I’m a Black Womxn and I Can't Play Here
Performer Lateisha asks how can we make theatre the most equitable, inclusive and transformative art-form it can be?
By Lateisha Davine Lovelace-Hanson
When inventive independent theatre is aligned with frameworks of anti-racist liberation it taps into what connects us: our shared humanity
I’m going to open this writing with a value, to make clear the space I am speaking from: performance/theatre is a necessary tool for interconnection, to self, each other and the world we inhabit. That’s why I make theatre, driven by this core truth as a potent antithesis to all the pervasive ills hidden in our society that disconnect us from one another.
Growing up and going down the route of acting, I set my sights on outdoor, street, site-specific, contemporary and cross-art improvised and devised theatre in the desire to place my Black femme body into this sphere of collaborative contemporary theatre with all of its anti-establishment values. With all the talk around 'progressiveness', 'accessibility' and 'community’ in its methods, I thought this would be an area of theatre that would see me and embrace me as the person I am.
The painful truth is that some of the most toxic, damaging oppressive experiences I have ever had in my whole life were within these kinds of theatre companies whilst working as an actor.
Why? Because of racism. Straight up, micro and macro aggressions from white theatre directors and fellow performers. And I’m not talking about the shocking racism that exists in the big theatre venues or in university theatre departments. I’m talking about small companies who position themselves outside of the institution, outside of commercial practices, outside of the ‘establishment’. A space within the theatre industry that I believed I would be safe(r) in.
I’m hoping that by sharing my experience, it’ll empower other Black and PoC (People of Colour) actors to better identify what is happening to them in this industry. Giving us the tools we need to not just survive, but to heal and create space for ourselves outside of these dynamics. I also hope white theatre-makers will recognise that anti-racism is not just about hiring Black and PoC actors for ‘diversity’, it’s about being aware of the structural racism that exists and unlearning your own conscious and/or unconscious bias.
Sharing my experience
I believe things can only radically change when we are honest, when we create accountability across all sections of the industry and don’t ignore what is happening in the fringes so I’m going to share something that I experienced.
A couple of years ago I was cast as an actor-puppeteer by a theatre company who say their work is “always made collaboratively.” I was excited to get my creative juices flowing. Early in, I and the two other newbies saw that the dynamic was off and not collaborative at all. We were dictated to, told what to do and where to go. Such blocking techniques are not just unimaginative, they create an unequal hierarchy of power in the room. It’s important to point out that I was the only PoC in the company of six, making me doubly vulnerable.
The story of the piece they wanted to devise started to become problematically clear. A puppet character (a young white boy) finds a headdress made of feathers and animal print on the beach, picks it up and is transported into another dimension. By ‘discovering’ these other dimensions the puppet boy encounters ‘otherworldly creatures and energies’. Some of which they wanted me to represent, whilst dancing, with another performer who was white with training in African traditional dance practices.
One of the directors asked me to “show a bit of my flavour.” I asked for clarification. By "flavour" they were referring to my dance moves. Dance moves that I had not auditioned with. We had never discussed whether or how I dance and it became clear that their idea of the "flavour" of my dance moves was a judgement made based purely on my skin colour.
This made me feel uncomfortable, disempowered, judged. I knew in my gut that I was being tokenised through representational racism.
I gathered myself and decided I couldn’t ignore this. I plucked up the spiritual strength to speak to the director, knowing that I had to do everything in my power to communicate this in a way that they could understand, because trust me, I knew the racist ‘angry Black woman’ stereotype was waiting in the wings. After the emotional and mental efforts of explaining this to them, I actually felt I could breathe when the director agreed with me. They even apologised then thanked me for being generous enough to talk to her in this way.
I believed my words had helped steer this project out of racist territory so you can imagine my shock when I got a phone call from my agent two days later telling me I had been dismissed. Their reason? They said they were “uncomfortable” and believed I had an “unhelpful attitude” which made the atmosphere “difficult.” If their defensive behaviour wasn’t so textbook white fragility, if this wasn’t so painful and offensive to me, I would laugh. But I can’t laugh at how predictable this all was.
I felt pretty broken after this because underneath it all, in my core, I always try to see the best in people and allow for space for learning and growth. They threw my generosity in my face. I was not a person to them; I was a problem. When actually the problem was always there, I just pointed it out.
The message this experience sent to me was that, because I spoke up, I lost work. But if I’d been silent, I would have continued being tokenised. I’ve heard countless stories like this over the years from other Black and PoC actors. It is not rare, it’s the norm. We so often have to walk a tightrope between these impossible choices and either way we are left traumatised.
So, what now? How do we make theatre the equitable, inclusive and transformative art-form we know it can truly be?
Global Origins Theatre believe we have the opportunity to make big changes in the theatre industry from funding all the way through to what stories are actually told and the voices telling them. We also need small theatre companies who operate outside of big venues to be held into account to protect Black and PoC artists.
That’s why we need to uproot and stop racism by decolonising theatre, including non-traditional theatre that often positions itself as progressive but still pushes artists like me away. This matters because, when inventive independent theatre is aligned with frameworks of anti-racist liberation it taps into what connects us: our shared humanity. Isn’t this why we make theatre? To connect. This kind of work has the potential to create spaces for the equity, equality and collective justice that our society desperately needs.
For me? Well, I’m still here healing, creating and tending to the space in between theatre and social justice to manifest, devise and write a vision of the world that is truly free.
Lateisha Davine Lovelace-Hanson is an actor, writer, community organiser, embodied systems-change facilitator, educator and founder of 'To The Ritual Knowledge Of Remembering' - a QT/BIPOC artist community-led project exploring body, ancestral memory, earth healing practices as transformative ecologies towards liberated future(s). Lateisha's theatre work 'S/He Breathe/S’, an afro-futurist interdisciplinary collaborative show supported by Arts Council England and Camden People’s Theatre is currently in development. Lateisha, alongside actor and social justice practitioner Kes Gill-Martin founded HIT THE GROUND - leading anti-oppression creative projects in community organising and art-making settings.
Headshot by Max Zadeh @thequeerhouse
Main image by Force Majeure via Unsplash.