As Black History Month draws to a close, playwright Idris Goodwin reflects on the lessons to carry over, and lays out his vision for a better, more inclusive theatre for all.
One of the most frustrating myths drawn from American history goes like this: Martin Luther King Jr gave his “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963 and all the bad racist white people’s hearts grew like the Grinch’s in Whoville. The subsequent five years of King’s increasing radicalism, until he was assassinated, are often omitted.
The mass proliferation of the “I-Have-a-Dream-speech-killed-racism” myth is one of many factors of how we find ourselves here in this tense political moment. Yes critical laws have been passed, people with privilege and access boldly stood up and opened doors, many prayers sent through the air were answered but most were not—so the fight carries on. The extreme white supremacist, heteronormative, xenophobic, aggressively capitalistic current pulsing through this country has never been truly exorcised. This particular political moment isn’t a re-emergence.
A homogenous cross section of the population is pushing legislation toward a less inclusive America. We see this aggressive marginalization on a local government level and within our educational and cultural institutions. We see how this bias determines who gets space and who doesn’t. It determines how the next generations are taught. It is a bias built to protect canons of cultural product. It determines our dominant values and norms.
This is why Black History Month, like Women’s History Month, Hispanic Heritage Month, Asian Pacific Islanders Month, Native American Heritage Month, LGBTQ Pride Month, and others are in their own way radical. They are a reminder that the baseline dominant cultural narrative has been skewed toward the so-called majority. We must celebrate these 28–31 day spaces until we can intersect and overlap and coalesce them in some harmonious way.
Though this moment is not necessarily new, what is entirely urgent is a need to build coalition. Just as millions are taking to the streets, facing down tanks and military-grade weaponry, all in the desire for a more just and equitable country, we in the arts must build coalitions toward the common cause.
We want freedom. We all want to be free to claim and keep and define our own spaces, ones that are inclusive but not devoid of the cultural specificity that we carry in our bones. This is what those overly exalted founding fathers, as problematic as they were, sought. They wanted spaces to be free to define their own version of self.
At its best, the theatre, as a venue and as a craft, provides an exemplary model for coalition building and space making. Actors and designers and directors form small coalitions to painstakingly craft a world dreamed up by the writer for an audience to inhabit. At its worst, however, the theatre becomes a clubhouse for a town of 500 who can afford a seat. An industry beholden to a subscriber-based model is bound to be limited in many ways by cultural bias, otherwise known as “tastes.”
I believe we must broaden the reach and scope of what we make and how we make it. We must always challenge and check our biases and expand our “tastes.” And interrogate the generally accepted definition of apoliticism.
Terms like “polemical theatre” and “political theatre” are thrown around as if they carry leprosy. As if all plays do not have an agenda or culturally-specific perspective. For those of us on the so-called margins, the dominance of a Eurocentric white canon pervasive in our regional theatres and institutes of higher learning is very much skewed, very much political. Theatre claiming to be apolitical when, by some, it is clearly skewed exhibits a clear cultural bias.
There is tremendous potential for those of us who make theatre to be of great use in this moment. While the ability for us to spread information has been critical in coalition building, the onslaught of headlines and pundits can be isolating and soul-crushing. The human need to be in a physical space, to be in ritual with community, can never been duplicated. The performing arts can build these spaces for audiences to both escape and wrestle with the world’s riddles. We can craft spaces big and small for the kindling of one’s imagination. We are in the business of dreams. Dreams are not child’s play. Dreams are how we have made it this far.
I dream of a theatre that is 100 percent free for everyone. Where all are reflected throughout the course of a season. I dream of a theatre that is used to educate, that is used to heal and incite. I dream of a theatre that honors writers past and invests widely in the voices of today. I dream of theatres of color producing plays across the spectrum of experience.
I dream of a theatre that isn’t theatre at all. I dream of theatre that occurs in classrooms, corners, cafes, parks, bus stops, playgrounds, prisons, juvenile detention centers, halfway homes, orphanages, retirement homes, churches, mosques, and synagogues across the entire world. A theatre that is written and improvised, collectively conceived with actors and non-actors, that draws from a broad cultural canon.
I dream of a theatre that seeks to make amends and empower. A theatre whose staff resembles the residents of the city upon which it lives but whose stage looks like the world.
I dream of a theatre that exalts the stories of the poor and unknown as highly as those of the men whose faces adorn our currency.
I dream of a nation rich with passionate, loud, arguing, colorful, cooperative and yet well-compensated theatre makers who are liberated and appreciated and seen as necessary as athletes and war heroes.
This theatre of which I dream will mirror, hopefully, the ethos of the country where I pay taxes, raise children, and honor my ancestors.
And whether I see these dreams materialize or not it is what drives me in my waking hours. They encourage me to be unafraid to ask and research and recognize the limits of my own cultural experience.
They will help me be deliberate when I ask for the keys. When I demand the keys in order to open the doors and let in the world. I believe success as an artist is based on freedom. And the audience wants freedom, too.
Let this Black History Month not only be a celebration of voices and minds of the past but also the living among us, daily fighting in ways both big and small. And let this energy carry over into Women’s History Month, Asian Pacific Islanders Heritage Month, Hispanic Heritage Month, Native American Heritage Month, LGBTQ Pride Month, and all designated moments of recognition. So that year-round we are in conscious practice of uncovering the dreams of those unexalted, animating them with our bodies and breath until they become reality.
Idris Goodwin is a playwright, poet/performer and essayist. His play How We Got On developed at the O’Neill National Playwrights Conference, premiered in Actors Theatre’s 2012 Humana Festival, and is being produced at theatres across the country. It is the first in his “break beat play” series which includes The REALNESS and Hype Man. Other plays include Blackademics, This Is Modern Art co-written with Kevin Coval, And In This Corner: Cassius Clay, Bars and Measures, and The Raid. Goodwin is one of seven playwrights featured in the widely presented HANDS UP!, an anthology commissioned by The New Black Fest and published by Samuel French. His one act Black Flag was produced Off Broadway in Summer Shorts Festival at 59E59 Theatre. He’s received support from the NEA and Ford Foundation, and awarded Oregon Shakespeare’s American History Cycle Commission, The Blue Ink Playwriting Award and InterAct Theater’s 20/20 Prize. He has work commissioned by or in development with The Public Theatre, Steppenwolf Theatre, The Kennedy Center, Seattle Children’s Theatre, Berkeley Rep’s Ground Floor Program, La Jolla Playhouse, The Lark Playwriting Center, The Playwrights’s Center and New Harmony Project. These Are The Breaks (Write Bloody, 2011), his debut collection of essays and poetry, was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Goodwin’s poetry has featured on HBO, The Discovery Channel, Sesame Street and National Public Radio. Goodwin is an assistant professor in The Department of Theatre and Dance at Colorado College. Find him at www.idrisgoodwin.com.
Image 1: This is Modern Art, Steppenwolf for Young Adults at Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Chicago, Illinois (2015). Photo: Michael Courier.
Image 2: How We Got On, Humana Festival of New American Plays, Actors Theatre of Louisville, Kentucky (2012). Photo: Alan Simons.