Political Uncertainty Inspires “Art That Matters”
Wednesday, January 18, 2017
Posted by: TBA Staff
by Kim Tran
There are no rainbow flags at Theatre Rhinoceros, the self-proclaimed “longest-running and most adventurous LGBT theatre anywhere.” A stone’s throw from San Francisco’s Ferry Building, the company celebrates its 39th anniversary this year and the evidence is on the walls. Decades worth of playbills frame the short hallway to the theatre where executive director John Fisher sits drinking coffee and describing the social transformations the theatre scene has undergone throughout the years.
Daniel Chung, John Fisher, and Donald Currie appear in Flim-Flam at Theatre Rhinoceros. Photo by David Wilson
“It’s not just straight white people anymore,” Fisher says. Indeed, this year Theatre Rhinoceros’s season opened with The Brothers Size, a play by Tarell Alvin McCraney whose work, In Moonlight Black Boys look Blue, inspired Barry Jenkins’ critically acclaimed film, Moonlight. It will end the season with a show focusing on transgender identity, lives, and literacy.
Theatre Rhinoceros reflects a common theme amongst small theaters of its kind: providing roles and space for marginalized people as well as a window into their realities. Fisher says that in mainstream theatre companies, “I’m still kind of an identity guest.”
Despite the increasing visibility of queer and people of color, larger regional theatre companies continue to lag behind their smaller counterparts in developing roles and meaningful places for minorities. Ayodele Nzinga, founding director of Oakland-based The Lower Bottom Playaz, says this absence is the genesis of her company, which showcases black works and actors. “There weren’t enough places for black women in particular. I didn’t want to always be someone’s mama, maid, or hooker.”
Ayodele Nzinga, founding director of The Lower Bottom Playaz, performing in Going To St. Ives. Photo by Julia Robertson
Following a presidential campaign that relied heavily upon stereotypes and fear mongering, the desire to move beyond racial tropes is an important catalyst for many Bay Area theatre companies.
Golden Thread belongs to a small cohort of companies dedicated to Middle Eastern voices. Founding artistic director Torange Yeghiazarian argues theatre is about social dialogue. She says, “If someone hates Muslims, that’s a conversation worth having”.
In the month following the presidential election, the Southern Poverty Law Center documented over 1,000 hate crimes. The top four motivations were anti-immigrant, anti-black, anti-Muslim and anti-LGBT sentiment. The time-period between November 23rd and December 2nd saw an uptick in hate mail sent to mosques and Islamic centers around the country. The letters described Muslims as “Children of Satan” and a "vile and filthy people". Seven were sent to mosques in California.
Golden Thread staff members Evren Odcikin, Torange Yeghiazarian, and Michelle Mulholland at the company’s 20th anniversary celebration. Photo by Navid G. Maghami
Yeghiazarian and Fisher emphasize the necessity of moving beyond assumptions of progress in an era of hyper-charged racial politics. Yeghiazarian cautions that despite its avowed liberalism, the Bay Area still has work to do. “It’s always good to remind ourselves we’re not the vanguard of social change,” she said.
Yet while Yeghiazarian, Fisher, and Nzinga push their communities to be reflective and inclusive, each is aware that good intentions are only part of what is necessary for the arts to thrive. With the incoming administration taking a strong stance against “safe spaces” and “political correctness,” what will happen to the financial viability of smaller theatre companies that resist Islamophobia, homophobia, and anti-black racism?
Last month Donald Trump tapped film star Sylvester Stallone to be Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), a federal agency that doles out nearly $150 million dollars in funding to arts organizations. Past decades show conservative leadership can have a major negative impact on larger theatre companies let alone their smaller companions. In the early 1980’s the Reagan administration began a mission that would be completed nearly a decade later—slashing NEA funding in half.
Theatre Rhinoceros is one of a small few that has weathered decades of Republican spending cuts. Fisher said, “We didn’t do well under Bush. We lost our national arts funding. We never got it back.”
When pressed about what each company will do to financially prepare for the incoming Trump administration, their representatives give varying answers.
Nzinga is responding to the economic precariousness of the non-profit sector by building management skills. “We’re engaged in professional development. We’re doing everything we can to be pristine as a business,” she said.
Across the country, nonprofit theatre companies have adapted to deep NEA cuts by creating a delicate matrix of financial sources. The lion’s share—61%—of their money comes from a combination of ticket sales and individual donations from private citizens.
Yeghiazarian is confident this pattern of giving will get Golden Thread through some potentially lean years. “A lot of the local funders will increase their funding for diversity and immigrant voices.”
If supported, the arts can have a profound positive impact; particularly on low-income youth.
In 2012, the NEA issued a report elucidating the potential benefits of arts education for at-risk youth. The report showed that if students of low socioeconomic status participate in the arts (specifically theatre and dance) they are 74% more likely to plan to go to college with half going on to professional fields such as law or education. Perhaps more importantly, young people in the arts are more inclined to volunteer, read a newspaper, vote, and be socially tolerant.
Paradoxically, at a time when theatre is needed the most, it is being supported the least. Companies are responding by turning to each other, to their audiences, and by holding true to their principles. Nzinga concludes, “We only make art that matters.”
Kim Tran is finishing her Ph.D. in Ethnic Studies and Gender, Women’s & Sexuality Studies at UC Berkeley. She is a contributing writer for Everyday Feminism. Her work has been featured on Vice News, Mic, Vox and The East Bay Express. Find more of her work at www.kimthientran.com