Sunday, July 12, 2015

Open Letter to Anna Devere Smith on her play Notes from the Field at Berkeley Rep

 "Berkeley, the biggest little Mississippi in the world!"--Marvin X
"Being Black ain't so bad, it's just inconvenient!"--Old Black woman

To Ms. Smith:

I went to Berkeley Rep Friday evening for the preview of Anna Devere Smith's new play about the school-to-prison pipeline. Very absorbing. An opportunity to contemplate racism that turned into  an opportunity to experience racism. The theater is doing outreach to bring Smith's play an audience beyond its typical white, upper middle class Berkeleyite. My friend K., who happens to be a white, Mohawk-wearing lesbian, invited me and four other blacks. K. stayed in the lobby waiting for another friend but directed three of us upstairs, center front row - great seats!

A young white female usher looked at our tix, stamped general admission, and refused to seat us. Okay. We politely pointed out the reserved seats. No go. Okay. We waited a bit, saw two friends (black) sitting in the seats and went in. As soon as we got seated, the usher came over to unseat all five of us. We showed her K.'s names on the reserved signs on each seat. She said the seats were for the tech crew. We begged to differ, politely. She walked away. 

Momentarily, a young black female usher came over and politely asked us to move. We politely told her about K. She was adamant that we needed to sit somewhere else, but we adamantly pointed to K.'s name on the seats. We concluded that she had been sent as a black emissary (used to be called Uncle Tom) to get these Negroes out of these prime seats. Finally, K. arrived with her other friend (white). And it became clear to all that we weren't trespassing. I settled in and soaked up the theatrical racism, keenly aware of the audience being about 80% white, of the scarcity of black males in the venue, of the abundance of black female ushers, and of my group's profile - novelist (me), entrepreneur featured in Fortune mag, doctor's wife, non profit exec, labor leader. Thought of Dick Gregory (what do you call a black man with a Ph.D.?). Enjoyed the provocative Anna Devere Smith. Enjoyed my friends. Didn't appreciate the bull.

Peace, Judy Juanita
Oakland, CA

 Women on the Black Arts Movement 50th Anniversary, Laney College, February 7, 2015: Left to Right: Elaine Brown, Dr. Halifu Osumare, Judy Juanita, Portia Anderson, Kujichagulia, Aries Jordan; standing, Marvin X, event producer. photo Southpark Kenny Johnson


  1. If you knew anything about theatre and house management, you would understand that this wasn't a racial issue at all. Tech seats are not to be given out to the public except in special circumstances as approved by the producers. This is generally the policy in the industry. Those seats are reserved on a nightly basis during previews for the production team to come and go as they please, take notes, or send their assistants to observe the performance. They are sometimes ticketed as specific seats, and sometimes marked as general admission. What I am reading here is about an incident in which an usher saw someone who was not on the production team trying to sit in production seats. She stepped into action. When you didn't move at her request (rightly protesting, mind you), she went to her manager -- a woman who happens to be black. Uncle Tom? Really? A white usher went to her black MANAGER for assistance with an audience issue. To call her an Uncle Tom is extremely offensive. The manager also didn't know the circumstances because they are generally against policy. This doesn't sound like racism at all to me. In fact, I think it distracts from the larger issues of racism that the theatre industry is trying to combat -- internal hiring practices, artistic representation, and ultimately audience expansion.

  2. Someone on the tech crew gave K. the block of tickets and told her to get people who would be active and vocal in the preview's discussion groups. After the first act, the entire audience broke into these groups, brainstormed ideas/responses, and then, the play continued to its end. So we were "recruited" for those seats. That's why K.s name was penned under the Reserved sign on each seat. I want American theater to succeed in its efforts at inclusion. If there was a break in communication between the crew and the people movers (ushers in this instance), it needs to be remedied. Quite a bit of money from corporations and foundations supports this three week experiment, as noted in the program. Training support staff should be part of that if the theater is serious about altering its audience demographic.

  3. @ ”somebuddy”

    I have no pony in this thing, I’ll just say this-- somebody at BRT should apologize and in an official and formal manner.


    Because even if the usher and Patron Services Manager were reacting to an unexpected change in the way Tech Seats are handled for the show -- and even if this was not a racially motivated occurrence -- somebody at BRT dropped the ball here and patrons felt unwelcome, so an apology is in order.

    Whomever on staff gave the seats to “K” did not ALSO let the HM know that the tech seats were reserved for special guests for this run. Had they done so the HM would likely have advised the ushers that the reserved Tech seats were ticketed to patrons for the evening and not crew -- that failure to include House Staff in the big picture is a big piece of what led to the mishandling of this situation by house staff.

    And it was mishandled by FOH staff.

    Even if the seats were typically set aside as Tech Seats it shouldn't make any difference in how patrons are treated. No patron should be made to feel that they are unwelcome, don't belong, or are overstepping their "boundaries".

    And while Ms. Juanita may have been in error over her reading of the second "usher" as being an Uncle Tom figure (since Ms. Jackson who is very likely the second member of house staff she dealt with in this incident was actually the Patron Services Manager and supervisor of the white usher that she dealt with initially) and that misconception might have influenced her overall reaction to the way she was handled by front-of-house -- NONE of that changes the fact that she and her group of friends felt unwelcome.

    Patrons. Felt. Unwelcome.

    Sorry, but that’s a House Management fail.

    And that’s why the Rep owes them an apology and should also look at retraining their FOH usher staff.

    I know a lot of the volunteer ushers and staff there first-hand, and I doubt any of them would CONSCIOUSLY discriminate or mishandle patrons, but UNCONSCIOUSLY? Well…it’s entirely possible that some unconscious racist associations and assumptions undergirded the way the initial usher handled this situation and that could have played into Ms. Juanita and her group of friends sense of being unexpected and unwelcome.

    So…I think BRT should apologize for the way they handled things, and maybe consider adding this incident to usher training next year as an example of how to be more sensitive to patrons – and in so doing this will open a useful dialogue for the Rep and the larger community about white privilege and unacknowledged assumptions at the same time – which can only serve to improve things.

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  5. Berk Rep called and apologized today - after much internal talk, so its dir. of marketing said. I asked for a formal letter of apology. She wanted to know if I had any suggestions. I offered these: offer more plays with ethnic and black writers, continue to give out free tickets, train everybody in diversity, pair productions with Lower Bottom Playerz and other such theaters. I mentioned Elizabeth Warren's clarion call to the upper classes, that they don't own the bounty of this society nor merit it. And I reminded her of TOBA, Theater Owners Booking Agency, that booked black acts in the south in the 1900s until artists like Lena Horne and jazz musicians broke the color barrier. It's not enough for Anna Devere Smith to come for three weeks and leave, and BRT to go back to biz as usual.


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