June 2020. Lisa Dawn Cave, Darius de Haas, Brandon Victor Dixon, Carin Ford, Capathia Jenkins, LaChanze, Kenny Leon, Norm Lewis, Audra McDonald, Michael McElroy, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Wendell Pierce, Billy Porter, Phylicia Rashad, Anna Deavere Smith, Allyson Tucker, Tamara Tunie, Lillias White, NaTasha Yvette Williams, Schele Williams, and Vanessa Williams announced the founding of Black Theatre United. That’s a list of names that’ll get your attention.
In the wake of the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, artists LaChanze, McDonald, and Williams came together because of a single question—one they’d asked before: How do we explain this to our kids? They asked fellow leaders and Black Broadway’s veterans (a generation of many artists with children) for answers. Instead, they found many more questions. And, when they had too many questions to answer, they organized.
Black Theatre United put its stake in the ground as a group to “stand together to help protect Black people, Black talent, and Black lives of all shapes and orientations in theatre and communities across the country. Our voices are united to empower our community through activism in the pursuit of justice and equality for the betterment of all humanity.”
In practice, founding member Brian Stokes Mitchell thinks of BTU as the NAACP of theatre—at least that’s how his Ragtime co-star McDonald phrases it. “We're creating a continuum,” he says. “Hopefully our children or grandchildren or great-grandchildren… this organization will be around still dealing with whatever needs to be dealt with in their time.”
BTU plans to be a resource hub for Black theatre artists while supporting Black people across the U.S. The coalition splits efforts into micro (improving circumstances for Black artists at work) and macro (utilizing Black artists to make global change). “Artists have always been the leaders of change in any nation,” says founding member Tucker.
For example, BTU’s first partnerships supported Stacey Abrams’ Fair Count, a non-profit, non-partisan organization to achieve an accurate count of people in the 2020 Census, and Harness, a non-profit from America Ferrera, Wilmer Valderrama, and Ryan Piers Williams to engage artists in social change like the #BeCounted census campaign. “How do we get funding and communities to bring about awareness, or any kind of arts initiative in classrooms and communities or anything you want in your community [like] better hospitals? That takes funding, so you must stand up and be counted for that,” says Tucker.
But BTU will go far beyond this year’s Census. “This window has been cracked open where people are going, ‘Now I see the injustice. Now, what do I do?’” says Mitchell. “What we're trying to do as an organization, along with many of these other organizations [like Broadway Advocacy Coalition and Broadway for Racial Justice] is keep that window of opportunity open now the people are open to seeing the racism in the society, maybe in their own selves.”
Tucker believes a lot of the work gets done with one-on-one conversations, particularly with white industry leaders.
“One of the advantages I think that we have,” says Mitchell, “is we're not new on the block. … We've worked with the producers and the different union people. They're people that we know and understand. And, whereas we may not have been able to have the conversations that we're having right now [before], because they're open in a different way and they're seeing this in a different way, it’s allowed us to have this conversation.”
Yes, Tucker, Mitchell, McDonald, Smith, Porter, Rashad, and the full cohort are using their influence, but they are also finally being heard. And, yes, changing minds one-by-one is slow, but as Tucker says, “We’re moving at the speed of wisdom.”
BTU leaders have called producers and theatre companies out on the hypocrisy in mission statements that call for diversity and inclusion, “but when you look at these institutions,” says Mitchell, “they are not diverse and they are not inclusive.”
That takes some drilling down to the day-to-day. In recent months, we’ve heard complaints of workplace harassment and racial micro-aggressions such as unwelcome touching of a Black person’s hair in a rehearsal room, requests to "smile more," “jokes” about not being able to see a Black person in the dark of the wings.
“What my purpose is now is to figure out why is it unsafe,” says Tucker. “What makes it suddenly unfriendly to walk into a room where outside—just literally before they open the door—they are among the most confident, ridiculously overly-talented human beings, and they open a door and walk in a room and somebody feels that it's okay to touch their hair. What is that about?
“What happens in that transition between opening the door to walk through? It's trying to understand, what is that control? Is it employer-employee? Is that the issue? Who and why does somebody else think that that's okay to do? And now that we know it’s systemic racism, but how do we make that better?” Tucker urges.
In the quest for better, BTU functions as a catchall for theatre leaders who contact them for guidance, works proactively through different committees on Mentorship, Politics and Political Action, etc., and supports other organizations with their focused efforts.
“We're pro being alive and wanting to move things forward. And, I think in individual ways, we've all tried to do that in different organizations, at different spaces,” says Tucker. “This is the first time with that we've all been unemployed at the same time” and able to make one concerted effort. “It came out of the losses,” she continues. But BTU aims to prove how much we have to gain.