theater company did not respond to requests for comment. But it released a statement after the coalition’s letter, in which it apologized and promised change.
“We recognize we must improve our work model,” the company wrote. “We are stepping up our commitment to build greater diversity and empathy into our processes, standards and staff.”
But Tara Pacheco, the lead actress who depicts Sally Hemings in the production, believes the protesters may have interfered with the bigger picture of the play.
“Having protesters outside of the theater made it difficult to do the play well,” said Pacheco. “Because it’s basically someone shouting at you when you walk into the theater saying this is how you need to see this play.”
“You have to sit there and be uncomfortable and try and figure out how you reconcile what’s happening on stage with your own humanity and your own morality,” Pacheco said.
But art doesn’t exist in a vacuum, Spencer said.
“If we’re going to argue for artistic freedom of speech in art, we must argue for freedom of speech in response,” she said. “You need to be ready to have a conversation, and that conversation might involve protest and it might involve people taking issue with what you’re doing.”
Workshops and script raised early concerns
The concerns over the play’s content began early. In the three years of the production’s inception, the theater put on workshops as part of the play’s development. Some of the workshop participants challenged the way black women were being represented and said the company did not really take those concerns into account.
“What has happened is the cumulative response of multiple people who auditioned and who were in workshops,” said Spencer. “If anything, that should’ve been a warning of the community response. “
Camp, a coalition organizer, said her concerns began when she saw the original ad for the play, but were heightened after she was told that the actual play was similar to an earlier version of the script she had read.
“My fear was that I know how easily implicit bias slips into people’s mind through media and entertainment, and I wanted to stop that from happening,” Camp said. “If people were going to see the show, I wanted them to go in aware and conscious.”
She was the first to initiate protests outside the theater just four days after the show opened.
“I just remember knowing that no one else was doing anything, so I just remember having the feeling that I had to go,” said Camp.
Each night of the play, Camp and her husband stood outside the theater, passing out fliers covered with quotes from a Huffington post article, written by Kathleen Antonia, who is another organizer of the coalition. The quotes were reflections of the show from the perspective of black women and survivors of rape.
Then Regina Evans, the owner of Regina’s Door, a vintage dress boutique, led a troupe of black artists and sex trafficking abolitionists, called Team Ceremony, in a ritual procession in honor of Sally Hemings outside of the theater on both October 15th and October 21st.
“Our intent was to go out and speak the heart of the survivor,” said Evans, who said she is a survivor of sex-trafficking. “The average age of entry to sex-trafficking now is 14 years old, so that dynamic is interesting because she [Sally Hemings] was 14 or 15 at the time her rape starts.”
In response to the protest, the company security called the police, the protesters said.
“I still haven’t been really able to wrap my mind around it. They [company security] taunted us the whole time,” Evans said. “The police did not bother us.”
Camp who was also present during this incident remembers the remarks the security team directed at Team Ceremony.
“I like start to cry every time I think of it,” she said. “They were saying to them things like, `Be respectful,’ `Get a job,’ and `This is America.’”
The theater company posted a statement to Facebook about the incident, explaining the decision to call the police, but has since deleted the post.
“Last night, however, protesters entered our private property and began setting flammable items on fire, in protest, in close proximity to patrons,” the company wrote. “Due to the uncontrollable nature of the uncontained fires … we asked them to leave the property … as their actions were deemed dangerous and threatened the safety of our theatre’s patrons, staff and themselves.”
Regina says Team Ceremony held one black candle and lit a small bundle of sage in a prayer ritual to Sally.
In the theater company’s later statement, it apologized for this encounter.
“As an organization, we were unprepared to respond to this criticism and as a result we made mistakes responding to the initial protests and the growing controversy,” the theater company wrote.
The way the theater handled the proest is what spurred the coalition to write the open letter demanding change.
In the letter, the coalition asked for Marin Theatre Company to change its methods when commissioning and producing diverse work as well as when hiring and training staff. The women also called on the company to develop a policy committed to finding strategies outside of police intervention when responding to conflict with community members.
But lead actress Pacheco, said that while her experiences with the play as a woman of color are valid as well, she didn’t think the coalition was interested in her perspective.
“Why would we want to do a show that apologizes for slavery or sexualizes black women in an unflattering way or that would whitewash slavery?” she asked. “It is insane to me that anyone would think that five actors of color would sign up for that.”
“Had they consulted with the actors in the play and been willing to see the content of the play from our perspective, we would’ve met eye to eye on pretty much most of their things [grievances] regarding the institutional changes that they want to see happen at MTC,” Pacheco said.
In response, Spencer said the coalition will revisit the goals and purpose behind the letter.
“As we’ve expressed before, the letter is not about the actors,” Spenser said. “It is very much a response to the institution and institutional practices that have not served the Bay Area and the local community of color in the best way possible.”
The coalition and Marin Theatre work to reach a resolution
Next, the coalition plans to have a second meeting with the theater in hopes that there will be more representation from the board.
The group wants to see to it that the Marin takes the necessary actions to heal the wound they have opened, but not everyone is optimistic.
While directly addressed to the Marin Theatre Company, coalition members also said that the call to action is not limited to the local theater, but applies to theaters across the country that are considering putting on productions that tell the narratives of people of color.
“I’m hoping that other theater companies are watching and learning what not to do,” said Camp.