Theater Workers ‘#LiftTheCurtain’ on Racism After Lawsuit
It was a standing room-only crowd as supporters of Stephen Buescher, the plaintiff in a discrimination lawsuit against his former employer American Conservatory Theater (ACT), gathered Wednesday evening to discuss racism in the theater world.
In a complaint filed a day prior, Buescher alleges that ACT, where he held faculty and creative roles for ten years until 2018, created a racially hostile environment and systematically discriminated against black artists, staff and students.
The event in the 92-seat theater at Pianofight in San Francisco was billed “#LiftTheCurtain on Racial Inequity in the Arts.” For more than an hour, Buescher, current staff and students at American Conservatory Theater and other theater figures passed a microphone to share their frustrations with being typecast, tokenized and silenced as black artists.
It began with poems from Jerrie Johnson, one of several ACT graduate students present, followed by Buescher. Choking up, he called his experience at the company a “long, silent, lonely road” before saying that, in the wake of the lawsuit, he’s heard from many theater figures with similar accounts. Most of the following speakers said they now felt emboldened.
Stephanie Wilborn, community programs manager at ACT, read a prepared piece about being one of few black workers at the company, including references to colleagues inappropriately touching and commenting on her hair. “It means having a board member ask you your name for the fifth time and then ask what year you’re graduating,” she said.
“I’ve worked at ACT for three years and what Stephen has courageously said to [the media] is true.” Wilborn continued, “I’ve seen it happen and it’s happened to me.”
Margo Hall, the prominent local actor and educator who recently appeared in Blindspotting, drew shouts and applause as she encouraged the audience to complicate black stereotypes. “Hell, my uncle was a pimp—but he had a life, he had a story,” she said. “Don’t be afraid to embrace your stories because someone has created a narrative around those stories. We get to tell the truth about them. Keep thinking about that.”
Ellen Sebastian Chang, the longtime local theater fixture who co-created the site-specific ritual performance series House/Full of Black Women with Amara Tabor-Smith, emphasized how the racial wealth gap colors the arts. And at the same time black people are alienated from arts organizations, she said, black cultural products are in demand.
“So when I get triggered by Fairview at Berkeley Rep and the spirit comes over me and I jump up and say, ‘Look at how black women are doing CPR on the failing heart of America’—and doing it for fucking minimum wage—and then the white folks run up to me and go, ‘Are you okay?’” She continued, “Then I say fuck off, ‘cus I’m not okay!”
In response to the lawsuit, ACT issued a statement describing institutional changes including hiring a diversity, equity and inclusion consultant and a new human resources director. Buescher called the changes “superficial,” and other speakers made it a refrain.
“How many folks in this space are currently involved in some kind of diversity, equity and inclusion work?” asked artist and activist Claudia Alick. Dozens of hands shot up. “Okay, so, this is the question that I’ve been holding on to this week: Are we helping organizations perform the optics of justice while maintaining systems of injustice?”
Buescher’s complaint, filed by Oakland civil rights firm Medina Orthwein LLP, alleges ACT subjected him and other black instructors and students to “racial profiling, tokenism, exploitation, racial casting, disparate treatment and retaliation.”
The complaint singles out former Artistic Director Carey Perloff and director Melissa Smith for making racially insensitive comments, explicitly refusing to advance black artists, and dismissing formal complaints from staff and students. After Buescher took his concerns to the board, the suit alleges, his pay and credit were withheld in retaliation.
“We are deeply saddened by the legal complaint we received from Mr. Buescher this morning,” ACT said in a statement. “As a former valued member of the American Conservatory Theater faculty, Mr. Buescher significantly contributed to the success of the institution, so much so that we made multiple efforts to retain him.”
This article by Sam Lefebvre originally appeared on KQED.org on February 21st, 2019.