March 17, 2021
by Noelle Diane Johnson
Noelle Diane Johnson is the Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Officer for the Wilma’s digital production of ‘Fat Ham.’ This is the first production the Wilma has had an EDI Officer.
Hiring an EDI Officer was one of the demands made by a group of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) theatremakers who formed a collective and drafted a letter, titled DEAR WHITE AMERICAN THEATRE, asking for changes to theaters across the country.
As EDI Officer for ‘Fat Ham’, Noelle has established practices outside of traditional rehearsal/power structures to support BIPOC/Global Majority artists working on the production. Among her initiatives: holding optional ‘Reset and Restore’ meetings for BIPOC-only artists to talk and setting up anonymous reporting procedures.
Noelle wrote the following essay for the Wilma during filming in Virginia.
During the Summer of 2020, in response to a very particular combination of current events, the We See You W.A.T. (White American Theatre) statement was published and launched a continued conversation in the American Theatre Industry regarding the treatment of BIPOC or Global Majority folx in collaborative theatremaking spaces. For many, artists, advocates, and allies, this document, being published and recognized on such a national scale, put to words in black and white and confirmed what many Black and Global Majority artists and theatremakers have been fighting against for some time now. White American Theatre Supremacy. A monumental moment for folx who have been at this warrior work for years and have gone unnoticed or with little recognition. It became clear that the experiences that many Black and Global Majority artists and theatremakers endure, specifically in PWI (Predominantly White Institutions), are not
nearly as unique as many of us may have thought. This statement lit a fire and proved that we could reach towards our communities for understanding, rely on each other for support, and most importantly start to demand and work towards change.
Imagine the first restful night’s sleep you get after a tragedy, a shaking in your world, a death, a break up, a significant shift due to a world pandemic. It can be such a relief to finally get rest after processing difficult feelings, a crucial part of healing and facing the reality that things will never be the same. Sleep becomes a true respite, time away from what is, a space of genuine rest and rejuvenation for your mind, body, and spirit, a moment to lay down your burdens, and embrace the humanity of needing rest. Upon waking, before consciousness surfaces, before that early morning stretch, before your mind starts to flood with the responsibilities of the day, your family, partner, career, home life, or finances, there is a split second. A moment where we exist in the vastness of peace and calm, when your body, mind and spirit is still at rest, and in its natural state. And then, you remember. You remember all that you’ve had some time to rest from and the reality of your world post shift. Waking up Black in America can be similar as there is little time to rest and only a split second before an immediate knowing, bracing, and armoring takes place. Waking and awareness in the world as a Black or Global Majority person, allows only a split second of peace and calm before the daily preparation to step out into a White Supremacist world. Simply existing and engaging in the world carries a specific kind of weight, a heaviness, an emotional labor.
The labor that accompanies being a Black or Global Majority in a White Supremacist culture demands that Global Majority humans make accommodations, exert an immense amount of energy, constantly find work arounds, and hurdle obstacles in day to day living that white folx do not experience. Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion with the focus of prioritizing the holistic health and wellness of Global Majority artists and theatremakers, asks us to engage in creating environments that acknowledge the invisible emotional and mental labor required to collaboratively engage in art-making. When creating, Black and Global Majority folx carry not only the labor of the roles we choose to embrace as theatremakers, but also the labor that comes with the obstacles presented by the dynamics of White American Theatre Supremacy, that are by design undetectable and have been normalized as the standard of theatrical practice and process.
Black and Global Majority artists and theatremakers deserve to be able to work and create in spaces and conditions that support our humanity.
Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, anti-racism work, and the effort to dismantle the systems and structures of White American Theatre Supremacy, give us an opportunity to create environments where Black and Global Majority artists, theatremakers, and audiences are able to engage in the art and simply be human. For many indigenous people, creativity, artistry and spirituality, the byproduct of theatre making, are innate aspects of our culture, lineages, and occur without force when the body is in its natural state. The difficulty, the emotional labor, the desire to disengage, frustration, or inaccessibility that many Black and Global Majority folx experience while engaging with Theatre comes when White Supremacy is introduced and perpetuated through practices and processes that do not respect the humanity and dignity of Black and Global Majority people. Although this labor is invisible and undetectable to many white folx, by design of White Supremacy, it does indeed exist and effects the lives of Black and Global Majority people physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.
Black and Global Majority artists and theatremakers deserve to be able to work and create in spaces and conditions that support our humanity. Equity and Justice demands that these spaces acknowledge the realities of our existence and allow us to share our stories and voices in ways that are genuine and authentic. We, as Black and Global Majority people should not need to consider leaving or distancing ourselves from an industry, because of abusive or harmful conditions. The work begins here and now. Theatremakers through creativity, collaboration, and communion have the opportunity to translate our skills in theatremaking to that of anti-racism and EDI work to shift the culture and create change. The stories and voices of Black and Global Majority folx is American and an integral aspect of American Theatre. As the We See You W.A.T. document states, many of us are “fiercely in love with the Theatre. Too much to continue it under abuse.”
The time is now to do the anti-racism work of facing the sins of our society, how it effects our theatremaking, and what we share with audiences. Now is the time to step into the reality of the state of American Theatre and do the dismantling and healing work required to make these spaces safe, equitable, and self-liberating for Black and Global Majority artists, theatremakers, and audiences. This is our opportunity to embrace change, to decolonize and revolutionize theatrical practices and processes to allow what is so special about Theatre to surface for all involved. This work asks that white allies consider that there are Truths of reality that exist outside of your realm of knowing or immediate awareness. It asks that you embrace something that you will never in practice understand. That you not only acknowledge, but accept and believe the stories, experiences, and testimonies of the Black and Global Majority people around you. It asks that you confront your own insecurities, prejudices, and obstacles to seeing Black and Brown folx as who we are, humans with needs and the desire to have our humanity respected. It asks white folx to support the work and continue to do the labor even when you don’t understand it or see the benefit of it in your life. It asks that you set aside what is personal for what is collective.