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Burst My Bubble: Race in the Theatre

I live in the bubble.

Boston University provides me with a beautiful bubble, safely padded with educated liberals who are all just as fired up about social injustices as I am. The bubble is a wonderful place where my beliefs and ideals are strengthened, confirmed, validated. The bubble is a place where I am allowed and encouraged to hope realistically that the world will change.

Like any beautiful thing, the bubble can be dangerous. Sometimes, I forget that the bubble is there at all, and I start to think that the bubble is the whole world. I start to think that my ideals are mostly universal, and that change really is happening. I start to believe that racism is declining and sexism is a thing of the past and hatred is giving way to acceptance and art is fueling all of this progress.

And then the bubble pops.

A mid-September perusal of the New York Times revealed to me how different it can be outside the bubble. Times journalist Andrew Chow reported last month that Michele Roberge resigned from her position as executive director of the Carpenter Performing Arts Center (at California State University, Long Beach) despite having served successfully as executive director for 14 years. Her reason? The president of the university tried to force Roberge to cancel the performance of a “racially charged” play that she had booked for September 29th, because there had been complaints received from “inside the university.” Roberge resigned on the principle of her artistic integrity.

As if it isn’t frustrating enough that a university would cancel a show because of its engagement with race, it gets worse. The real kicker here is that the same play was performed last year (2015) at the Carpenter Center (under Roberge) with the approval of and funding from the university. In Chow’s Times article, Roberge recalls the interaction she had with the university president following the 2015 performance:

“I [Roberge] said, ‘It was glorious, and I am going to present this show every year until we don’t need to anymore.’ [The president] laughed and gave me a high five.”

There’s no doubt that the play in question is controversial. N*W*C* is the abbreviated title of a play written by Allan Axibal, Rafael Agustín, and Miles Gregley (along with directors Steven T. Seagle and Liesel Reinhart). The actual title is far from comfortable: N*gger  Wetb*ck  Ch*nk.

N*W*C* was devised in 2005 as an attempt to deconstruct the derogatory words that have defined Axibal, Agustín, and Gregley as Asian, Latinx, and Black, respectively. Axibal says in a 2007 New York Times interview, “If we’ve been called these words, then we have the right to confront them. That’s what the show is about.”

Axibal, Agustín, and Gregley have performed their play literally 100s of times all over the country for the past decade, and have been met consistently  with positive – or at least, impassioned – reviews. They have prompted countless engagements with racial stereotypes, and provided cautious people with a giant gateway into the conversation. Despite the high-profile cancellation, they have no intention of slowing down. The homepage of the play’s website now reads:

“THE SHOW TOO DANGEROUS FOR LONG BEACH STATE – BOOK NOW FOR SPRING 2017”

This story really burst my bubble. I spent my summer working for Boston University Orientation, where it was required that every incoming student (freshman and transfer alike) attend an excerpted performance of Baltimore by Kirsten Greenidge. Each performance was followed by a talk-back led by the cast and the Dean of Students, during which new students had the opportunity to talk about their experience with race and ethnicity. In my bubble, “university” meant, “a place where it is safe to talk about this stuff.”

It is appalling to me that a university president is making decisions in 2016 that actually discourage community engagement with race and the arts.

At the same time, I’d rather know about it. It’s healthy to be forced out of my bubble of educated liberals once in a while, and to remember how much work there is to be done out there. Thank goodness for artists like Roberge, Axibal, Agustín, and Gregley, who remind us how important it is to continue shouting when we are silenced.

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