In August 2018, Gabriela Serena Sanchez and Quiara Alegría Hudes delivered a dialogic keynote address at the Association for Theatre in Higher Education conference in Boston. Theatre Topics decided to publish the full transcript of their speech in this issue, and to ask four people who were there to respond to what they said. Here is what they wrote.
Martine Kei Green-Rogers: “Honesty and Collective Liberation”
I have to start by acknowledging that I think it is funny I was asked to respond to this keynote. Many of the questions and thoughts brought up by Sanchez and Hudes are ones that I have ruminated, pondered, and wrestled with over the past few years.
For example, as Hudes states in the keynote, “maybe you gotta turn back on yourself for real revolution to be possible.” I think about this every time I take a dramaturgy gig or teaching position. Why am I interested in this project or institution? How will I grow as an artist, scholar, and educator by working at/with this organization or institution? Will my voice be valued or am I there just to help with their diversity optics?
For a moment of honesty, tempered with humility, my career has gained much traction as a result of my current position as president of the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas, but it has also left me in some vulnerable situations. Running an organization is always difficult, but is additionally hard when you are constantly in the position of needing/having to explain how and why you are in that position to critics and detractors. When I was asked to consider the presidency, I found myself asking all the aforementioned questions and wrestling with the answers.
I also find myself asking these same questions about my life in higher education. In some respects, having to explain why I am there has decreased over the years. But now it is about proving my competency to remain. Many of these trials and hurdles in higher education became less tolerable once I understood that professional decorum is defined by white male standards of behavior that are not applied universally. Passion in a black female body is read as anger and dangerous. I have learned the hard way that confronting patronizing behavior from colleagues (especially when my body is the only such body in a department) is one of the most dangerous things I could do if I want to keep my sanity (let alone my job).
Resultantly, I reckoned with the disappointment when I have discovered that my presence was only wished for because of the ways in which I identify (as opposed to my artistry and knowledge). I simultaneously raged and chuckled in the moments in which I found out that I was “let into the room” because of optics, but eventually valued for my knowledge. I cried when people, organizations, institutions, and systems let me down. I rallied when I knew a place could do and be better. I eschewed the syllabi, course descriptions, and ways of doing things I inherited from institutions and organizations and revamped them to expose buried and forgotten voices. I spent summers carefully balancing the amazing multitudes of scripts and textbooks and subverting expectations and definitions of “Western drama.” I washed my hands of places that decided I was “trouble,” and refused to be silent about the treatment I endured at those places. Although I need to admit that this last point has both gotten me into trouble and provided comfort (knowing that others of historically marginalized groups have the information needed to decide if working at that place was the correct choice for them). Despite the personal and professional risks, I (more importantly) learned that the “politics of politeness” has not and will never be polite to me in return, so I almost always choose to speak my mind.
All of this said, I understand on an experienced and reflective level what Hudes meant when she said “to love is to face the wound honestly and then let the wound be less than one’s entire truth, to love despite the wound.” I also understand her need for a break. There is privilege in being able to take one—and considering there are so few privileges many bodies of color can take, I salute her for taking advantage of her privilege to do so. I have taken such breaks in my life, specifically from higher education. However, because I love and see the potential and possibilities for a better field in the eyes of students I encounter in classrooms, I always come back. I am rooting for Hudes to return to theatre for that same reason. I am hoping that when she returns, she finds the students I am referring to in strategic positions in the theatre. Those students will make a difference.
I appreciate the different perspective that Sanchez provided on the underlying theme I saw emerge from Hudes’s remarks. Choosing to do what is best for you is the ultimate form of liberation. Choosing to use one’s artistry, body, and words to make a difference is my ultimate goal. I am lucky enough to have collaborators and colleagues in my professional and academic circles who want to use the work we do to speak our truths. I also have some amazing allies in positions of power who know that the work of ally-ship is never done, and know when to step aside and listen to the people who are affected by the choices they make. They make the days when I feel defeated by those who would devalue my truths and the truths of the people I stand in solidarity with slightly less awful.
To close, the following words that Sanchez shared from her mother resonate with me. To admit that “there is strength in our movements, . . . in our authentic relationships” touches on an idea I strive to live by. I try to walk with purpose and intent and, as stated before, speak my truth so that my relationships are built on authenticity. The hurt and harm are acknowledged in the same measure as the joy and triumph. Therefore I wish Sanchez and Hudes all the love and power that can be found in the universe as they embark on their new journeys.
