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Who Are We Now? Theatre Alberta Essay Series – Althea Cunningham

The Virgin Trial – Alberta Theatre Projects
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Who Are We Now? Theatre Alberta Essay Series – Althea Cunningham

Hate Based Crimes, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, and Theatre

Unless or until I am cast as a killer in a play, murder is not part of my career or job description. For the police though, murder and death is a(n almost) daily occurrence. Black Lives Matter started in 2003, and the movement exploded during the pandemic. Names not known to us before—George Floyd (46), Breonna Taylor (26), and Ahmaud Arbery (25)—now impossible to forget. Regardless of how or who killed them, they are gone because they are Black.

Hate based crimes have been an issue for years and on the rise during the pandemic. The American Civil Rights Movement (1954-1968) happened for a reason. I recall a poem I wrote in 2021 entitled “Melanin Love”: Our skin with melanin shall not apologize for existing.

Three legacies in honour of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery: 1) demands for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI); 2) Black Lives Matter propelled onto the world stage; and 3) prompts for our collective society to make inclusive changes. EDI sounds like a buzzword? Or do we explore it together?

 Equity: the quality of being fair or impartial. Diversity: the state of being diverse; variety. Inclusion: the action or state of being included within a group or structure. In the future, it’s my hope that EDI becomes ingrained in our bodies. But what does it look like in theatre? Is it the responsibility of one person or an organization? Who gets EDI training and why is it necessary?

You sign a contract then the first day of rehearsal arrives. Round table introductions are made. We meet the cast, artistic director, stage manager, technicians, set and lighting designer, and administrative staff. A couple times we read the play. By the end of week one we are on our feet rehearsing, and by the end of week two the cast is bonding tightly.

Two and a half years into a pandemic and we are trying to live normal lives in an abnormal situation. How do we define EDI when in a room together? We could invite Indigenous artists to smudge prior to a rehearsal, and if appropriate, others may join. We could take a moment to acknowledge the lost lives of Indigenous children whose unmarked graves are being located across Canada. We could kneel in solidarity to acknowledge Black lives lost by gun violence. We will never know until we define and practice it together.

Fifteen years as an arts educator, influencing minds across Western Canada, and I have never taught a classroom that wasn’t predominantly white. However, since the onset of the pandemic, I’ve started to see a much-needed shift with students of colour being enrolled/participating in classes. In 2020 and 2021, I was invited to co-teach advanced musical theatre for youth and also taught acting and scene study for youth interested in heading towards a career in theatre. I was elated to see so many BIPOC youth! I realized that I could be part of the shift. Here is what went through my brain.

  1. Black youth will see a Black instructor in the flesh.
  2. In my capacity as an instructor, I could be a part of changing systematic racism.
  3. This is an opportunity to dialogue with white counterparts about EDI.

Seeing more than 50% BIPOC students in the room sent me into a dreamlike state, so I scanned the room and began altering my pre-planned syllabus. I see Black youth and start to research Black plays/playwrights. I see Filipino youth and start researching Filipino plays/playwrights. I see Indigenous youth doing their own research as well. And the cycle continues until all youth in the class are included.

Youth need options outside of the white syllabus that’s still being taught right now in schools and universities across Canada. After researching plays for BIPOC youth, I presented them to the students as an option, an endeavor I would have greatly benefited from as a student myself. Youth need diverse learning options, and this includes being exposed to one’s own cultural background. This is how we achieve inclusive learning and active participation from our youth.

I paid $11,000 tuition for a post-secondary theatre education. Then I scoured the town for textbooks and supplies: tap shoes and tight, pink spandex for ballet class, and Shakespeare plays. I got ready to get my learn on. First day of school arrives and I saw no Black teachers. In fact, I didn’t see any BIPOC representation on the faculty. My brain went: “Why? This is terribly bothersome. Do I speak up and ruffle feathers? Do I have the courage to say something and how would I articulate it?” White supremacy culture has taught me to be quiet, so I went through two years of schooling without a word. I feel robbed by the institution that had no issues with taking my money. Shakespeare and I don’t have much in common, except we both write plays. Shakespeare, a dead white guy. Maya Angelou, a literary goddess. Upon discovering Maya Angelou and studying her work, I learned far more from her than I ever did studying Shakespeare.

From technicians to artistic directors and everyone in between, there is a need for mandatory EDI training. No matter what position you hold in the theatre industry, it’s more important now than ever. Surely there will be varying degrees of intensity and materials taught to each team member. The buzzword can be used as a teaching tool toward positive equitable growth in our rapidly changing industry. And it is simply imperative that we see BIPOC representation everywhere. Continuing to underestimate the inclusion of BIPOC individuals has consequences. And ultimately, the inclusion of the BIPOC community expands creative outcomes. Without it, theatre is dead.

Additional Resources

Althea Cunningham is an award winning Canadian writer, actor, musician, producer and arts educator. On The Verge, her Neo-Soul EP was independently released in 2010, to critical acclaim and has had international airplay and featured artists spots. Her original music has been heard on: Black Souls Rhythms Radio, Time Trippin Radio, Bowl of Soul Radio and The Key of A (CBC) to name a few. As an Arts Educator she has influenced minds for fifteen years mostly across Western Canada.

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