Studio Theatre’s excellent Psalm’s Salons series has been extended through November, and you can catch the August panel virtually tonight at 5pm ET; host Psalmayene 24 has invited guests Natalie Graves Tucker (Artomatic; Blackstage DC; Theater Alliance), Farah Lawal Harris (Young Playwrights‘ Theater; Producing Playwright with The Welders) and trans performer/advocate Lady Dane Figueroa Edidi to discuss navigating the arts as Black and trans women, local support networks for people of color in the industry and the power of Black women in this political moment.
“The series was originally supposed to be live, where I’d have a conversation with a creative on stage and there’d be a party afterwards. So all of this was supposed to happen at Studio Theatre. Then the pandemic hit, so those plans were shuttered, but we realized we could take it online,” Psalmayene 24 said in a phone call earlier this week.
And the digital pivot has been a big success so far, featuring not just engaging discussion, but also music; DJ Nick tha 1da spins live music each episode, sampling from the Library of Congress Citizen DJ tool.
“Psalm’s last two salons have really captured something of the communal feeling I miss so much from making plays—interesting artists, talking about art in ways that are engaging and challenging. Dane, Farah, and Natalie are such smart theatremakers, working across many different parts of DC’s theatre ecosystem. I’m looking forward to hearing their take on our current moment as well as their plans and dreams for what’s next,” said Studio’s Artistic Director David Muse in a press release.
In terms of what we can expect tonight, Psalm said, “I really wanted to focus on Black women whose work I respected and really loved. Dane, Farah and Natalie all came to mind for different reasons, but I felt like they each have individual and unique voices that Studio’s audience would appreciate. In terms of topics we’ll talk about, I really want to learn more about the individual journeys as artists, particularly as women of color, navigating a field that hasn’t really been the most hospitable to Black women. That’s something I want to learn about and share with the audience, and also hear from them how they’ve been able to achieve success in this type of environment.”
This has obviously been a difficult season across multiple industries, especially the arts. Fortunately (for the socially distanced moment) it seems that many have been able to make things work by thinking outside the box. Of course, the day will come when some semblance of normalcy (at least in terms of physical interaction) will return; Psalm and Lady Dane hope that people take this time to rethink what that new “normal” could look like within the arts and society as a whole when we emerge on the other side of Covid-19.
“I certainly want to see not just a transformed theater community, but a transformed world, where people really believe in empathy, and begin to see each other as human beings, not as instruments of capitalism. For so long, Black people have had to navigate an environment that’s been entrenched in institutional racism, and it is ironic, because theater is one of the more liberal fields. But that doesn’t mean that theater is absent of the entrenched racism that exists in every other part of America,” Psalm said.
Lady Dane said in a separate phone call, “I think people assume theater is somehow free of perpetuating these oppressive systems, but when you look at the actual codification or establishment of theatrical institutions, they’re rooted in white supremacy, racism, anti-Blackness, etc. So many Black theater artists of the late 1800s and early 1900s were really pushing against the same discrimination that today may look a little different, but are still rooted in the same places and are still being faced by Black artists now.”
She continued, “I have been told in the past about certain pieces of my work, ‘I don’t know how to fund this piece because I don’t know how to fill the theater,’ or ‘This piece that you wrote is too harsh on white people.’ And then when you look at some of the work that’s being produced, Black and indigenous writers, and Asian writers, are being told, ‘You have to piece this together. You have to make a white love interest, you have to do this, because our white audience needs to see itself in this,’ or ‘You need to teach a lesson to our white audience.’ What?! Being forced to cater to the white gaze is a symptom and perpetuation of white supremacy. That’s one of the biggest issues.”
She expressed a level of optimism for potential systemic change within the industry, however. “I think theater is a necessary art form, and I think we’ll get back to in-person, but it has to be safe, it has to be right. I also think that this time could really be, for some theaters, a moment of recalibration, a moment of reevaluating their positions. Are they who they say they are? Are they really ready to do the work? Are they really ready to make a theater institution that’s truly representative and reflective of the type of world that they’re saying they want to see when they release all of their Black Lives Matter statements?”
Additionally, Psalm said that he’s hopeful this pandemic will encourage people to push creative boundaries. “I’d like to see an environment where we really begin to see different forms of theater; when I say form, I mean literally different ways of making theater, different styles of theater. Unfortunately I feel like our field has become somewhat calcified in terms of the types of plays and productions we present. Every now and again you’ll get a few exciting pieces that push form beyond where it is now, but i’m interested in seeing how this pandemic moment and this Black Lives Matter Movement will affect the types of stories that are told and the way those stories are told.”