Shawn LaCount: “It Broke My Heart, Again”
With vulnerability, a sense of fatigue, and an air of confidence, Quiara Alegría Hudes and her remarkable younger sister Gabriela Serena Sanchez spoke on love, pain, theatre, and family. In a hall of academics, presumably looking for words of wisdom to inspire the next generation of artists, Quiara told us that after opening her last show in New York earlier this year, she has decided to cancel her future productions and commissions. That she has officially “pressed pause” on playmaking, explaining that “I fear that the ways theatre has harmed me are winning out over the ways theatre has nourished me.” It broke my heart, again; it also inspired me to keep going.
I came to see Quiara speak because I admire her work and because Company One Theatre in Boston was about to produce her gorgeous and important new musical, Miss You Like Hell, in a co-production with the American Repertory Theater in April 2019. Quiara’s break from theatre saddens me, but even sadder is the state of the industry that pushes our most celebrated artists to their limits. Although we hope that art implies progress, theatre is not immune from a country steeped in racism, segregation, and the current state of white supremacy. I wish I could say her announcement surprises me. I have worked with countless artists of color at Company One who have expressed having had equally distressing experiences working in this industry. An American theatre without the plays of Quiara Alegría Hudes represents a major step in the wrong direction. Whether this comes as a shock to some or serves as a reminder to others, the pressing question is: What are we going to do about it? The answer is not easy and is not going to come from one artist, artistic director, or theatre company. Company One Theatre has spent the last twenty years working to combat many of the failures that Hudes raises as fundamental problems within the industry. At Company One, our mission is to “build community at the intersection of art and social change.” Some of our successes are indicated in our demographics. Ours is a young theatre audience (55 percent under age 35) and relatively diverse (40 percent self-identified as people of color). Our staff and board are reflective of our core values of inclusion and representation, as are our artists onstage and off. We produce works by women and people of color, with few exceptions. Our work is intended to create opportunities for social action, with high hopes of changing the world from our tiny corner.
I am regularly asked how we do what we do. How do we find artists, administrators, and board members of color? How do we work to break the gender binary? How do we attempt to create safe and equitable spaces? We are not a perfect example and are not doing any of these things well enough, but it does not take much to dive deeper than the average theatre.
More often than not, the folks asking do not like my answer. We do it by failing—a lot. We do it without the promise of success or longevity. We do it not because it makes us appear woke or progressive, but because it is right, and we should all have been doing this work all along. We are constantly evaluating our programs, our personnel, our language, and our systems against our mission. When we fail we talk about it, and then we do a lot of listening. We embrace the idea that multiple perspectives will lead to a stronger and more equitable culture. I am a straight, white, cisgendered male, abundant in privilege. In order for our industry to find any level of cultural trust and equity, the people who are used to being at the top of the privilege ladder (like me) will necessarily need to find ourselves uncomfortable. If we are to listen to artists like Quiara and Gabriela, the state of being uncomfortable, othered, lonely, and exploited is the norm for many of our most skilled playmakers. Funding focused on equity, diversity, and inclusion work is often reserved for helping our largest institutions to diversify, and rarely for our small or midsize organizations who are setting organizational values grounded in these principles and living them daily. We make a lot of mistakes at Company One, including (but not limited to) producing only seven plays by Latinx playwrights over the past twenty years.
Quiara and Gabriela’s keynote was an act of bravery and required deliberate labor and risk. They reminded me of what I love most about theatre: the exploration of what I do not really know, and the ultimate feeling of hope and unity that comes from distant connections that somehow feel like home. It was a true blessing to sit in that hall in my hometown and listen to these hard truths, courtesy of one of our greatest dramatists. Asking Quiara to come back soon because she is too important to walk away is not adequate. It is time to listen to her words, her experience, and her pain. It is our collective responsibility to create a new American theatre where our artists—all of our artists—feel safe, valued, accountable and respected.
Patricia Ybarra: “Pa’Lante: A Response to Pausing and Breathing”
By now, many of you have read Hudes’s “heart-stopping” speech in American Theatre—so named, I assume, by people who were mostly concerned about keeping Hudes in the (commercial) theatre. It was also a heartening speech because it exposed an open secret—that commercial theatre is never going to give even the most successful of us enough for us to forget what capitalism, and its atomizing ideology of individual success, tries to take from us on a daily basis: our joy, dignity, and hope. Thus Hudes’s pause and her return to classic women of color authors who write across genres (Ntozake Shange, Leslie Marmon Silko) with little regard for white middle-class spectators is a major change and a remedy. But I am less concerned here about rejecting the expectation of a white middle-class audience than calling out the violence of the capitalist culture of which they are a symptom.
