What if the next Shakespeare is a person of color?
By Jay Dunn
I have been trying to find online examples of the harassment and threats coming to Nataki Garrett to little avail, but I’m sending my support for her and her bold and necessary artistic and administrative choices sight unseen.
Before we get into any discussion of Ms. Garrett’s artistic choices, it is imperative to acknowledge whose voices are leading the discussion, including mine. White men. I know some will become defensive, but individual personal experience must also be looked at as a macro across millions of people, centuries of control. I don’t run an empire, but I have certainly benefited from the structures it begot, certainly more than the global majority who are not of my demographic. It is also worth noting that criticizing the choices of OSF is directly criticizing a fierce artist and artistic director who has had to steer OSF through the global worst of times (at least in our lifetimes). She had been running OSF for less than a year before COVID struck and then was plunged into a paradigm for which there is no template. We should all give Ms. Garrett the benefit of the doubt before criticizing what cannot be anything but extraordinarily well-considered, difficult choices to keep OSF from folding. Perhaps those who are criticizing should at the very least lead with a resounding “thank you” for saving this incredible institution.
I, of course, draw a distinction between Mr. Rothschild’s more reasoned columns (many points are well made) and the direct threats of violence Ms. Garrett and Oregon Shakespeare Festival are experiencing. They are not the same. But they are related. My sense is that those who are threatening violence are likely not audience members of OSF, but rather small-minded bigots spoiling for stories to lash out against who have zero stake in the wonderful programming OSF has and continues to offer.
I think all reasonable people can agree that no one should have to fear violence for putting on a certain kind of play by a certain playwright or for decreasing shows written by a certain playwright, nor for making administrative decisions not only focused on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) but sustainability and humanity. The violent response speaks very directly to why Ms. Garrett’s and OSF’s new direction is essential for Oregon. It is tragic, and horrific, however, that she and OSF must bear the brunt of that intended violence as a result.
White folks, more than anyone, are protective of their status quo comfort. When privilege becomes inculcated as status quo, anything that attempts to raise less-privileged folks up is perceived as a threat to some folks already with it. Rather than lash out or withdraw support, perhaps looking in the mirror and asking oneself “Why am I uncomfortable with this?” might be a more constructive, thoughtful response. Perhaps asking “Why is my response anger?” Or “Why does broadening the scope of storytelling feel like a threat to me?”
It is worth noting that OSF is not eliminating Shakespeare, simply broadening the scope of inclusivity at the expense, yes, of a portion of its past Shakespearean programming, the result of which is a somewhat diminished programming of a playwright whose plays have been done a gajillion times there and will be done a gajillion times more. If audiences are upset that there are only two Shakespeare plays being done next season, why not just make sure that they get their tickets soon? Theater business models work just as well with few performances but fuller houses.
A question I have, and am wondering if Mr. Rothschild has already asked, is has Shakespeare actually been sustaining OSF before COVID? If it has, his points stand. However, if OSF has been losing traction with audiences, perhaps that may be a driving force behind new programming aimed at inviting more audiences. Not all contemporary plays contain “m…f…” to loud rock music, and Mr. Rothschild should know better than to refer to all new plays by OSF via one specific example. It is reductive. I’d welcome an interview of Nataki Garrett about OSF’s specific choices, if she weren’t currently dealing with threats to her safety by (can I make an educated guess?) white men threatening violence.
For other subscribers who have clapped back, I hope they have seen far more than just one of these new plays before expressing their dislike. Mr. Rothschild has actually modeled that and written about several, some even very positively. To those folks, why not get curious about your response? Try something new? And then, if you don’t like it, by all means express that. But knee-jerk resistance sight unseen is a bad look for Oregonians and that’s what is getting the most attention right now.
For those folks bemoaning the introduction of new voices, imagine the number of Oregonians who don’t attend because they don’t see plays that reflect them by playwrights that reflect them. Imagine how many people don’t come to see theater specifically exactly because it is Shakespeare that is playing. Could we see the introduction of contemporary productions and diverse playwrights not only as a means of lifting up under-represented voices, but also to attract more Oregonians to an institution that continues to program the wonderful plays of Shakespeare? Representation matters, and that is no more apparent than in the backlash a predominantly white subscriber base and violent white men have responded with. If OSF subscribers love Shakespeare so much, what if a Black, Indigenous or person of color (BIPOC, aka global majority) playwright they program is the next Shakespeare? Wouldn’t they want OSF to be the organization that brought that person to their attention?
Shakespeare is unparalleled in theatrical poetic language. Play themes tend towards universal. And is not the purpose of art to simply to reflect life back to us in creative stories that teach us something, that make us feel something, but reflect back to us a life that audiences recognize themselves in? I’ll say it again, representation matters. Theater in and of itself is challenging, that’s fundamentally why we go see it. Art teaches. Audiences sign a contract of empathy, agreeing to watch someone else’s perspective put into story form, have a cathartic experience through the imaginary trials of another, and come out changed. It is through diverse perspectives that we become more human, see more humans as human and not other.
The loss of some Shakespeare plays from an OSF season may be disappointing, but the backlash to that loss is tragic.
James “Jay” Owen Dunn III is a resident of Brooklyn, New York.