I’ve asked several theater practitioners here in DC to outline their vision for an event to replace the Helen Hayes Awards. (See the inaugural post in the series here.) The following contribution is from Thembi Duncan.
I view the world through an African-American, female, LGBT lens. All of my work begins somewhere near the intersection of those identities, so I often find myself approaching theater from the deficit position, from the outsider’s perspective. I gravitate toward the stories of marginalized people for whom the very act of fighting to be seen and heard can easily become a full-time endeavor.
I’ve been a member of the D.C. theater community for about fifteen years, and there are numerous institutions and individuals to whom I have strong professional and emotional connections. Then there’s the larger beast, the theater community itself, which treats me like an outsider. That beast tells me that my strongest identity is my blackness, and that in order to play in the sandbox as an artist or arts presenter, I need to conform to the established stereotypes of that identity or risk further exile from the mainstream. Similar to the concept of double-consciousness coined by W.E.B. Dubois, I am constantly reconciling my work in a western-dominated field with my inner African. And African is all I get to be, because in the public discourse, my gender and my sexuality belong to white people.
So though I view the world through an amalgamation of the three main identities above (among others), the world tends to view me through only one. Blackness. For those who are not Black, I am an eternal outsider.
I remember back in 2008 when theatreWashington President Linda Levy Grossman and Board Chair Victor Shargai sat down with actress Dawn Ursula and me to address the lack of parity for African-Americans in the DC theater community. Dawn and I are two of the founding members of Galvanize DC, an informal but massive collective of local theater practitioners of color. We all knew what the problem was – African-American artists were not being recognized and supported at a level commensurate with their contributions to this theater community. I don’t remember the immediate outcome of that meeting, but I do remember feeling relieved that our voices were heard. We wanted to be acknowledged and recognized, not for being Black, but for being excellent. It took a few more years for me to realize that this process begins with the theaters, and is not the sole responsibility of theatreWashington, as wonderfully supportive as they may be.
We all know that our personal identities strongly dictate whom we choose to hire, how we define excellence, and which performances resonate with us. It’s all subjective. So if the people in the highest leadership positions of DC theater don’t represent a variety of identities, what can theatreWashington do with that? If there are not several productions in any given season that represent the gamut of African-American experiences, how can we expect the awards process to be equitable to people of color? It has to start with the theaters. I’ve decided to put my own money where my mouth is by taking the helm of African Continuum Theatre Company and endeavoring to be the change I wish to see.
That said, I have some other, non-racially specific ideas about how to enhance the Helen Hayes Awards:
1. The Helen Hayes Awards should become a one- or two-week festival. Folks balked when I suggested this in our breakout group at the recent Helen Hayes summit, but I stand firm on this one. We’re supposed to be celebrating theater, right? Then let’s put some time, energy, and resources into a real celebration of D.C. theater. Let’s give everyone a chance, during this festival, to actually see productions (full or truncated) that were nominated. This can also be an opportunity to actively develop ideas for collaboration among artists and theater institutions in town.
2. All theatres should swim in the same pool, regardless of budget. This preserves the warm, community-oriented nature of the Helen Hayes. Separating theatres by budget creates a sense of second-class citizenship among the smaller theatres. Not all small theaters are large-theaters-in-waiting, so why not go ahead and let us little guys keep playing in the big sandbox? The work should speak for itself.
3. There should be awards for theater education. Theaters with arts integration, arts instruction, and arts education programs should be recognized for this important work. This could be the beginning of an “Outreach” component of the Helen Hayes that gives away statues for the work that theaters are doing to connect to the community beyond season programming. TheatreWashington is already doing a great job of promoting Education programming on its website, so let’s formally recognize the theaters that are executing amazing work in education.
4. Nominees can only be nominated every other year. This would forcibly diversify the pool of nominees and help introduce more new faces and companies.
5. Institute an Emerging Designer Award, as well as an apprenticeship program to encourage designers to see DC as a welcoming place to grow their craft alongside experienced designers. This would also increase and diversify the pool of designers in the community.
6. Awards go to only the local theater community. No one should get to run off like a thief in the night with our awards! Not to mention, these out-of-town folks often aren’t around to accept their awards anyway. I’m not bitter. I’m possessive over the tight-knit theater community that we’ve created here. Let’s put all of the focus on local talent. We’ve got plenty!
7. Let’s establish an Innovative Collaboration Award that recognizes theater companies and/or artists who create provocative collaborations and interdisciplinary work.
I imagine that running the Helen Hayes Awards is similar to raising 100 persnickety children under one roof. No matter how much you do for them, they will always tell you how you can do better. But no matter what, you love them more than anything in the world, and you dedicate your life to ensuring that they all flourish at their respective interests, as individuals and as a collective family.
The Helen Hayes Awards is a reflection of us as a theater community. If we are good, it will be good. It will be inclusive, equitable, and dynamic if we are the same. As an emerging leader in this diverse, rambunctious family, I challenge my colleagues to share the responsibility of making the Helen Hayes Awards a reflection of our true potential for collective greatness.