Let’s start with how the theatre industry (American Theatre)—as a respecter of persons—decided to publish Hudes’s speech as a monologue by a Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright rather than a dialogue between two Latinx artists who work in the theatre. Hudes’s sister, Gabriela Serena Sanchez, makes theatre in the frame of community organizing and local activism in North Philadelphia. Rather than make profit from her plays, she has worked as an administrator, activist, and teacher of conflict resolution to get her health insurance. These women modeled two ways of being in the theatre. At the ATHE Conference in Boston, then, we may have heard heartache and a desire for a pause and a breath, but we also experienced the joy of a call and response. We received an invitation to voice Pa’Lante (short for “para adelante,” meaning “forward”) in the midst of Sanchez’s compelling manifesto about theatre for social change. What is not also present in American Theatre—nor here, at the playwright’s request—is the scene the sisters read from The Adventures of Barrio Grrrl: Lulu’s Golden Shoes. Hudes read the part of Lulu, the prostitute with a heart of gold, and Sanchez read the part of Ana, the teen protagonist of the play who covets Lulu’s golden shoes, which Lulu will not let her put on. In their poignant conversation, Lulu talks about the joy of painting murals for her lovers. We learn that her desire is not always met by those who see her on the street: her monologue is followed by her and Ana’s voicing of a litany of brutal and violent insults they have been subjected to over the years as fat, brown, femme women. I will linger with this play awhile, to suggest how radical the act of reading it was.
Lulu’s Golden Shoes is Hudes’s MFA thesis. In a graphic novel format, the play brings us the adventures of a barrio girl who does not get to leave it. The play is rarely produced, maybe because it rejects “white atheist aesthetics,” but also because its lead characters are not good capitalist subjects. Unlike Nina Rosario, the lead character of In the Heights, Ana Mary Hernandez (Barrio Grrrl), fantasizes about, but does not get into college. Lulu, her neighbor, the sex worker with a heart of gold, has no entrepreneurial spirit; instead, she chooses to make art for her many lovers, a choice for which she does not repent nor receive profit. Mary, Ana’s mother, barely makes it and spends substantial time in the unemployment office. In Lulu’s Golden Shoes, a winning lottery ticket does not bring neighborhood transformation as in Hudes’s In the Heights; instead, it brings a much smaller prize: $1,000 and the return of Mary and Ana’s electricity, along with Ana’s estranged father, Tomás, who promptly leaves again after a night of partying with her mother. This moment, although disappointing, is not a tragedy. His visit brings brief pleasure to Mary, who is allowed to be a selfish sexual being rather than only a selfless mother. Tomás’s visit lets Ana remember the (literally) sweet pleasures of those with less: Pepsi after a difficult conversation with her father, sparkling cider, breakfast for lunch, and cremita with sugar after Mary kicks Tomás out for hitting her. The women in this play have joy, even as they meet their demise through their relegation to “nobody-ness” by a set of white male alchemists, who steal Lulu’s heart for an experiment, while condemning her and the other women in the play to erasure.
The complex women rendered to be relatable in Hudes’s subsequent commercially successful plays are relegated to an underworld here. Boldly and proudly named, they include some we know from her other works: the illiterate cousin who can’t read a tube of toothpaste (or the directions on a package of hair dye), but still managed to graduate high school, the drug addict who left her kids behind to follow a high. Their value here is not accrued through being transformed into liberal subjects, but through the theatrical rendering of a system that kills them and does not accede them their value even as the play does. This is a rawer Hudes play than we are used to seeing, and one that does not translate its alterity. Ana receives herbal stinky baths in her raggedy underwear from her mother to bring about luck; together, they openly call on the spiritual to interrupt the earthly. Unlike the bath in Hudes’s Pulitzer Prize–winning play Water by the Spoonful, this one does not perform renewal for a Latina drug addict or the redemption of a white entrepreneurial addict who washes her, but asks for more modest changes of fortune in order to survive. Water by the Spoonful and In the Heights speak of the trauma of loss that “success” hides from within that success, no matter how limited it may be. Lulu’s Golden Shoes does something else: it advocates for the survival of the ordinary.
