Acceptance Remarks, Theatre Communication Group's Alan Schneider Director Award - Daniel Banks
(Watch the Video with introduction by DNAWORKS Ensemble member Ty Defoe)
Theatre Communications Group Conference, June 4, 2020
I am humbled and deeply moved to receive the Alan Schneider Director award. Thank you also, Ty, to you and Kate Freer for nominating me.
I am here today because of the support of so many people: Emily Mann, the most generous of mentors, and Kathleen Culebro, Artistic Director of Amphibian Stage Productions in Fort Worth, TX, both of whom wrote letters of recommendation. Also the award panelists, the DNAWORKS Ensemble, and my other teachers and mentors: Monika Pagneux, Kwame Kwei-Armah, Rosemary Harris, Una Chaudhuri, Roberta Levitow, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, and Marvin Sims. To the other finalists--it is an honor to be in your company.
My profound appreciation goes to Theatre Communications Group, which has been one of the most significant relationships in my professional theatre life. I remember reading about Tadashi Suzuki in AMERICAN THEATER in 1986 and feeling a sense of relief and excitement because the magazine showed me that the theatre community I craved was really out there. Thank you especially to Emilya Cachapero and Teresa Eyring for your years of patience, guidance, and kindness.
And my family—my husband and creative partner, Adam McKinney; my sister, parents, and grand and great-grandparents. My mother grew up in the Washington, DC, area, and regaled me during my childhood with her stories of attending the Arena Theatre. It was my mother who introduced me to theatre; and her appreciation of the artform was shaped watching Alan Schneider’s productions. In these and many other ways, standing here today is coming full circle.
I am recording this statement on Monday, June 1. The past week has once again demonstrated the consequences of our country’s failure to eliminate racism and racial violence, and the world is responding in protest. It is quite possible that, by the time you hear these words, their meaning may have completely changed. But this exercise feels strangely familiar—speaking into the future—because it is almost everything we do as theatre people. So how do we speak into our current future, and finally change it?
I take as my personal and artistic mantra the title of poet Sonia Sanchez’s play: “Uh huh, but how do it free us?” I began directing to bring people closer together, on and off stage; to create welcome tables where everyone has a seat. Because of my own background and history, I wanted to tell stories about people and families that do not neatly fit into boxes, stories that foreground complex, complicated identities and debunk the notion that any of us is one thing. I wanted to create opportunities for artists who had been denied access to practicing their artform because of their appearance, ability, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, culture, and class.
This often means making casting decisions based on histories that not everyone knows or remembers. Or telling stories to contradict a cultural imaginary that does not include these hidden histories. It also means devising work so we can create our own worlds, give shape and contour to our own roles and identities. I hold community storycircles as part of performances to balance artist and audience voices and create spaces for community members to learn more about one another. A project that grew out of such storycircles is DNAWORKS organizing a coalition of community organizations to prevent the demolition of the former Ku Klux Klan meeting hall, built here in Fort Worth in 1924. We are working to transform it into an international center and museum for art and community healing. This will provide a peaceful gathering place for a divided city, transforming a monument to hate and violence into a symbol of healing and restorative justice. The project’s leadership comes from the groups that were terrorized by the KKK here in the 1920s and the project returns resources to their communities.
So on this day, during these times when everyone’s life in the theatre has shifted radically and the future is uncertain for so many people, I am considering the intersection of our theatre work moving forward and our ability to create lasting change in society.
I often hear in community storycircles that people avoid the topic of racism because it feels too big, as if nothing can be done. What we, as a field, need is a concrete model for change, an implementable action plan. Imagine what would be possible if together every US theatre institution of every size and affiliation committed to anti-racism on and off their stages. It is not so far-fetched. Many organizations and artists are already doing anti-racism work with some, in the past week, releasing powerful statements and sharing resources. And look at the wide impact that Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS has had, challenging stigmas, generating public support for people with HIV and AIDS, and raising over $300 million dollars in the past 31 years with the participation of theatres around the country.
Let us use this time while waiting for our doors and stages to re-open to engage every artist, staff, board, and audience member in anti-racism work by providing information, trainings, community dialogues, policy advocacy opportunities, and other programming. If this commitment to end racism and racial violence were at the top of the agenda for US theatre for the next five years, think of what we could accomplish as a field. How many people could we reach? And how many more would they reach? How many lives could be saved? Theatre has done this throughout history, impacting human rights movements and legislation in the US and abroad. This is do-able!
Politicians across the country are making pledges to “root out racism.” The mayor of Fort Worth recently revealed, striking a new tone, that she is also “committed to continuing the work” within herself, “examining her own heart.” Like these politicians, I believe we can no longer avoid the reality that if we are not each of us taking this on as our own personal responsibility, we will not fulfill the potential and necessity for our artform in this time. I urge us, as a field, to commit to creating art and spreading knowledge to eliminate racism.
Alan Schneider is best known for projects that asked existential questions as well as plays that questioned US values and morés. Thank you for this opportunity to follow in his footsteps and ask such questions of the field and community that I love.
Read Christina Anderson's interview with Daniel Banks HERE.