“I DON’T THINK it’s a coincidence that the world had to be shut down in order for people to really take a look at [systemic racism], and that shows you how deep-seated it is in the fabric of our country — for it to take a pandemic for people to understand that Black Lives Matter,” said Danielle Moné Truitt. With those words, she launched an open, honest conversation about racism and racial equity in entertainment, part of a thought-provoking panel hosted by the Educational Theatre Association during the 2020 Virtual International Thespian Festival.

An actor known for roles on television’s Rebel and Deputy, Truitt said racism affects every aspect of life. “You can’t have systemic racism in our country and it not affect the entertainment industry and theatre industry,” she said. “That’s why it’s such an ugly thing because it’s like the coronavirus. It is a virus, and it doesn’t just affect one part of you. It affects every single aspect of our nation.”

At a time when many Black artists are exposing widespread bias in theatre and White artists are reflecting on their responsibilities as allies, the panel offered an opportunity to reflect upon the equity gap existing in a field that often prides itself on perceptions of inclusivity. Approximately 350 people tuned in to the hourlong discussion, moderated by Dr. Jamie Riley, director for racial equity with the Center for Law and Social Policy in Washington, D.C. Truitt was joined by fellow artists Kristolyn Lloyd, Austin Scott, and Cody Renard Richard, a Thespian alum of Troupe 4901 in Texas. Riley noted that all the panelists had achieved success, yet success had not protected them from racialized experiences or racism. 

Scott, an actor who most recently appeared in Broadway’s Girl from the North Country and Hamilton, said it was an important time for conversations like this one. “We’re at a very interesting moment because the viral aspect of this current movement is kind of dying down right now,” he said. “Your social media feeds are going back to normal. You’re seeing more cat pictures and that kind of stuff. And I think now is really the most telling time. … How are you going to continue to make anti-racism a part of your everyday life? How are you going to continue to show up and lend your voice to the fight?”

All agreed theatre has an important role to play in that effort, raising awareness and helping others understand equity issues. “At least for an actor, in order to bring characters to life, you have to have empathy for your character,” Truitt said. “In order for me to portray a character that is completely well-rounded and is a true depiction of someone you would know, I can’t judge that character. I can’t have in my head that I don’t like her because then I’m not going to give the performance I could. …

“The beautiful thing about being an artist is that we get the opportunity to touch people in an emotional place,” Truitt continued. “So, the difference between activism and artistry, to me, is that activism causes affect, where people are taking actions to dismantle something. As an artist, you are causing an effect. You’re causing an effect on people’s minds and hearts, and you’re inspiring them in different ways; you’re helping them see things differently.”

According to Scott, progress requires both personal and policy change. “In addition to changing the policy, we also have to change the culture,” he said. “And I think you change the culture partly by changing people’s concepts of what’s possible. … If you see a predominantly White Broadway season, with very few authentic BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and People of Color] stories being portrayed onstage, if that’s supposed to be a reflection of life, a reflection of the real world, then what does that tell you about the real world if you buy into that? What we need in Broadway and regional theatre and everywhere is more authentic stories being told by people of color that were written by people of color.”

For Black students who struggle to see themselves represented on their high school stages or who experience outright racism, Richard, a Broadway stage manager for productions including Freestyle Love Supreme and Hamilton, says it’s important to find ways to keep moving forward. “Try not to hold onto it, he said. These things happen, and you will probably encounter it more than once in your life. As hard as it is, try not to hold onto it because when you hold onto something and then something happens again, and then something happens again, it gets very, very, very heavy.”

Lloyd, an actor who originated the role of Alana Beck in the Broadway company of Dear Evan Hansen, says self-care is critical. “Your mental health is very important, and it’s already at a disadvantage as a Black person in America, she said. So, if you need to ask your parents to set you up with a Black therapist … take care of your mental health. Write these things down when they happen. Get them out of your body. Put them onto a piece of paper. … Your stories are useful — small, big, whatever they are.”

To White allies and advocates, Truitt says it’s important to become change agents. “Take advantage of this time,” she said. “You can be part of the revolution, something that will shift the structure of America. Take on that opportunity. Look at it as a gift to you, as an opportunity for you. If you’re an ally … have enough faith to use your voice and speak up.”

Richard agreed. “It’s all our responsibility to make sure theatre is as inclusive as it can be,” he said. “We all have the power to affect change. Your voice is your power, so don’t let anyone ever take that away from you.”

As for Black artists interested in pursuing theatre careers, the panelists shared one overwhelming message: You are enough. “Don’t be discouraged by what’s happening in the world. Don’t be disheartened by this moment in time,” Richard said. “If you’re passionate to do this, you should do it. Your gift will make room for you. There is room for you. We welcome you. We are waiting for you.”

Watch the entire conversation on YouTube. Learn more about the Virtual International Thespian Festival online.

You can help support underrepresented student leaders with a donation to Broadway Licensing’s Send-A-Leader Diversity Grant program. Text ITO to 76278 or visit www.ito.givesmart.com.

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