To return to the passage that Hudes and her sister read: when listening, we experience the same combination of joy and pain that critics rejected in Miss You Like Hell, her recent musical about a woman waiting for deportation.1 That critical confusion reveals the cultural incompetence of critics who cannot fathom how nonwhite non-middle-class people, whose enemies are things other than their own middle-class white capitalist family members, live. But, to my larger point, the absence of plays like Lulu’s Golden Shoes from commercial stages also reveals a discomfort with art that refuses or rejects capitalist success as an end. Consider what the Alchemists say about Mary:
ALCHEMIST 1: There was nothing of note
ALCHEMIST 2: Not a footnote
ALCHEMIST 1: Not an endnote
ALCHEMIST 2: About Mary Lou Hernandez
ALCHEMIST 1: Kept all her money in a shoebox
ALCHEMIST 2: Interest accruing
ALCHEMIST 1: In the red
ALCHEMIST 2: In debt to the bank
ALCHEMIST 1: A leech on society
ALCHEMIST 2: She drove with an expired license
ALCHEMIST 1: Uninsured
ALCHEMIST 2: No safety net
ALCHEMIST 1: Spoke Ebonics on the street
ALCHEMIST 2: Spoke Spanglish in the home.2
For some, Hudes’s manifesto was heartbreaking to hear at a time when there is so much great Latinx writing that is looking to find a stage. But I see it differently. I think her (and Sanchez’s) engagement with Lulu’s Golden Shoes might make it possible to stage plays that do not capitulate to either the market model or the entrepreneurial subjecthood this play called into question last August in Boston. Pa’Lante.
Harvey Young: “The Power of Theatre and the Undesirability of Success”
Inclusive theatre-making takes both effort and a tremendous person toll, especially at the upper echelons of theatre-making. That is the lasting lesson from the 2018 Association for Theatre in Higher Education (ATHE) keynote addresses delivered by Gabriela Serena Sanchez and Quiara Alegría Hudes. To spend an evening with the sisters, both accomplished theatre artists, was an opportunity to witness the extremes of professional theatre experiences. It would be an overstatement to say that Sanchez and Hudes are opposites—as their individual accomplishments hint at a shared passion for creativity, as well as an ability to dream big and realize those dreams—but they are different. One (Hudes) is significantly older than the other; dyslexia prevented one (Sanchez) from attaining the sort of education-based social capital attained by the other; one sister found success working with the community in their native Philadelphia; the other has experienced commercial and critical success on “The Great White Way.”
In advance of the keynote, most ATHE attendees would have pointed to Hudes as the artist with the most enviable career. Her early accolades—for her musical In the Heights, as well as her play Elliot: A Soldier’s Fugue—will script the first line of her obituary. Even if she never again writes another play, she will be remembered as a Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winner. In a way, this success allows her to consider taking a hiatus from writing plays and making theatre. Leaving the ATHE keynote, it was evident that Sanchez, an artist whose work has a more regional and decidedly local impact, had the more desirable professional life. How can Broadway success prove to be so unrewarding and undesirable?
The answer likely rests not in degrees of agency in the realization of a production, including presentation before an audience. Gabriela Sanchez creates theatre for her community. She oversees (and, yes, controls) most aspects of production to the extent that her work and Power Street Theatre’s projects are reflections of themselves as members of a community. She is a producer who resembles her audience. Hudes scripts plays that are produced by others in and beyond the urban coolness of Philadelphia. On the positive side, she reaches new audiences; on the other, she engages sets of individuals who sometimes view her as “other” and, despite appreciating her distinctive voice, remain tethered to conservative ideas of playmaking and, even worse, stereotypical assumptions of people, especially nonwhite folks of color. Hudes’s disappointment is less a frustration with the craft of theatre than the limitations (and blinders) of producers and audiences. She asks an essential question: Can an artist continue to work if she, despite her accolades, must continue to be subjected to the sleights and prejudices of others? Yes, Jackie Robinson managed to do this in the realm of sports, but this is the twenty-first century.
Although the keynote offered two contrasting perspectives (pessimism at theatre at its highest level and enthusiasm for theatre at its ground-level, community-engaged core), it really stood as call for artists to invest themselves in managing the means of production. It was a reminder that solo success does radically transform (and render more inclusive) the professional theatre industry. Can the industry itself change? Maybe. If so, it will take time and also the concerted efforts of artist-producers, people like Sanchez, to champion theatre with soul and a commitment to radical inclusion at a national scale.
1 See, for example, Jesse Green, “Review: On the Road with Mom in ‘Miss You Like Hell.’” New York Times. 10 Apr. 2018. Web. 20 Nov. 2018.
2 Quiara Alegría Hudes, The Adventures of Barrio Grrrl! Installment 12: Lulu’s Golden Shoes. Unpublished Master’s thesis, Brown University, May 2004, 82–83. Print.