For BIPOC Bay Area Theater, a 'Living Document' Provides Catharsis, Calls to Action

Ely Sonny Orquiza, creator of the "Living Document of POC Experiences in Bay Area Theatre." (Paciano Triunfo)

“We stand on this ground as BIPOC theatremakers, multi-generational, at varied stages in our careers, but fiercely in love with the Theatre. Too much to continue it under abuse.” –We See You, White American Theater (open letter published June 8, 2020)

As structural racial inequities continue to be brought to national attention, the BIPOC theater community has publicly joined the fray. On June 7, 2020 an open letter to "white American theater" was published nationally with over 300 signatories, calling out entrenched racism in the industry. Just one week prior, a Google document—entitled “Theaters Not Speaking Out”—gathered together the names of institutions who had not made visible their support of Black Lives Matter or the national protests demanding racial justice.

And locally, on June 9, another Google document—titled “Living Document of POC Experiences in Bay Area Theatre Co.”—was posted in a closed Bay Area theater Facebook group by local theater-maker Ely Sonny Orquiza.

The “living document” encouraged BIPOC Bay Area theater-makers to contribute their personal experiences of racist behaviors within the theater industry. Examples ranged in scope and severity, and as the document grew, so did its reach, eventually encompassing the entire region.

Not everyone with access to the document appreciated the openness of the forum, and over the next few days, attempts were made to shut the document down. At one point, all of the contents were deleted by an unknown individual.

Sponsored

After restoring the document to a previously archived version, Orquiza shut off editing access to everyone, but left the document up for viewing. Last updated on June 12, the document contains almost 600 testimonials; some as simple as a single sentence, and some many detailed paragraphs long.

Prior to creating the document, Orquiza had invited his Facebook followers to leave comments on two questions on his personal page: “As a POC artist, what m(i/a)cro-aggression and overt racism have you experienced in the theater?” and “As a White artist what have you observed and how have you participated or perpetuated these instances (un/knowingly)?” The magnitude of the response helped spark the idea for his “living document,” which could be added to with the additional cover of anonymity.

“There is a deep-seated anguish and pain that Black and brown artists in our region have kept and shut for so long due to lack of avenues to air grievances with full confidentiality, fear of reprimand and/or blacklist, and re-traumatizing and further the harm,” Orquiza writes in an email. He also notes that he fully expects to be reprimanded professionally as the originator of the document. Like many theater creatives, Orquiza’s resumé is multi-faceted, and as of our email exchange, only one of his employers, the Gritty City Repertory, had promised support.

Nicky Martinez of Theatre Bay Area found contributing to the living document 'cathartic.' (Daniel Zafer-Joyce)

For Nicky Martinez, an early contributor to the document, the opportunity to participate was cathartic. The programs and grants coordinator at Theatre Bay Area, San Francisco-born Martinez has not only experienced racial and gendered bias personally while working in Bay Area theater, but has witnessed it enacted institutionally on numerous occasions. The opportunity to engage with the document, both as a contributor and a witness has been revelatory.

“We’ve (BIPOC and trans folks) been silenced for so long, that it is finally time to pay attention to this,” Martinez says, “(and) to have people really understand that this has been going on a lot longer than they think.”

With Orquiza, and support from Theatre Bay Area, Martinez is helping to create a virtual “healing space” and forum, where the document can be discussed and action steps crafted for theaters and theater-makers moving forward, “holding them more accountable.” (Fellow document contributor Ashley Smiley—a Campo Santo member as well as theater and facilities manager for the Bayview Opera House—will help to moderate a breakout room of POC participants, while SK Kerastas will do the same for white allies.)

As of now, very few of the theaters named in the document have made a public statement on its contents. But on June 11, sketch comedy troupe Killing My Lobster issued a detailed public apology for harm caused and an action plan for moving forward, including enacting more equitable casting policies and two new hires to support their comedy writing courses. For artistic director Allison Page, to not speak publicly was “not an option.”

“After reading over the harrowing personal experiences in that document, I expected to see a lot of apologies,” she explains. “I'm stunned to not be seeing that. But you know who isn't stunned? BIPOC theatre artists, who had no reason to believe that the industry which has taken advantage of their talents without recognizing their personhood for centuries would suddenly turn around entirely and take accountability for harmful actions.”

Dominique Gelin, one of Killing My Lobster's new hires, will help to create better accountability and equity in the comedy classroom. (Katy Karns)

Having had time for reflection, Orquiza admits that he has reservations about some of the directions the document took while in editable state. He cites concerns with hearsay, personal vendettas, and malicious intent—none of which were outcomes he anticipated. For the moment, he is creating a new version of the document “aligning with the original intention,” and a website/community portal where stories will continue to be collected. Meanwhile, in Orange County, another “living document” has emerged—inspired by the Bay Area’s document—calling for “first hand accounts of experiences of racist behavior in Orange County theater.”

When all is said and done, Orquiza is proud to have brought the issues detailed in the document to the forefront. “I am hopeful that this document will inspire a movement here in the Bay Area,” he affirms. “To create an active change and accountability, and to address the inequity within their organizations.”